Stranger in a Strange Land

by: Robert A. Heinlein

Motifs

Main ideas Motifs

The Cosmic Perspective

Throughout the book, the narration often steps back from the daily concerns of its characters and plot mechanics to tell us about seemingly unrelated events on Earth and Mars. Sometimes this cosmic viewpoint takes in centuries of histories in a few sentences, other times it tells us of minor events. Almost always this viewpoint is employed at the beginnings of chapters. Narration that can shift so easily and nonchalantly from a massive historical perspective to focusing on minutiae strewn across the galaxy would seem to represent a perspective that only a God-like figure could have. By regularly telescoping out from the concerns of Mike's story to show us what is afoot throughout the cosmos, Heinlein gives us a sense that a higher power is observing events unfold. This notion is reinforced by the inclusion, in Chapter XXV, of Heaven amongst the novel's scheme of locales. Though omniscient narration is conventional in much fiction, Heinlein boosts omniscience to an absurd level by allowing his readers equally clear vision of Earth and Mars, history and trivia, the physical and the metaphysical. It is almost as if Heinlein had taken Mike's credo—"Thou art God!"—as an imperative for his narrative voice.

Rhetorical Argument

Most of the novel's story unfolds in dialogue, and the majority of its philosophical theses are proposed within conversations. Though most of these conversations occur between friends, and there is a good deal of kidding and friendliness interspersed throughout, the bulk of their discussion is about serious matters—politics, religion, individual responsibility, love, and the nature of man. Jubal Harshaw, particularly, has a tendency to engage in conversations wherein he posits a philosophy that surprises his companion, and then Jubal sets about steamrolling the companion with his wisdom. As a former lawyer, and practicing fiction writer, Jubal is adept at using rhetoric to advance his theories about life. Much of the entertainment value of the novel comes from the witty, compelling ways Jubal couches his arguments.

Martianisms

The Martian ways of thought, we are told, are entirely foreign to our own. Since we know that we could never truly understand them, the Martians remain extremely mysterious throughout the book. Nonetheless, a few Martian concepts do seem to be roughly translatable into English, and they become mantras for both Mike and his followers. First and foremost of course is "grok," the one genuinely Martian word that can be said and understood in English. The basic meaning is "understand deeply," though as Mahmoud explains in Chapter XXI, it has many applications and connotations in the original Martian. By giving us this foreign word and suggesting that it has deeper meanings than we can fully appreciate, Heinlein cleverly allows us to invest our own meaning into "grok," and by extension the Martian mindset. Other Martian-like phrases that Mike popularize include "I am just an egg," "waiting is," and the ubiquitous "Thou art God!"