Douglas Adams' Worldviews in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
English and Literature
Submitted By kfed101
It is hard to imagine that there is a book which has been described as “A thumping good detective-ghost-horror-whodunit-time travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic” which, beneath its comedic exterior, contains some very relevant social commentary. But this is exactly what Douglas Adams created when he wrote Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is a science fiction comedy novel written by Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The plot is based around the murder of Richard Macduff’s employer, Gordon Way, and the associated events that come along with the investigation. Although it’s set up with a serious event marking the start of the plot, the book is anything but serious. The detective hired by Richard to investigate the murder is Dirk Gently, a self-styled holistic detective, who solves mysteries based on “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things” (p. 132). He claims to “solve the whole crime (and) find the whole person” (p. 127). His approach to detective work gives the book a very jumbled plot, with many seemingly irrelevant occurrences happening along the way. Despite all this, Dirk , however strange he may seem, is a very good detective, and all the seemingly unrelated parts come together to form a conclusion involving time travel, a spaceship, ghosts, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the romantic era poet. However, all these events and characteristics of the book were the second focus of Douglas Adams’ writing. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency was written primarily as a medium through which Douglas Adams could express his own opinions on subjects he was passionate about. The book was written in a way that allowed Douglas Adams to include social commentary, while disguising it within the text by the circumstances which surround it. This is shown through the writing of the novel, and through examples of Douglas Adams’ commentary on religion and the environment throughout the story.
The way Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is written, and the world Douglas Adams created for it, causes the reader to disregard or overlook the social commentary which has been inserted into the story. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency is written as an irreverent comedy mystery novel, complete with perplexing puzzles and confounding conspiracies. These elements serve as an excellent way to disguise any opinions or commentary that Adams put in the story by focusing the attention of the reader on the plot and the matters at hand, rather than the subtleties of the writing. One passage in the book portrays this approach very well. In one scene, Dirk hypnotizes Richard to jump in a canal to prove that Richard was possessed earlier in the book. When questioned about his actions, before Dirk tells him that he was hypnotized, Richard defends his actions. Their exchange is as follows:
“‘And, er -- that was why you just dived into the canal?’
‘Well, yes. I just thought that getting a bit of exercise would probably help me deal with all this.’
‘Not a little disproportionate, then, to strip off and jump into the canal.’
‘No,’ he said, ‘it may not have been wise given the state of the water, but it was perfectly --’
‘You were perfectly satisfied with your own reasons for doing what you did.’
‘Yes --’” (p. 179-180)
This passage mirrors the approach which the book encourages readers to take. In this instance, Richard takes an unbelievable event and convinces himself that it’s completely normal, being totally oblivious to the external motivations surrounding it. The book is meant to be read the same way; by normalizing the strange and unbelievable to read it as just a story.
The most prominent way that Douglas Adams’ style of writing disguises the commentary within the book is by offering reasonable sounding explanations for impossible events in the book. This method keeps the reader focused on the storyline instead of digging into the subtleties of the writing. An example of such an event is when Richard explains that he has a sofa stuck in his stairwell, in a fashion which should be impossible, but clearly has happened. This event is introduced by Richard who explains it as follows: “‘It’s just that it’s stuck halfway up a long flight of stairs which leads up into my flat. As far as I can make it out, the delivery men got it part way up the stairs, got it stuck, turned it around any way they could, couldn’t get it any further, and then found, curiously enough, that they couldn’t get it back down again. Now, that should be impossible.’”(p. 59). Another character, Reg, remarks: “‘I’ve certainly never come across any irreversible mathematics involving sofas. Could be a new field. Have you spoken to any spatial geometricians?’”(p. 59). This comment serves to help understand the nature of the problem, but by doing so it also just confuses the audience further. This situation, along with many other equally preposterous situations throughout the book, provides unbelievable events and problems for the reader to focus on, to disguise any motives of the author which influence the text. These examples help to illustrate the ways that the writing of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency disguises the commentary of the author by distracting and influencing the reader with preposterous predicaments and complex solutions
Using the aforementioned techniques, Douglas Adams inserts his social commentary into the story while disguising it within his writing style. His thoughts on religion feature prominently in the commentary within the novel. Douglas Adams identified as a “radical atheist” (the term is used only to further distinguish himself from agnosticism) and converted in his adulthood, so he was very vocal about his beliefs. In Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, The character of the electric monk is a commentary on the state of religion in society. The purpose of the monk is described like this: “Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.”(p. 4). The electric monk is a symbol of the decline of faith and religion during the time that the novel was written, and that is even more relevant today. It personifies the blind faith that is the crux of religion, and its sometimes violent actions signify the consequences that can come along with blind faith. The electric monk is a symbol for the state of religion at the time but, due to the circumstances under which it is presented, it is disguised as just another nonsensical plot point.
