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Literary Criticism: Stranger in a Strange Land

Updated on July 14, 2013


Critic's Note

 This is a piece that began as a praise piece for a book, as well as for an author I truly love. By the end, I was shocked by how much I missed. I still love this book, but need to share with you what I have found. This is a work about gender and I believe that a lot of what I missed was due to my mindset at the time of my readings. What makes this book great is that I can become as offended as I was by an aspect, yet, find that it only leads to a better understanding of the time in which it was written as much as to the mind of the author. We may only speculate what occurs in another's mind, but when we find something that offends, we should ask ourselves why, rather than dismiss. I hope any that read this will revisit the book, because I found far more good than bad though this critic may reflect otherwise.


Critics and Science Fiction

A Strange Land: Jubal Harshaw and the Criticisms of a Novel

It would be hard pressed to disagree with many of the gender criticisms when it comes to Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. First published in 1961, the structure of the family and place of women within the novel reek of the 1950’s nuclear family. The overt meek nature of the female characters and the patriarchal sovereignty of the novel’s Jubal Harshaw shadow the brilliance of the author’s treatment of the prejudice, racism, and the paranoia that defined the era. The 1950’s recall a “Golden Age” in America, despite the advent of many films which depict the terror of the McCarthy hearings and the constant fear of nuclear attack. Stranger in a Strange Land does not allow the error of aging memory to taint the core fears that people have tried to forget. By staging the plot in the future, Heinlein is able to direct attacks on the approach of religion by his rendering of the Fosterites, the use of the Secretary General of the World Federation, and even a slippery usage of the English language itself. Moreover, when it does come to gender, Heinlein is not as unforgiving as one might think. It might be safe to say that Heinlein was not a feminist, but the women who surround Jubal Harshaw play a much more active role to the success of the central characters in the book than one might think.

In order for any character to contain depth, it is necessary for that character to possess flaws. The flaws enable the reader to relate to the character on a human level. Since we all possess traits and opinions that are less than flattering, seeing said traits embellished, or at least expressed, comforts our human frailty and provide us common ground with well written characters. Jubal Harshaw exemplifies just such character. For Jubal Harshaw, his weakness is vanity and this vanity leads to the make-up of what he considers his “family.” There are two ways of dealing with a particular character’s flaws, either tragically or comedically; in the case of Harshaw, Heinlein invokes the comedic approach. At the character’s introduction in Chapter 10, he is surrounded by beautiful women splashing in the pool at his home in the Poconos.

At the end of the first paragraph it states:

“In Harshaw’s opinion the principle of least action required that utility and beauty be combined” (pg. 81).

At the end of the following paragraph the narrator says:

“[Harshaw] claimed that his method of writing was to hook his gonads in parallel with his thalamus and disconnect his cerebrum” (pg. 81).

This facilitates the ridiculous nature of Harshaw. If an author wants to have a character be his or her own soapbox, it is necessary to have that character be somewhat humorous. This guise permeates Heinlein’s approach. This misdirection exercised by the author allows him to pontificate boundlessly rather offensive opinions, albeit embellished.

In addition, this develops a sense of eccentricity that separates Harshaw from the rest of the people included in the story. Despite, the numerous accolades the author attributes to the man (LL.B., M.D., and Sc.D.), Heinlein has introduced a character that is unwilling to do anything. Harshaw’s idea of work involves not thinking. By positioning Harshaw in the manner, Heinlein indirectly states that to be successful in the modern world, one must rid his self of his evolutionary gift of cognizant thought. This might be construed merely as opinion, but Harshaw, by far, is the most accomplished character in the novel. He embodies the financial, theological, and philosophical success of any man in history.

Yet, this sits in juxtaposition to the amount of thinking Harshaw must have done to receive his various degrees. It is this supposed Renaissance Man ideal that not only Harshaw excelled in, but renders much of his aversion. This offsets his attention to beauty. Later in the story, the hero Michael Valentine Smith wanting to give Harshaw a gift, finds that Jubal has an obsession for Rodin fountains. Harshaw holds an appreciation for the aesthetic, thus creating a complex, semi-omnipresent-god-like-figure in which the author uses as a way to make scandalous remarks about the world. Heinlein creates this super-intelligent, cantankerous old man that wins the hearts of the reader through his unabashed honesty—but do not confuse honesty with truth. The difficulty arises when the reader may become enamored by the old man. His constant mock humility disguises itself within Harshaw’s self-deprecating moments where he states his mortality.

