The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

by

Douglas Adams

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
One Thursday morning, Arthur Dent wakes up in his home, which looks out over a “broad spread of West Country farmland” in England. As he gradually comes back to consciousness, he realizes that he’s dreadfully hungover. He hauls himself out of bed and stands in front of the window, where he sees—but does not register—a bulldozer sitting ominously outside. Preoccupied with his hangover, Arthur goes about getting himself ready for the day, mindlessly making himself coffee in the kitchen and yawning all the while. Bulldozer, he thinks, unsure of why the word has found its way into his head. Yellow, he muses. Ignoring this, he returns to the bedroom to get dressed, slowly remembering that he went to the pub last night because something had made him quite angry.
Although Arthur Dent doesn’t register that a bulldozer is parked outside his house, he does take note of word fragments that drift through his head. These fragments, of course, have to do with the bulldozer, but Arthur can’t correlate them with the outside world, perhaps because he’s too preoccupied with his hangover to pay much attention to anything else. In this way, Adams shows readers that language often comes to people in strange ways that are hard to understand. Given that this is a novel about space travel and alien interactions, this is an important thing to keep in mind, since linguistic communication is often all a person has when trying to connect with strangers.
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Arthur thinks about the previous night, recalling that he had been telling people about something important—something having to do with “a new bypass he’d just found out about.” Apparently, this bypass has been “in the pipeline for months,” but nobody “seemed to have known about it.” As he sips a glass of water, he tells himself that everything will work out—after all, nobody wants a bypass, so the planning council won’t have “a leg to stand on.” Yellow, he thinks again, the word drifting through his mind “in search of something to connect with.” Fifteen seconds later, he’s outside “lying in front of a big yellow bulldozer” that has been “advancing up his garden path.”
When the word “yellow” floats through Arthur’s mind “in search of something to connect with,” Adams portrays language as a connective tool, something that unites otherwise disparate ideas. In this moment, the word “yellow” finally meets up with Arthur’s memory of getting angry at the pub about a bypass the government wants to build—suddenly, he puts together that the government must want to knock down his house in order to construct this bypass, which is why there is a “yellow” bulldozer visible through his window.
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The construction foreman, Mr. L. Prosser, is not thrilled to see Arthur lying in front of his bulldozer. Adams describes him as a forty-year-old man who is “fat and shabby” and works for the local council. “Curiously enough, though he didn’t know it, he was also a direct male-line descendant of Genghis Khan,” Adams notes, adding that nobody would ever guess this based on Prosser’s outward appearance or temperament. Indeed, Prosser is a “nervous, worried man,” not a “great warrior.” When Arthur puts himself before the bulldozer, Prosser grows especially “nervous,” realizing that something has gone “seriously wrong with his job, which [is] to see that Arthur Dent’s house [gets] cleared out of the way before the day [is] out.” “Come off it, Mr. Dent,” he says, “you can’t win, you know. You can’t lie in front of the bulldozer indefinitely.”
Adams reveals his fondness of the absurd in this scene when he informs readers that Mr. Prosser—who seems, by all accounts, a rather bland man—is a descendant of the great Genghis Khan, the fearless mongoloid emperor who was revered for his fierce battle skills. This obviously appears quite unlikely, and yet Adams insists that the two men are vaguely related, thereby preparing readers to accept even the most ridiculous of premises. More than anything, this puts readers in an open-minded outlook—something that will help them come to terms with the rest of the book’s outlandish plot.
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Arthur assures Prosser that he’s willing to stay in front of the bulldozer for a long time. “This bypass has got to be built and it’s going to be built!” In this moment, Adams describes a bypass as something that allows people to move from “point A to point B very fast while other people dash from point B to point A very fast.” This is because people always want to be elsewhere, never able to make up their minds. Prosser, though, knows that he wants to be anywhere but in front of Arthur’s house. As his workers look at him with “derisive grins,” he anxiously tells Arthur: “You were quite entitled to make any suggestions or protests at the appropriate time, you know.” This enrages Arthur, who yells: “Appropriate time? The first I knew about it was when a workman arrived at my home yesterday.”
It becomes clear in this interaction that Prosser is somebody who blindly follows orders. When he yells that the bypass “has got to be built,” he reveals his desire to simply execute his duties without considering the consequences. In turn, Adams demonstrates the human tendency to accept meaningless directives as long as they don’t disrupt their own lives. By describing a bypass as something people can use to go from “point A to point B” while others go from “point B to point A,” the author trivializes the concept of such a system, calling into question why people can’t simply be content with where they are at the moment. In turn, he recalls the idea that humans are rarely happy, and that they try to fix this by throwing their time and energy into useless things like making money or—in this case—building unnecessary objects.
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Mr. Prosser insists that the plans for this bypass have been “available in the local planning office for the last nine months.” “Oh yes,” Arthur replies, “well, as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you?” In response, Mr. Prosser claims that these plans were on display, but Arthur challenges this, too, saying: “On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.” Although Prosser upholds that the cellar is the display department, Arthur reveals that the plans were “in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.’”