Another example of Douglas Adams’ religious commentary which is hidden within the book is a revelation towards the end of the book. It is revealed that the origin of all life on earth was the result a spaceship crash many millions of years ago. This is revealed by Dirk, who says: “‘what we have done? I would not be surprised to discover that the accident your poor tormented soul out there is trying to reverse is the very thing which started life on this planet!’” (p. 269). While it’s easy to dismiss as just another element of the story, the message that it carries is much more significant. The ship crash being the origin of life is a dig at the theory of theist creation. The implication is that the spaceship crash is just as plausible an explanation for the beginning of life as the theist theory, which is to say, not at all plausible. Douglas Adams’ vocal advocacy for atheism is directly in line with this subtle dig towards creationists and theists. This comment is well disguised by the nature of Douglas Adams’ writing. Up to this point in the novel, much of the content has been this ridiculous, if not more so, so it is by no stretch of the imagination that this too could be just another part of the story. Douglas Adams’ writing style and the world he created is so fantastical that these commentaries on religion are swallowed up by the story, hiding the meaning behind certain events and characters.
Douglas Adams’, along with being a vocal atheist, was also an environmental activist who campaigned on behalf of endangered animals, and commentary on this subject is disguised within his writing. This influence is shown in the novel when Reg explains that his efforts to save the coelacanth (a prehistoric fish) from extinction caused the dodo to become extinct instead. This is revealed in an exchange between Reg and Richard, as follows:
“‘You don’t understand at all. The dodo wouldn’t have died if I hadn’t worked so hard to save the coelacanth.’
‘The coelacanth? The prehistoric fish? But how could one possibly affect the other?’
‘Ah. Now there you’re asking. The complexities of cause and effect defy analysis. Not only is the continuum like a human body, it is also very like a piece of badly put up wallpaper. Push down a bubble somewhere, another one pops up somewhere else. There are no more dodos because of my interference. In the end I imposed the rule on myself because I simply couldn’t bear it any more. The only thing that really gets hurt when you try and change time is yourself.’”(p. 259). This exchange is presented as an explanation of one of the many quirks of time travel, but it carries ulterior motivations behind it. The exchange relates to Adams’ environmental work in that it has to do with endangered species and extinction, but it also provides commentary on human nature and how it relates to environmentalism. It comments on the inability to change in humans, in that Reg’s efforts to save the coelacanth lead to the extinction of the dodo, giving an example of the destructive nature of humans. This point is also mentioned by Douglas Adams in the book and radio show Last Chance to See. In it, Adams comments: “Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.”(Last Chance to See Ch. 4). Douglas Adams placed this commentary, which would have been very obvious in a different scenario, into an explanation for one of the most interesting and important aspects of the book; time travel. This means that the commentary is much more subtle than it would have otherwise been.
Douglas Adams wrote Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency as a medium through which he could express his opinions and worldviews, but in a way that hides his social commentary, due to how strange and complex the story is. This is shown through the style of writing Douglas Adams used for this book, as well as through examples of commentary on religious and environmental matters throughout the novel. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency gives the reader a look into the mind of Douglas Adams in some very unexpected ways. This new way of looking at it forces the reader to look at themselves as a reader and question: “what else might I have missed?”
Adams, Douglas. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. 1987. Reprint. London: Pan Books, 2012. Print.
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