The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

by

Douglas Adams

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Chapter 31 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
“It is of course well known that careless talk costs lives,” Adams writes, “but the full scale of the problem is not always appreciated.” In keeping with this, when Arthur says, “I seem to be having tremendous difficulty with my life-style,” a “freak wormhole” opens in space and carries his words “to a distant Galaxy where strange and warlike beings [are] poised on the brink of frightful interstellar battle.” The two war leaders are having a fateful meeting when Arthur’s phrase floats between them. In one of their languages, this sentence is “the most dreadful insult imaginable.” As a result, the two populations begin a long and horrific war. Thousands of years later, the two sides realize it was a simple mistake, uniting forces to wage war on Arthur’s galaxy. They therefore launch a fleet of battleships toward Earth, all of which plummet into a dog’s mouth.
This rather random aside once more exemplifies the fact that language can be an unwieldy thing, especially when taken out of context. Arthur’s words—which in his own language amount to little more than a mild complaint—set off a long war, proving that even the simplest misinterpretation (or freak accident) can turn people against one another. In the end, though, Adams frames these kinds of misunderstandings as rather meaningless, as expressed by the fact that an entire fleet of battleships intended to decimate Earth end up doing absolutely nothing because they are—apparently—small enough to fit inside a dog’s mouth.
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Slartibartfast brings Arthur to a waiting room, where he finds his friends feasting on an exquisite lunch. After he greets them, he hears a tiny voice that says, “Welcome to lunch, Earth creature.” Looking down, he sees Trillian’s mice on the table. “Arthur,” Trillian says, “this is Benjy mouse. And this is Frankie mouse.” The mice, who are sitting inside what look like two futuristic whiskey glasses, greet him before dismissing Slartibartfast and informing him that they “won’t be needing the new Earth any longer.” As he exits, the old man rants angrily about the work he’s already done on Africa.
At last, Adams reveals that Trillian’s mice have been involved in the long-running experiment on Earth. This is without a doubt a great shock to Arthur, although it’s worth keeping in mind that at this point—after so many ludicrous events—he is most likely becoming accustomed to even the most improbable twists.
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“Now, Earth creature,” says Benjy mouse, “the situation we have in effect is this. We have, as you know, been more or less running your planet for the last ten million years in order to find this wretched thing called the Ultimate Question.” Interrupting, Arthur says, “Why?” In response, Frankie mouse says, “No—we already thought of that one, but it doesn’t fit the answer. Why? Forty-two…you see, it doesn’t work.” He then admits that they’re tired of running experiments on Earth and daunted by the idea of doing the entire thing again. “It was by the merest lucky chance that Benjy and I finished our particular job and left the planet early for a quick holiday, and have since manipulated our way back to Magrathea by the good offices of your friends.” Magrathea, Benjy interjects, is a “gateway” back to their dimension.
Once more, the notion of power and control comes to the forefront of the novel, this time in the form of Benjy and Frankie’s confession that they have been “running” Earth for “the last ten million years.” Although Adams often frames human life as trivial and void of meaning, these mice seem to think otherwise. Indeed, they wouldn’t spend so much time studying people like Arthur and Trillian if they didn’t think that there was value in their actions. Unfortunately, though, the Vogons destroyed Earth before the mice ascertained the “Ultimate Question,” leaving them in a state of uncertainty once again.
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Since leaving Earth, Benjy and Frankie have received a very lucrative offer to “do the 5D chat show and lecture circuit” in their own dimension. “But we’ve got to have product, you see,” Frankie says. “I mean, ideally we still need the Ultimate Question in some form or other.” They need something, they tell Arthur, that “sounds good.” This is why they need Arthur, who is “a last generation product of [the Earth’s] computer matrix.” This means that his brain is “an organic part of the penultimate configuration of the computer program.” Because of this, the mice think that the Ultimate Question is “encoded” within him. “So we want to buy it off you,” Benjy says. For a moment, Arthur thinks the mice want to buy the question from him, but they soon make clear what they really want: his entire brain.
In keeping with the fact that humans have been subject to the subtle manipulations of mice for the past ten million years, Arthur is suddenly forced to confront the idea that he has perhaps less agency than he’d like to think. After all, he is “a last generation product” of a “computer matrix.” In this moment, then, he faces the overwhelming idea that he has been created to do something other than simply live a normal life. And although this surely terrifies him, it does mean that his life has not been utterly meaningless.
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Related Quotes
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Arthur rears back in his chair as the mice try to convince him to give them his brain, saying that they can give him a simple electronic replacement. As he tries to inch away, the mice lift off the table in their glass cases and start moving toward Arthur. Meanwhile, Trillian, Ford, and Zaphod try to pull Arthur away while opening the door. Unfortunately, a group of heavily-armored Magratheans block their way. Miraculously, though, a planet-wide alarm system bleats into the air, stopping everybody in their tracks.
When the group of friends realizes that there is a horde of armed Magratheans on the other side of the door, their powerlessness becomes overwhelmingly apparent. Once again, they are forced to come to terms with the fact that they have no control over what happens next. In fact, even the planet-wide alarm—which most likely will provide them a distraction for their escape—is completely out of their control and has nothing to do with anything they have done to ameliorate their circumstances.
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