One glaring problem of the book is the author’s use of women; the women in the book are subjugated to men—surprisingly, they play a very active role—by the end of the book, there is a much larger acceptance of their place. Despite each woman needing to perform secretarial work for Harshaw, they constantly berate the man with patronizing comments and mother-like affection. Each woman is described as different in color hair, skin tone, and talents. Where Anne is a Fair Witness (a person who has complete recall and is trained as a perfect observer, he or she never speculates on what is seen), Dorcas is motherly and full of feeling. Miriam on the other hand is very playful. Their descriptions place them as physically different whether it be tall to short and skinny to plump. Though each is given an ethnicity, it is tough to differentiate between them until the end of the book. Even the introduction of Jill (who becomes Smith’s counterpart) seems to melt into this oddly constructed family.

Heinlein’s choice for description and capabilities serve to show the idiocy of prejudices. Though their jobs are subjected to the whims of Harshaw, they are necessary for him to survive. Like a child, he is cranky and spoiled. When the women have had enough of his antics, they fight back. At the first meal that entailed Jill and Valentine Michael Smith, Harshaw begins to complain about the dinner that was served. After a few words between Anne, Dorcas, and Miriam they get up and proceed to let Harshaw know who is really in charge. It says, “Anne took his feet, each of the others his arm; French doors slid aside; they carried him out, squawking. The squawking ended in a splash” (pg. 87-88).

It is easy to think that due to his many degrees, Harshaw is the head of the house. In many ways, he controls the fate of the plot. His expertise drives the events that lead to the conclusion. Yet, in contrast, the women only allow so much grumbling. This temporary exercising of power lend forgiveness to their subjugated positions as secretaries. Yet, this harkens back to Scheherazade in Arabian Nights. She hold dominion over the King for as long as she continues to tell him stories. She holds power, but it is tenuous at best, subject to the King finally coming to his senses. She saves the women of the kingdom by baring an heir. How do the women of Stranger in a StrangeLand save themselves? By joining Smith’s new religion or getting married. Due to the fact that the women are Harshaw’s employees, he in essence, equates to their King Shahryar.

In fact, it is from the mouth of Jill that the most offensive comment is derived. Jill and Valentine Michael Smith travel the country trying to educate the Martian born human. They discuss the way desperate men act when taunted by a woman. Jill concludes her opinion by stating, “Nine times out of ten, if the girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault” (pg.304). This is pure cowardice on the part of the author. This is similar to the way Heinlein uses Harshaw to explicate opinion. By invoking the opinion through the voice of a female character, Heinlein is able to express something he knew would sustain ridicule. And since it is expressed by a woman, it effectively dilutes a rather deplorable opinion. Then, as if to make leeway for this comment, there is the hidden fallacious statistics of “nine out of ten” and the word “partly.” I do believe that a reader should always take into consideration the time in which a work is written. A racist remark, a gender bias statement, all should be thought of in the context of the time. Nevertheless, such remarks are indicative of 1950’s America, the black stain behind the white apron if you will.

Even with the ambiguous posturing toward women, Heinlein had his finger on the time. Women were gaining respect in the United States and the Cold War was at an all time high. The ideas of international relations in space are what begin the book. He incorporates laws that are in effect today. Though the story does contain habitation of the moon, it was precisely America’s arrival on Luna that led to today’s law that the moon cannot be claimed by any country. This use of realistic outcomes lend to a timelessness that is no longer given to the book. More importantly, the idea of communism taking over the United States seemed about as foreign to this country's citizens as life on Mars.

