Stranger in a Strange Land | Study Guide

Robert A. Heinlein

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Stranger in a Strange Land | Part 1, Chapters 3–4 : His Maculate Origin | Summary



Part 1, Chapter 3

Captain Van Tromp of the Champion brings the survivor, Valentine Michael Smith, back to Earth. Smith is the child of one of the Envoy's crew. He is given a room in Bethesda Medical Center and not allowed any visitors. Although the High Minister for Science wants to pump Smith for information, Captain Van Tromp objects. He notes Smith needs time to get used to humans and human society: "He's a man by ancestry, a Martian by environment."

Meanwhile, Smith is in a weakened state, struggling to survive in Earth gravity, which is much stronger than gravity on Mars. In order to not "discorporate," Smith slows his heart rate and breathing. This causes an intern monitoring life signs to panic until Dr. Nelson, Smith's physician, reassures him this is normal for Smith.

In this semi-catatonic state, Smith reviews all the new events in order to make them part of himself and "cherish and praise them." Finding these recent memories distressing, Smith also thinks back to the "nest" where he spent his earliest childhood, raised by Martians.

The next day, Doctor Nelson makes arrangements for Smith to receive basic instruction and practice in walking and using the hospital's bathroom. An orderly covertly attempts to get Smith to sign away the rights to his story to "Peerless Features, Limited."

Part 1, Chapter 4

That same day, Gillian (Jill) Boardman, nurse, comes on duty as supervisor of the floor Smith is on. She learns Smith has never seen a human female, and women are not allowed into his room. She decides to sneak a peek at Smith and enters from an adjoining room. He seems to take the presence of a woman without much reaction. When she offers to get him a drink of water, he replies, "I thank you for water. May you always drink deep." He believes she is expressing a desire to "grow closer."

She gets the water, but he wants her to take a drink first. Then he drinks. After that, he asks her what it is that makes her a woman. She asks, sarcastically, if she should take off her clothes. Her surprise is disconcerting to him, and he becomes confused by her reactions. Inside, he considers the situation. From his perspective, since they have just shared water, they are "water brothers." But she sees only a young man who wants her to take her clothes off. Since this is a healthy physical response, she says "Brother, you aren't ill." After she leaves, Smith thinks more about the confusing conversation they just had.

Jill also thinks further on her visit with Smith. Later, she takes a call from Ben Caxton He is a news reporter and sometime lover and wants to have dinner with her. At dinner, he asks her about the "Man from Mars." Reluctantly, she tells him about her interaction with Smith. He reveals Smith is actually the son of Mrs. Smith and Captain Brant, but due to different countries' laws on marriage, "is the legitimate child of three parents." This strange parentage means Smith may be the heir to millions. Ben also explains "By our laws, Smith is a sovereign nation—and sole owner of the planet Mars."


In these two chapters, readers are introduced to three of the novel's main characters. The Man from Mars, Valentine Michael Smith, is the novel's protagonist. Gillian Boardman (usually called Jill) and Ben Caxton are instrumental to solving Smith's initial difficulties, and they provide two different lenses through which the reader views Smith. Jill provides the more personal view, as she interacts one on one with Smith. Ben provides the overview of Smith's situation, the one society at large possesses of the "alien" from Mars. These two characters will continue to give readers the "up close" and "overview" perspectives at various times in the novel.

A central tension of the novel is also introduced in these chapters. It is the tension between various political, social, and economic realities on Earth and a fully grown human who has no experience at all with these realities. Smith, though in his twenties, is like a child when it comes to human culture. He is innocent of its intrigues and manipulations. He is also famous, politically significant, and immensely rich. As a result, he is immediately pressed by a tabloid-style "news" magazine called "Peerless Features, Limited." Although this is the first attempt to outright exploit Smith, it will not be the last. This problem and its solution drive the plot of Parts 1 and 2 of the novel.

Several main themes are introduced in these chapters as well. The theme of language is introduced in a series of interactions between doctors, politicians, and finally Jill. In each case, people speak with individual style, figuratively, and rhetorically. They rarely use words in their literal sense, and often the same words used by different people mean different things. The omniscient point of view allows readers to see the bird's eye view of these interactions as well as the inner reactions of Smith and Jill. For example, in Chapter 3, Dr. Archer Frame, an intern at the hospital, says: "Good morning ... How do you feel?" Smith has to think about what these two phrases mean: "Smith examined the question. The first phrase he recognized as a formal sound, requiring no answer. The second was listed in his mind with several translations. If Doctor Nelson used it, it meant one thing; if Captain van Tromp used it, it was a formal sound." In the interaction between Jill and Smith, Smith is confused by her use of the word "brother." He has just asked her to take off her clothes so he can see how females are different. Jill says "Brother, you aren't ill." She means it colloquially. But he takes it seriously: "the woman was reminding him that they had been joined in water." Language, its quirks and its power to shape thought, will be a dominant theme in the book.

The theme of humanity is reflected in Captain van Tromp's assertion that Smith is not a man, but an "an intelligent creature with the ancestry of a man ... more Martian than man." It is also reflected in the focus on male and female humans. Smith has never seen a female human until he sees Jill and is understandably curious. But as the novel progresses, this focus will develop into understanding of male and female as two ways to be human. A great deal of time will be spent exploring the human species from this angle. The theme of culture and morality is inherent in the situation as well as in Smith's lack of understanding of human language and customs. The idea that human conventions can approve a person being the legitimate child of three parents, two of them unmarried, points out the limited nature of these customs. In a similar way, a law that can give one man sovereignty over an already-inhabited planet is ludicrous. The novel invites readers to examine how other rules and norms might be similarly localized if examined closely.

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