The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

by

Douglas Adams

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
As Arthur and Ford drink, a fleet of “huge yellow chunky slablike somethings” move through the “ionosphere” above Earth. Ford is the only person on the planet who knows of their presence, since he picked up their signal on a small device called the Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matic. This is a gadget he keeps in his “leather satchel,” which he always wears around his neck. Other notable items inside this satchel are: an “Electronic Thumb” that helps him hitchhike through the galaxy, a digitized copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and—most important of all—a towel, which is the “most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have” because it is versatile and easy to carry. In any case, Ford’s Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matic blinked into action the night before, when the mysterious ships appeared above. Now, as he sits with Arthur, it begins to strobe more rapidly.
In this novel, Adams frequently juxtaposes absurdly futuristic and unfathomable details with commonplace ideas. For instance, Ford’s “leather satchel” contains a collection of highly advanced technological gadgets, but Adams goes out of his way to make clear that the most important item Ford carries is a run-of-the-mill towel. As such, he underhandedly mocks the self-serious tone that many science-fiction novels use, reminding readers that the genre itself is often quite outlandish.
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A crash sounds, but Ford tells Arthur not to worry. “They haven’t started yet,” he says. “It’s probably just your house being knocked down.” Looking outside, Arthur sees that Ford is right: Prosser has started demolishing his home. As Arthur leaps out of his seat, Ford urges him to “let them have their fun” because it “hardly makes any difference at this stage” whether or not Arthur’s house remains standing. Ignoring his friend, Arthur rushes outside and runs toward his house. Before following his friend, Ford tosses another large bill to the bartender and tells him to keep the change. The bartender then looks at him and shivers, picking up on “tiny subliminal signals” issuing from Ford—“this signal simply communicates an exact and almost pathetic sense of how far [a] being is from the place of his birth,” Adams notes. This happens when a person undergoes great stress.
Ford’s assertion that it “hardly makes any difference” whether or not Arthur’s house is demolished once again touches upon Adams’s interest in futility and meaninglessness. Unsurprisingly, though, Arthur has trouble wrapping his head around this fact, since he is still very much invested in his everyday life, which he doesn’t know is about to undergo a great change. This suggests that context and perspective are what keep a person from seeing the pointlessness of their endeavors. In other words, if Arthur knew (or actually believed) that the Earth is about to be destroyed, he might not care about things about which he otherwise feels quite strongly.
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Since Ford is very far from his home planet, the bartender is overwhelmed by the signals he sends. As a result, he suddenly understands that the world is going to end. “Are you serious, sir?” he asks, terrified. Ford confirms that he is, in fact, serious, adding that the planet has roughly two minutes left before total destruction. “Isn’t there anything we can do about it then?” the bartender asks. Ford assures him that there’s nothing to be done, and the pub goes quiet. Clearing his throat, the bartender makes an announcement. “Last orders, please,” he calls.
When the bartender calls for “last orders,” he essentially comes to terms with the fact that there’s nothing he can do to stop the world from ending. In light of this powerlessness, he does the only thing under his control: he bartends.
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Meanwhile, the “huge yellow machines” continue their descent. As Arthur runs toward his house yelling at the top of his lungs, he fails to notice that the construction workers have started fleeing their bulldozers. Mr. Prosser, for his part, is staring into the sky at one of the “huge yellow somethings.” Chaos begins to break out all over the world as people rush around and crane their necks to see the otherworldly ships. Ford, of course, knows what’s happening—his Sub-Etha Sens-O-Matic woke him up the night before, calling his attention to the imminent arrival of these alien ships. Although he has been waiting fifteen years to hitch a ride off of Earth, he’s disappointed to learn that the newly arrived ships belong to a certain alien species known as the Vogons. Nonetheless, he prepares himself to board their ships, making sure he has his towel ready.
As the Vogon spaceships near Earth, humanity loses control. Suddenly afraid for their lives, humans’ everyday customs finally grind to a halt, and everyone abandons their regular routines. The fact that the mere appearance of spaceships can derail all of humanity shows the extent to which people are utterly unprepared to part with their daily customs. Of course, it makes sense that humans—who have very little experience with space travel—would be shocked to see spaceships. But in this novel, which is populated with aliens like Ford who have traveled throughout the Galaxy, such ignorance seems like a vast intellectual shortcoming.
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Get the entire The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy PDF
The Vogons’ spaceships hover motionless in the sky and take control of every radio, television, cassette recorder, and speaker on Earth. “People of Earth, your attention, please,” a voice says. “This is Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council. As you will no doubt be aware, the plans for development of the outlying regions of the Galaxy require the building of a hyperspatial express route through your star system, and regrettably your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition. The process will take slightly less than two of your Earth minutes. Thank you.” After this announcement, terror breaks out. Seeing this, Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz comes back onto the announcement system and says, “There’s no point in acting all surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department in Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years.”
When Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz says that the plans for this “hyperspatial express route” have been on display in Earth’s “local planning department in Alpha Centauri” for fifty years, readers are reminded of the ridiculous manner in which plans to build a bypass through Arthur’s property were displayed. Namely, both sets of plans have been posted in inaccessible areas. Like Earth’s planning council, the Vogons seem to understand that knowledge is power, meaning that if they hide their plans, there’s nothing earthlings can do to interfere.
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Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz informs all Earth-dwellers that it’s too late to “lodge any formal complaint” about the planet’s destruction. After a moment, somebody somewhere on Earth finds the wavelength of the Vogon broadcast and sends a message back to the ship, though nobody but the Vogons hear it. “What do you mean, you’ve never been to Alpha Centauri?” booms Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz’s voice again. “For heaven’s sake, mankind, it’s only four light-years away, you know. I’m sorry, but if you can’t be bothered to taken an interest in local affairs that’s your own lookout.” He then orders his fleet to “energize the demolition beams,” and after a stretch of “terrible ghastly silence” there comes a “terrible ghastly noise,” and the Earth winks out of existence.
It is possible that the Vogons weren’t intentionally hiding their plans from Earth, since they act in this moment as if they’re surprised that humankind hasn’t yet discovered “Alpha Centauri.” However, even if the Vogons didn’t know about humankind’s limited knowledge of its own Galaxy, the Vogons still posted the plans in a remote location—to truly inform earthlings of their planet’s impending doom, the logical thing would have been to post notices on Earth itself. This is rather obvious, and so it seems clear that the Vogons—like the council trying to knock down Arthur’s house—purposefully obscured their intentions in order to quickly gain power without a fight.
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