Stranger in a Strange Land | Study Guide

Robert A. Heinlein

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Stranger in a Strange Land | Symbols



Valentine Michael Smith was raised on a planet without oceans and abundant water. He is caught off guard by how casually humans on Earth take it for granted. To him, it is a potent symbol of life and community. When Jill first offers him a drink of water, he interprets it as a symbolic act of offering to share lives and selves. And when she later wants him to take a bath, he becomes overwhelmed by emotion. "This brother wanted him to place his whole body in the water of life ... to the best of his knowledge no one had ever been offered such a privilege" (Part 1, Chapter 8). Smith's sincerity in taking "water brotherhood" is serious. It is so compelling to those around him, water begins to take on this symbolic meaning for them all. "Sharing Water" becomes the term for sharing of self, regardless of whether actual water is present. It is such a strong symbol even the idea of it can carry the full symbolic weight. Smith learns that "water was symbol for essence—beautiful but not indispensable." That is, sharing selves is possible both with and without water, but its beauty is enhanced by water.

Smith's Name

Valentine Michael Smith's name is an obvious reference to St. Valentine, the patron saint of love, who was martyred via beheading. So Smith's name indicates that he has come to bring love to Earth and that he will be killed for his efforts. His middle name is symbolic of the archangel Michael. In the Judeo-Christian traditions, Michael is an angelic warrior who defeats Satan when he rebels against God. He is also expected to announce the second coming of Christ. So Smith's arrival on Earth could be viewed as the onset of a new era. Finally, his generic last name symbolizes his status as "everyman." Despite his special status, any person can be Valentine Michael Smith if they follow his teachings.


In the novel, Jubal Harshaw is a big fan of sculpture. Smith buys him full-size replicas of several sculptures as gifts throughout the novel, and several are discussed in detail. Three sculptures are discussed in particular: Caryatid Who Has Fallen under Her Stone, La Belle Heaulmière by French artist Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), and Little Mermaid by Danish sculptor Edvard Eriksen (1876–1959). These are all Jubal's favorites before Valentine Michael Smith ever enters the scene. However, they take on symbolic meaning as Jubal sees Smith in them.

Caryatid Who Has Fallen under Her Stone shows a caryatid. This is one of the female figures carved in Greek architecture that formed parts of its support structure, taking the place of a pillar or column. These figures appeared to be holding up parts of the building. In Rodin's sculpture, the weight of the stone she was supporting proves to be too much. She has fallen under it though she appears to still be trying to lift it. Jubal comes to see this as a symbol of Smith's attempt to bring freedom and joy to humans. The task is large, and it may end up crushing him.

La Belle Heaulmière depicts an old woman, ravaged by the effects of time. Jubal sees in her the beautiful young girl she used to be. He attributes this to Rodin's great artistic genius. A great artist like Rodin can "make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo see that this lovely young girl is still alive, prisoned inside her ruined body." Jubal uses this sculpture to give opinions on what makes a great artist. Yet this sculpture shows the tragedy of the passage of time. It is just this pain and tragedy from which Smith attempts to free people when he starts his religion.

The Little Mermaid shows a young woman sitting on a rock overlooking the sea, gazing out over the water. Jubal sees in her a symbol of Smith's fate as a person between worlds—not Martian, but not truly human either. He notes she gave up her home to become human, but the "cost is not only endless homesickness. She can never be quite human; when she uses her dearly bought feet, every step is on sharp knives."

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