Stranger in a Strange Land | Study Guide

Robert A. Heinlein

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Stranger in a Strange Land | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Part 1: His Maculate Origin

The first manned mission to Mars, the Envoy, mysteriously lost contact with Earth. Those on Earth thought there were no survivors. Twenty-five years later, a second manned mission to Mars, the Champion, discovered there was one survivor. The lone survivor is Valentine Michael Smith, a child born to a crewmember of Envoy. He had been raised by Martians—an intelligent race but one very different in biology and culture from humans.

Smith is brought back to the earthly Bethesda Hospital. He is examined and acclimated to Earth gravity. Immediately, various individuals and groups begin attempts to exploit the Man from Mars. Due to inheritance laws, he is extremely wealthy and legal precedents give him political power. Smith has some quirks. He slips into a coma-like state at times. He also has a very literal grasp of English, and he has never seen a human female.

Gillian Boardman (Jill) is a nurse at Bethesda Hospital. Jill's friend and lover, Ben Caxton, is a journalist. Ben asks Jill to do a little spying for him, so he can get a juicy scoop. She agrees, but in the process she meets Smith and converses with him. Ben makes plans to expose the fact that the authorities have been keeping the real Smith hidden while showing the media an impersonator. But when Ben suddenly disappears under mysterious circumstances, Jill becomes concerned for Smith's safety. She sneaks Smith out of the hospital and takes him back to Ben's apartment. In the process, she offers Smith a drink of water, which he interprets as having the deep symbolic meaning of joining them as "water brothers." The authorities track them there and try to arrest Jill and take Smith into custody. However, Smith somehow causes both men to disappear, after which he falls into a coma-like state. Jill, panicked, packs his nearly lifeless body into a large bag and sneaks him out the rear door of the apartment complex.

Part 2: His Preposterous Heritage

Jill drives Smith to the home of Jubal Harshaw, who is an author and "neo-pessimist philosopher." He runs a household made up of three secretaries and two handymen. Jubal dislikes getting involved in other people's business, but he is intrigued by Smith's unusual physical and psychological makeup. He decides to help Smith sort out his legal and political situation. He says he will help Smith so that the Martian can be free of other people's continual attempts to exploit him.

Jubal calls Joseph Douglas, Secretary General of the World Federation of Free States, to meet with a delegation representing the Man from Mars. At the same time, Smith settles in at Jubal's. He learns to swim, and gets to know Miriam, Dorcas, Anne, Larry, and Duke—Jubal's employees.

Jubal's household also learns more about Smith. They learn he can make things disappear—become "not"—if Smith senses in those things (or people) "a wrongness." They also learn about Martian customs and beliefs. For example, the Martian life cycle includes a stage beyond "discorporation," or physical death, in which the Martian becomes an immortal "Old One." Discorporation is voluntary and may be chosen in order to provide food for others—cannibalism is a natural and positive part of Martian life. Smith has difficulty expressing his understanding of the world—and explaining how he can make things disappear. That is because he can only express these things in Martian. Jill begins to learn Martian so she can help translate Smith's ideas into English.

Having tracked Jill and Smith to Jubal's house, Federation officers arrive and attempt to take them into custody. However, Smith causes them all to disappear, along with their weapons and air cars. Jubal manages to pressure Secretary General Douglas into a public meeting and into finding Ben Caxton. Caxton turns up without any recollection of the past week, having been drugged. The meeting occurs, and Jubal manipulates the situation so that Smith keeps his large inheritance (he is heir to the entire Envoy crew) but ceases being a political pawn.

Part 3: His Eccentric Education

Smith continues to learn about humanity by reading some of the mail he receives. This includes fan mail, sexual propositions, people seeking money, and the like. He learns about money and uses some of his vast inheritance to buy gifts for those in Jubal's household. He has come to consider those in Jubal's household as his "water brothers."

Under pressure from Senator Boone, Jill and Jubal take Smith to visit the Archangel Foster Tabernacle of the Church of the New Revelation. The Fosterite religion focuses on happiness and encourages sex, gambling, and drinking, provided it is done with others who are "saved." Supreme Bishop Digby obviously sees an opportunity for good publicity if he can get the Man from Mars to convert. He arranges to get Smith alone, but Digby mysteriously disappears. Back at Jubal's, Smith goes into his room to meditate and does not emerge until late that night. When he does, he encounters one of the women, who introduces him to sex. After another week of meditation, Smith announces he is ready to go out into the world. Jill knows some Martian and can best help Smith learn about the outside world, so she goes with him.

