Stranger in a Strange Land | Study Guide

Robert A. Heinlein

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Stranger in a Strange Land | Quotes


Smith ... is ... not ... a ... man.

Captain van Tromp, Part 1, Chapter 3

This quotation establishes a premise that will be questioned throughout the novel and ultimately either proven or disproven by the reader. As a human being raised by Martians, Valentine Michael Smith bears a physical resemblance to humans, but his cultural, mental, emotional, and spiritual self is shaped by his upbringing on Mars. Captain van Tromp notes that "Smith is an intelligent creature with the ancestry of a man, but he is more Martian than man." Smith must learn to understand humanity and find out if and how he is human.


Everyone does as he pleases ... then if he does something I don't like, I kick him the hell out.

Jubal Harshaw, Part 2, Chapter 10

Jubal describes the rules of the house to Jill when she first arrives with Smith. Jubal's household is made up of three lovely secretaries and a couple of manly handymen. In this anarchist-authoritarian haven, he reigns as benevolent dictator. Jubal's strong opinions on freedom and authority reflect Heinlein's own radical views. But the opinions also provide a starting point for Jubal's own character arc, which includes learning to surrender control.


Customs, morals—is there a difference?

Jubal Harshaw, Part 2, Chapter 12

When Jill and Smith first arrive at Jubal's, Jill attempts to educate Smith on human customs, such as wearing clothing. Jubal suggests Jill is being prudish. He criticizes her instruction as programming Smith with her own culturally derived morals against public nudity, for example. The characterization of morals as simply customs that have become elevated by a culture as right versus wrong is one of the themes of the novel.


I shan't argue differences between one form of ritual cannibalism and another.

Jubal Harshaw, Part 2, Chapter 13

Jubal uses a comparison between cannibalism and Christianity's sacrament of Eucharist to point out Duke's hypocrisy. Duke is offended by Smith's view that cannibalism is part of an important and ritualized community activity. Yet Duke's background includes the practice of Eucharist, or communion, in which Christ's body and blood are consumed, at least symbolically.


With eternity to draw on ... "hurry" was not a concept in Martian.

Narrator, Part 2, Chapter 14

One of the biggest differences between Martians and humans is that Martians know they are immortal. Humans only hope, or have faith, in immortality. Because Martians know they will live forever, they have a different relationship to time. They do not feel the pressure of time, so they never hurry.


Man was his own grimmest joke on himself.

Narrator, Part 2, Chapter 14

The narrator acknowledges the only way in which humans surpass all other species, and that is in their ability to devise bigger and more efficient ways to kill off and enslave other humans.


Language itself shapes a man's basic ideas.

Jubal Harshaw, Part 2, Chapter 21

This statement is restated in different ways throughout the novel as one of its main themes. Smith's knowledge of the Martian language gives him a different way of looking at and relating to reality. He has what seems like psychic powers because he thinks about reality differently. He and others attempt to teach the Martian language to convey a different understanding of reality. However, the concept of "grok" transcends and to a certain extent challenges Smith's theory of language.


'Grok' means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed.

Dr. Mahmoud, Part 2, Chapter 21

One important Martian word, which Smith uses often, is "grok." This word, which literally translates "to drink," is foundational to understanding how Smith relates to himself and to the world. Once you "grok" something, you are part of it, and it is part of you. Then, you possess the power to change the thing, just as you always have the power to change yourself. A few people in the novel are able to grok Smith or his concepts without having to learn Martian.


He wants to think the world is a romantic place when it damn well ain't.

Tim, Part 3, Chapter 26

Tim, the carnival owner, has one main criticism of Smith's magician act: he doesn't understand "chumps." Chumps are those who come to the carnival, but also, generally, any humans you are trying to sell something to. Smith lacks an understanding of chumps because he lacks understanding of people. Gaining this understanding is one of the most important milestones in Smith's journey. This insight allows him to evolve into the salesman of religion he becomes in the last two parts of the novel. The concept of chumps calls into question the sincerity of the societal changes the novel proposes, since many of the people who adopt Smith's philosophy may not have truly grokked it but may only be chumps.


Valentine Michael Smith grokked that physical human love ... was a growing-closer.

Narrator, Part 3, Chapter 27

Until he has sex, Smith's main way of "growing closer" with others is through sharing water with them. This custom comes from his Martian upbringing. It is informed by the scarcity and preciousness of water on Mars. As he learns more about humans, he learns that sexual intercourse is a pleasurable way of sharing and growing closer. Thereafter, sexual sharing is combined with sharing water in Smith's understanding. Sexual sharing becomes the way new converts are initiated into Smith's church.

A statement of absolute certainty and truth in Martian translates poorly into English as "Thou art God." To Smith, the multiplicity of human religions is nonsensical, because they revolve around faith and uncertainty. He explains to Jill, "among Martians, there is only one religion—and it is not a faith, it's a certainty." She replies she understands it, in Martian, which doesn't mean the same thing in English. Later, in Chapter 36, Smith elaborates: "all that groks is God, and I am all that I have ever been or seen or felt or experienced." Thus, faith for Martians is an existential and epistemological experience, rooted not in what the individual believes or hopes, but in what they are and what they know. This concept is both superior and inferior to humanity, because it allows the freedom of assuredness absent of hope or imagination.


Of course it wasn't funny; it was tragic. That's why I had to laugh.

Valentine Michael Smith, Part 3, Chapter 29

Smith's most important breakthrough is when he understands humor and learns to laugh. Without being able to laugh, Smith is missing something crucial about being human. But one day, while observing monkeys at the zoo, he sees monkeys being cruel to each other. In that moment, he laughs. He explains: "I saw all the mean and cruel ... things ... and suddenly it hurt so much I found myself laughing."

The important understanding is that humor is rooted not in goodness and happiness, but in pain. Humans laugh because the laughter alleviates some of the pain: "I grok it is a bravery," he tells Jill, "against pain and sorrow and defeat." Heinlein thus equates laughter with catharsis, similar to the way the existentialists Camus and Sartre saw the absurdity of life as its tragedy.


But art is the process of evoking pity and terror.

Jubal Harshaw, Part 4, Chapter 30

Among many other topics, Jubal has opinions on art. As he lectures Ben Caxton on true art, he shows several examples, all of which have their roots in tragedy. Aristotle defined the proper response to tragedy as pity and terror, evoking a catharsis in its audience.


Geniuses are ... always indifferent to sexual customs of the tribe; they make their own rules.

Jubal Harshaw, Part 4, Chapter 33

Jubal defends Smith's countercultural sexual morality. He appeals to Smith's innocence and to his intelligence, encouraging him to follow his instincts rather than cultural mores.


They were discorporated and sent back to the foot of the line to try again.

Valentine Michael Smith, Part 5, Chapter 36

Periodically the narrative perspective shifts to heaven. Readers get to see the late Bishop Digby working as a junior angel under the supervision of the deceased Reverend Foster. These interludes reveal that those who die do not stop existing but continue to exist and sometimes make another voyage through earthly life. Smith takes a casual attitude to killing criminals and shady government agents, in part because of his understanding of immortality, and in part because he sees himself as "a referee removing a player for 'unnecessary roughness.'"

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