Smith, toward the end of the book, creates a religion based on his Martian upbringing. In a conversation between Harshaw and Ben Caxton, the two men speak on what happens on at Smith’s “Church.” Ben tells Harshaw that most of the school teaches the Martian language. When Ben expresses that he wished they would not call it a church Harshaw replies:

“…a skating rink is a church—as long as some sect claims skating is essential to worship—or even that skating served a desirable function. If you can sing glory of God, you can skate to the same end…but the same High Court rules them to be ‘churches’ as protects our own sects” (pg. 331)

This use of a religious loop hole in the government expresses how the simple act of immersion into a culture may open a person’s eyes to the possibility that what they think is an enemy may really be a friend, or at least useful to the fulfillment of one’s life. The people who join Smith’s church primarily learn Martian and by learning Martian, enable themselves to gain the benefits of that culture.

Setting aside the distortions of economy, Heinlein goes to considerable trouble to attack organized religion. The primary enemy of Harshaw is the Fosterites. The Fosterites imitate Mormonism, but Heinlein is not attacking them alone. He uses the stereotypes of Mormons (their happy demeanor, structure of modern day prophet, and market strategies) and utilize the titles of the Catholic hierarchy. Harshaw constantly refers to how he almost became a preacher in his youth and how a good preacher and a used car salesman have more in common than people think. During Valentine Michael Smith’s researching of the religions of earth, he comments on how every religion is exclusionary. He then becomes confused about how all the major religions are so similar, but yet condone violence after preaching peace. In particular are Harshaw’s words, he says:

“But being religious is often a form of conceit. The faith in which I was brought up assured me that I was better than other people;…we were in a state of grace and the rest were heathen’…Ignorant louts who seldom bathed and planted corn by the Moon claimed to know the final answers of the universe” (pg. 241).

The passage is not a condemnation of faith, but rather one on the idea of organized religion, not entirely a new one, but certainly a humorous representation. It is rather interesting and not rather surprising that a science fiction writer finds fault in religion due to its lack of reason or rational application.

It should be said that the book was not an exercise on gender roles. The message was intended to speak of a world unfamiliar to its reader. The place of women, the role of women, mirrors that of the late 50’s and the early 60’s in America. It saddens me though since the book does an excellent job of prophesying the direction of race and religion as well as the role of government. Stranger in a StrangeLand is a well-written book that suffers greatly for the ease to which the author displaces women. Still, coming from a period in history when the United States felt that nuclear annihilation was just around the corner, President Johnson’s New Society was three years off, and free love resided in grammar school, it does an excellent job of dealing with the issues that existed at the forefront. It just might take a human, alienated by a crashed spacecraft to bandage the scars humans have inflicted on one another. The eccentricities of Jubal Harshaw might just well end up providing us with a better understanding of ourselves, even if they are parts of us we do not want to face. Yet, the story provides a useful argument for the purpose of skepticism. It is true that no religion has gotten it right just yet and with the political climate in the shape it is in now allows us to revisit this work and take a fresh look at an old idea. That is… if we can look into the author’s flaws and see ourselves so that we may become better people—because in the end, I do believe that was his purpose as it should be ours.

The Verdict...

So what is the final take?

See results


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    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Excellent understanding of the delima of this book concerning gender.

    • Hi-Jinks profile image


      10 years ago from Wisconsin

      I am writing a novel about Mars with a female protagonist. Check out my Hubs on Character.

    • twalker74 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tyson Walker 

      10 years ago from Las Vegas Nevada

      Thanks Dohn. It makes me very happy to hear it. There is much to learn from what literature has to offer. At the very least, it is an insight as to how people viewed their world at that time. Heinlein is brilliant in his own right, but just as any of us, he has his faults. This is only a facet of his world. I would highly recommend this book to anyone. His views on society are an excellent study into how the past anticipated today.

    • dohn121 profile image


      10 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

      What a fascinating take on "Stranger in a Strange Land," twalker74. Although I haven't yet read it, I now feel as I don't have to (but will just as soon as I can). Just the other day, I had an argument with a close friend of mine about Orwell's "1984" and about how his lessons are still applicable in today's modern society. If each of us can look at the classics of the past, I think that all of us can better prepare ourselves for the inevitable future. I really enjoyed reading this!


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