The fact that the plans to build a bypass have been hidden in “a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’” suggests that the local planning council wants to keep their projects secret. This is because doing so makes it impossible for people like Arthur to protest. In this way, Adams intimates that keeping people in the dark is an effective way of gaining power or control over them.
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At this point, Adams takes a moment to discuss the fact that Arthur’s good friend, Ford Prefect, is “from a small planet somewhere in the vicinity of Betelgeuse.” Unbeknownst to Arthur, Ford arrived on Earth fifteen years ago while conducting research for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Wanting to renew the guidebook’s entry for Earth, Ford hitchhiked to the planet but soon became stranded, since very few space travelers visit Earth. Since then, he has pretended to be an out-of-work actor living the life of an “unruly boxer” who likes to “gate-crash university parties, get badly drunk and start making fun of any astrophysicists he [can] find.” By the time Ford reaches Arthur’s house on this particular Thursday morning, Prosser has already tried a number of techniques to get Arthur out of the way, and has nearly resigned himself to the fact that he won’t succeed.
Ford Prefect is somebody who loves adventure, as made evident by the fact that he is an intergalactic hitchhiker. Wanting to augment the entry about Earth in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, he has come to the planet in search of one thing: knowledge. As such, he epitomizes the desire to explore new things in the name of gaining new insight into fundamental truths about existence and the universe.
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Ford stands over Arthur and asks if he’s busy. “Am I busy?” Arthur replies. “Well, I’ve just got all these bulldozers and things to lie in front of because they’ll knock my house down if I don’t, but other than that…well, no, not especially, why?” Unable to understand sarcasm, Ford says, “Good, is there anywhere we can talk?” He then urges his friend to come to the pub with him, saying that they simply must drink—and quickly, too. Arthur refuses, saying he has to stay so that Prosser doesn’t knock down his house, but Ford insists that he has to tell him “the most important thing” he’ll ever hear. He also adds that Arthur will need a “very stiff drink.”
It becomes clear in this section that Adams is interested in exploring the ways in which people have trouble communicating with one another. He has already demonstrated the trouble Arthur has with language, both on his own terms (when he can’t connect various words to their larger meanings) and when trying to persuade Prosser to leave his house alone. Now, though, Adams highlights a different kind of communicative impasse, one that arises from a difference in culture. Indeed, Ford is from another planet, one where people don’t use sarcasm. As such, he takes his friend seriously when Arthur dryly informs him that he’s not “especially” “busy.”
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Ford walks over to Prosser to convince him that he shouldn’t knock down Arthur’s house in their absence. “Has Mr. Dent come to his senses yet?” Prosser asks Ford. “Can we for the moment assume that he hasn’t?” Ford replies, adding: “And we can also assume that he’s going to be staying here all day?” When Prosser agrees to this hypothetical suggestion, Ford says, “So all your men are going to be standing around all day doing nothing?” Prosser admits that this is likely the case. “Well,” Ford continues, “if you’re resigned to doing that anyway, you don’t actually need him to lie here all the time do you?” Pressing Prosser in this manner, Ford manages to convince the foreman that there’s no difference whether or not Arthur is in front of the bulldozer or not, suggesting that it won’t matter much if they go to the pub for a while.
In his conversation with Prosser, Ford demonstrates a skillful command of rhetoric and persuasion, one that relies upon his ability to confuse Prosser. Indeed, he twists the conversation so that Prosser suddenly doesn’t know how to respond. Of course, his points don’t actually make sense, since ultimately there is nothing preventing Prosser from demolishing Arthur’s house if Arthur leaves, but Ford so skillfully confounds the foreman that this doesn’t matter. In turn, Adams shows readers that language can be manipulated and used to a person’s benefit.
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“And if you want to pop off for a quick [drink] yourself later on, we can always cover for you in return,” Ford says to Prosser. “Thank you very much,” Prosser says, confused but unwilling to admit it. “So,” Ford concludes, “if you would just like to come over here and lie down…” Seeing Prosser’s confusion, he says, “Ah, I’m sorry, perhaps I hadn’t made myself fully clear. Somebody’s got to lie in front of the bulldozers, haven’t they? Or there won’t be anything to stop them driving into Mr. Dent’s house, will there?” After another brief back and forth, Prosser finally agrees and situates himself in the mud. As they set off for the pub, Arthur asks if Prosser can be trusted. “Myself I’d trust him to the end of the Earth,” Ford assures him. “Oh yes, and how far’s that?” Arthur snorts. “About twelve minutes away,” Ford replies.
Ford’s ability to use language to his own advantage takes on an absurd quality when he tricks Prosser into lying in front of his own bulldozer. Here, Adams shows readers that some people will do nearly anything as long as somebody is persuasive enough to trick them into doing it. In this case, Ford has presented Prosser with the mere appearance of a logical argument, which is all Prosser needs before he’s willing to comply with Ford’s ridiculous suggestion that he lie down in the mud in Arthur’s place.
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