The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Essays and Criticism
by Douglas Adams

Start Your Free Trial

Download The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The Search for the Meaning of Life in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

(Novels for Students)

The first thing that readers and critics usually notice about Douglas Adams's novel, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, is that the book, written in a sharp and witty style, is remarkably funny. What may seem less obvious to readers, and what has often puzzled critics, is the meaning behind this light, clever exterior. David Leon Higdon has noted that imagining the end of the world has long been a tradition in science fiction, as it has been in myth and theology; and Brian Aldiss has observed the tremendous impact that the invention of bombs, which could conceivably cause the end of the world, have had on science fiction and science fiction writers. But while Adams's book does describe the destruction of the Earth, his humorous, irreverent treatment of this subject does not fit neatly into the traditions described by Aldiss and Higdon.

Carl R. Kropf has suggested that the novel should be read as a mock science fiction novel that reverses the expectation readers have of science fiction and "by reversing the usual conventions of the genre...also reverses its entire ideological function." In support of this theory, Kropf notes that while traditional science fiction often suggests a meaning and a purpose for human life and civilization, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and the novels which follow it, do the exact opposite: "Instead of confirming that the phenomenal universe implies a meaning or purpose, they affirm its meaninglessness." While Kropf is certainly correct in noting that the novel's characters are constantly thwarted in their attempts to find meaning, this does not necessarily imply that the book as a whole affirms the meaninglessness of human life. Rather, the fact that the characters continue to search for meaning in the universe, even when they are repeatedly confronted by an apparent lack of meaning and purpose, suggests the universality of the desire to find a purpose, and ultimately, Adams's novel suggests that the purpose of life is to search for a meaningful purpose to life, and to find humor in the absurdities one encounters in the search for meaning.

It is true that meaning does seem illusive in the novel. The reader and the characters are frequently given hints that meaning exists, but those promises of meaning always prove to be deceptive. These unfulfilled promises first appear in the novel's introduction, in which the narrator describes the problem that the Earth faces: "most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time." The narrator then goes on to describe how many people suggest solutions to this problem, and how finally one girl thinks of a solution to this problem and tries to phone a friend, only to be prevented by "a terrible, stupid catastrophe." But after this lengthy description of the Earth, its problem, and the girl who finally found a solution to the problem, the narrator abruptly shifts focus by saying, "this is not her story" and revealing that the story of this girl and her solution have been merely a digression from the real story. Such abruptly ended digressions are a common trope in the novel. They give the reader the sense that meaning is about to be revealed, but then the door to that meaning is closed before the reader can see through.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, for which the novel is named, is another example of how meaning is promised and then denied. The fact that there is a guide to the galaxy suggests that the galaxy can be somehow understood and explained. And while The Guide does not promise to explain the meaning of "Life, the Universe, and Everything," it does promise to tell you "everything you need to know about anything" and how to "see the marvels of the Universe for less that thirty Altairian dollars a day." But even this amazing guide is disappointing, since it "has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate" and since it is "a very unevenly edited book and contains many passages that simply...

(The entire section is 2,898 words.)