Stranger in a Strange Land | Study Guide

Robert A. Heinlein

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Stranger in a Strange Land | Themes



Language is one of the core themes of the novel, and key to its premise. When Valentine Michael Smith arrives on Earth, he is physically human, but mentally Martian. His thoughts are shaped by the language he has learned. A conversation between Dr. Mahmoud and Jubal Harshaw in Part 2, Chapter 21 summarizes the argument. Dr. Mahmoud says Smith has a different "map" of reality because he thinks in Martian. Jubal covers this idea in simple language: "Language itself shapes a man's basic ideas." Dr. Mahmoud goes on to elaborate on the difference between human and Martian language by explaining Martian is far more complex than English, "and so wildly different in how it abstracts its picture of the universe" that English and other human languages seem like one language in comparison. The struggle Smith faces, then, is not simply learning new words to express known concepts, but to find ways to communicate truths that can be expressed in Martian but cannot be expressed in human language. Words and phrases used in the novel, such as "grok" and "Thou art God" are expressions of basic Martian concepts using inadequate English words. In order to understand them, one must learn Martian.

The abilities that Smith has—including slowing his heart rate and respiration at will, making things disappear, levitating objects, and walking around out of his body—are not super powers. They are available to him because he thinks in Martian. These abilities are not unusual in Martians, but as matter-of-fact as making toast in a toaster. Not only is his entire understanding of reality different, but his thoughts actually shape his reality. Smith slowly comes to realize that the pain humans live in is a function of their inability to grasp certain facts. This lack is entirely due to the limitations of their thinking due to limitations of language. All of the questions humanity seeks to answer in religion, philosophy, and science are already answered, but the answers are in Martian and are therefore inaccessible to humans. Thus when Smith starts his "religion," it is primarily a language school. The countercultural behaviors that result are an effect of learning Martian, not a social poor moral code.


What it means to be human is almost always a theme in science fiction. The genre allows an exaggerated view of the concepts of race, nationality, war, culture, and language by taking these out of their smaller, Earth-bound or time-bound contexts and letting situations play out on a universal or galaxy-wide scale. Stranger in a Strange Land approaches the subject of "what is a human" by presenting the reader with a human who grows to adulthood not only learning a wildly different language but also free of an earthly culture. Cultural norms, then, are missing in Smith.

The question is, then: Is Smith a human if he lacks the language and the cultural norms that seem so bound up in human identity? Captain van Tromp, who brings Smith back from Mars, says he is not human: "Smith is an intelligent creature with the ancestry of a man, but he is more Martian than man ... He thinks like a Martian, feels like a Martian ... He's a man by ancestry, a Martian by environment" (Part 1, Chapter 3). Later, as Jubal Harshaw attempts to define what a human is, he says "Man is the animal who laughs" (Part 2, Chapter 14). Smith concludes he must not be a man, since he does not laugh. When he finally "groks" humor and learns to laugh, it is seen as a big step in his journey toward being more human.

Smith never becomes fully "human" in this sense. He does become more human as he learns human language and groks human ways of thinking. But near the end of the novel, his conversation about humanity illuminates other important characteristics of humans. One is that they reproduce sexually in an act that brings not just offspring but "growing closer." Smith comes to believe this is a unique characteristic it would be unfortunate to lose. He worries the Martian Old Ones will destroy Earth before they grok the beauty of human sexuality. Another characteristic is humanity's adaptability. Jubal comforts Smith by pointing out he's been able to make positive change because some humans are willing and able to learn what he has to teach. Over time, this will transform the human race so they are better equipped to face outside threats.

Culture and Morality

Closely tied to the examination of what it means to be human is the theme of culture and morality—how culture shapes one's idea of what is right and what is wrong. Valentine Michael Smith is physically human but culturally Martian. Ideas about what is normal family structure, normal parental behavior, and normal reproductive practice are not normal to Smith. Rather, they are completely unfamiliar and go against his upbringing. Things that are moral or right on Mars are considered immoral in modern Earth cultures, although Jubal makes the argument in several places for different moral codes among Earth cultures as well. For example, on Mars, it is normal for parents to leave their offspring in harsh outdoor conditions and only raise the few that survive. It is normal for Martians to intentionally "discorporate," or die, to provide food for others. Cannibalism is not taboo—it is everyday practice. Martian Old Ones destroy a whole planet and consider it art. These are all practices many Earth cultures would consider immoral or taboo.

The Fosterite religion is another way the novel tackles the subject of morality—this time by the connection between religion and ideas of right and wrong. For Fosterites, the "sin" is not in the action but in the intent or experience of the person doing the action. So many of the practices—gambling, murder, sexual promiscuity, drunkenness—other religions consider sinful are deemed, by Fosterites, as acceptable. They are acceptable if the intent is to be happy and are done with other believers. The message of both Fosterites and Smith's Church of All Worlds is similar in this respect. If there is nothing inside a person that says (either from belief or from culture) an action is wrong, it isn't wrong.

Art and Beauty

The theme of art and beauty is woven into the fabric of the novel. Jubal's sculptures range from what is considered superficially beautiful to what might be seen as ugly. Yet he considers them to be great art. When he describes them, he is clearly moved by their great beauty. Smith, when first introduced to Rodin's sculpture La Belle Heaulmière, says with certainty, "It is beauty ... She has her own face. I grok." Smith notes this idea about a person having their "own face" several times in the novel. The individual, with his or her own story, tragedies, and sense of self, gains beauty along with experience.

Patty's tattoos are another example of art—this time religious art. As a devout Fosterite, her tattoos tell the story of Foster's life and ministry. The artwork was created by her husband, George, who now works as an artist in heaven. This suggests being an artist is an inherent trait in a person, fundamental to their identity and so part of their existence even in eternity.

Martian art is the other main example of art in the novel. The Old Ones devote a large percentage of their "time" to making and "cherishing" art. The main difference between Martian and human art is that Martian art is what humans would consider real. For example, as a work of "art," Martians destroyed the fifth planet of the solar system. In contrast, humans create fiction, such as Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (Part 2, Chapter 7), and paintings and sculptures of characters from fiction (e.g., The Little Mermaid).

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Questions for Themes

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