Meanwhile, on Mars, the Old Ones contemplate the aesthetic qualities of a work of art they had created long ago. The art is the destruction of the fifth planet of the solar system. Being immortal, they take a very long time to both make and appreciate art. In heaven, Digby is upset that Smith cut his earthly stay short.

Jill and Smith take a number of jobs, including magician and assistant at a carnival and croupier and showgirl in Las Vegas. Smith finds he still does not understand people. Nor does he understand laughter—it is one part of being human that completely escapes him. Jill tries to help. Her ability to communicate a little in Martian has given her the ability to form a telepathic bond with Smith. When Smith sees monkeys being cruel to each other, he understands laughter as something people do to cope with the pain of life.

Smith's religious education progresses as well. He and Jill become friends with the tattooed lady from the carnival, Patty. She also happens to be a devout Fosterite. Smith reads many books on religion and attends a variety of religious worship services. In the end, he concludes that the true "religion" is something Martians already understand, not as a faith, but as a fact. Unfortunately, this fact, which makes perfect sense in Martian, can only be expressed imperfectly in English as "Thou art God."

Part 4: His Scandalous Career

Smith has begun his own religion called the Church of All Worlds. It is part carnival show, part group marriage, part commune, but its main goal is to teach the Martian language. Membership in the church begins in an outer "circle" and progresses through nine circles. Initiates learn more Martian at each level. Simply learning Martian allows people to possess the miraculous power over matter Smith displays. The ninth circle brings people into full "water brotherhood" that involves a Sharing Water ceremony. However, the ceremony has progressed from sharing a cup of water to sharing sex with the group in the pool temple. Most of the members of this inner circle live together in a residence they call the "Nest."

Most of the people Smith has interacted with are members of the Church of All Worlds. They include Jill, Patty, members of Jubal's household, and many who befriended Smith aboard the Champion. There are new converts as well—including those who also belong to other religions. Even Ben Caxton eventually joins, although at first he finds the prospect of sharing Jill with many other men uncomfortable. Jubal maintains his home, being at once open-minded and skeptical of Smith's teachings. Yet, Jubal is also the patron saint of Smith's church. He is a person who, according to Smith, "groks" without needing to learn Martian.

Part 5: His Happy Destiny

The Martian Old Ones had kept an eye on Smith as he learned about humanity. They tap into his accumulated knowledge and then "release" him. While he had some heavenly protection from adversity while they were using him for reconnaissance, that protection is now gone.

Smith's religion has socially unacceptable sexual norms and seemingly heretical teachings. So it comes under increasing criticism from other religious groups. It is largely seen as a cult. Smith and other members are repeatedly arrested on a variety of charges. Smith can always use his powers to escape. However, this tends to increase the public's negative feeling about the church. Tensions increase, and eventually come to a head when the Temple is burned down by an arsonist.

Jubal, upon hearing about the fire, joins the others at a hotel near the burned Temple, where those who were living there are hiding out. Jubal finds most of them unworried. But Smith reveals that he'd been used unknowingly as a spy for the Old Ones. He felt them tap into his knowledge and release him. He worries they will eventually decide to destroy Earth, due to humanity's constant state of struggle and pain. Jubal advises him to just keep showing people the truth. Smith should trust that humanity will learn enough to avoid annihilation. Smith is greatly comforted by this.

Rejuvenated from his talk with Jubal, Smith goes outside the hotel to face a violent mob that has gathered. As he preaches love and "Thou art God," they stone him to death. Smith's water brothers retrieve his body, make it into a stew, and partake.

Stranger in a Strange Land Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 A manned mission to Mars crashes.

Rising Action

2 Human child Valentine Michael Smith is raised by Martians.

3 Smith is brought back to Earth and hidden in a hospital.

4 Nurse Gillian Boardman breaks Smith out of the hospital.

5 Smith learns about being human at the home of Jubal Harshaw.

6 Smith demonstrates miraculous powers.

7 Smith starts the Church of All Worlds.

8 Smith's followers learn Martian and gain psychic powers.


9 Anger at Smith's teachings mounts and his temple is burned.

Falling Action

10 Smith is stoned to death by an angry mob.

11 Jubal attempts suicide out of grief, but Smith saves him.


12 Smith's followers consume his body in a cannibalistic ritual.

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