Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land: What IS the Symbolism of Tattooing and Snakes?
September 11, 2004 2:09 AM   Subscribe

From Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein:

"Jill, you've read some abnormal psychology."
"Yes, of course. In training. Not as much as you have, I know."
"Do you know the symbolism of tattooing? And snakes?"
"Of course. I knew that about Patty as soon as I met her. I had been hoping that you would find a way."

Now, as someone who has been wanting to be a crazy tattooed lady since she was five, what's the symbolism?
posted by Katemonkey to Writing & Language (17 answers total)
Absolute conjecture, but the most obvious Western/Freudian symbolism seems: tattooing = penetration; snake = penis?

But here's a really good page on Symbolism and Iconography of the Serpent for a fairly comprehensive overview of snakypoo. In looking at the significance of tattooing, the answer would have been different at the time the book was written than it is today, of course. This medicine.net dictionary entry says "In the Western world, tattooing has historically served as a brand of criminality, a sign of shame (like "The Scarlet Letter" of Nathaniel Hawthorne), a tradition dating back at least to the biblical mark of Cain."
posted by taz at 2:44 AM on September 11, 2004

Given that Heinlein was something of a perv, I bet I can guess: Tattood chicks put out. The snake means she really likes it.
posted by jaded at 5:10 AM on September 11, 2004

I asked a couple of my female friends with snake tattoos what it signified to them.

Both responded without even pondering:

"It means I give in to dangerous temptation"

Whether this is the reference that Heinlein was pointing to or not, I have no idea, but for 2 women from different parts of the world to come up with the same response seemed odd to me.

The women don't know each other either, AFAIK.
posted by kamylyon at 7:13 AM on September 11, 2004

Well there's the obvious Biblical and Freudian symbolism, and here's a Jungian analyst's article on snake symbolism: The Praying Serpent: The Psychology of an Image - in short for Jung the snake guards and represents the deepest instinctive unconscious.

Tattooing, I don't know about.
posted by nicwolff at 7:42 AM on September 11, 2004

(my not-helpful response: I've always been confused by questions about what something symbolizes. Surely symbols are either really obvious or they are totally open to individual interpretation -- and, for any given person, they might not be symbols at all. In other words, I might not connect the tattoo to anything, in which case -- for me -- it doesn't act as a symbol.

A symbol is one object that acts as a token for another object, no?

So if I write "I need to go to the barber and let him wrestle with this great shaggy carpet on my head," I'm using "carpet" as a symbol for hair. And I think that relationship (carpet/hair) will be obvious to most readers.

But what does it mean to ask, "what does the whale in 'Moby Dick' symbolize?" Does it mean, what does it stand for in the author's mind? Does it mean, what is the object that most readers will associate with it? Does it mean, what subconscious connections will most people make when thinking of it? Does it mean, what connections have prominent scholars made with it?"

I have huge problems with all of these possibilities: we can't know, for sure, what the author intended (even if he wrote an essay or gave an interview, we can't know that he was honest) and, in any case, why should we care? Reading is a different experience from writing, and we are different people from the author.

We can't know -- unless we take some huge survey -- what associations most people will make. Even if we did take a survey and found out that most people thought of the whale as Jesus (or whatever), why should we care? Surely most of us read to have a personal experience -- not to keep up with the Joneses.

Subconscious connections? Where's the evidence that we all make the same ones. Surely my life experiences will govern what my mind links to whales. So little is known about how the subconscious mind works (or even if it DOES work) that it seems strange to pin a literary theory on such dubious science.

So a major scholar says that the whale symbolizes Original Sin (or whatever). Okay. So what? Presumably he's saying that is what HIS mind conjures up when he thinks of the whale. What does that have to do with anyone else's mind and why is it important?
I recognize that there are certain symbolic relationships that become a sort of shorthand (i.e. injokes) in highbrow crowds. Sometimes scholars like to point these out to assert their membership in the Highbrow Club. But what does that really have to do with the pleasure or reading, thinking, feeling and living?)
posted by grumblebee at 8:48 AM on September 11, 2004

I was going to try to answer grumblebee's question in a paragraph or two, but found myself completely unable to so limit things. Instead I'll try just a few words: context, collective unconscious, cultural mores, iconography, convention, and precedent.

Also, I'll say that the 1:1 relationship between a referand (i.e. the whale) so perfect that it conjures in the mind of everyone the ideal image of the referant (original sin, etc.) is something we call the Platonic ideal. As with many ideals, it is probably impossible to reach. Symbols are meant to evoke feelings, not act as perfect corporeal stand-ins for idealized abstract concepts.

To say "The Whale means original sin" is both a simplification and immensely boring. Instead say, "For me the Whale evokes feelings of majesty, danger, and unreachability. Just as we catch only glimpses of the whale's back, and only then for seconds at a time, so too do I get the feeling that we see Ahab's humanitfy for only brief periods blah blah blah..."

Of course symbols evoke different things for different people. That's why books are fun to discuss with others, and that's why its interesting to read books at different points in your life - you may discover some entirely new things.

As to "experts" telling you what symbols mean, much of this is based upon literary precedent and scholarship. What did a snake mean as symbol to the society the writer was from? Would the author have been influenced by religious icons and symbolism? How might the author's personal life shaped his feelings on love? How is this symbol similar/different to others he has used? What other authors might he have read and been influenced by? To say that questions like these can't help us get a better grasp of the author's intent is riiiiiiiiidiculous.
posted by ChasFile at 9:26 AM on September 11, 2004

So if I write "I need to go to the barber and let him wrestle with this great shaggy carpet on my head," I'm using "carpet" as a symbol for hair.

No, of course not, and you know this, G. "Carpet" is never going to by a symbol for hair. You were using a metaphor, obviously. A symbol is a single image or entity that represents and compresses the multiple associations of a vital idea. This can only be accomplished via some sort of implicit or historical agreement (usually varying somewhat among different cultures), or, if we are to believe certain argonauts of the psyche, by way of a kind of universal collective unconscious. In any case, it doesn't mean that a cigar is more than a cigar, but it does mean that a snake might be more than a snake.
posted by taz at 9:31 AM on September 11, 2004

well presumably katemonekey believes (and it seems to me a reasonable belief) that heinlein intended to convey something to the reader, based on some "standard" interpretation of the symbolism that he mentions. in that case, either katemonkey (and i) is unaware of an interpretation that is common in society (in this context, american/western society, presumably) or the interpretation has passed from common knowledge. in either case, someone here might provide an answer that would help her (and me) understand what heinlein was trying to convey and, so, influence her (and my) pleasure in reading, thinking, and living.

so is it ok if we get back to answering the question now?
posted by andrew cooke at 9:33 AM on September 11, 2004

a metaphor is a type of symbol. Ok, back to the question.
posted by grumblebee at 10:07 AM on September 11, 2004

Not that this answers the question directly, but Jun'ichiro Tanizaki has a short story about this which explores women and tattos in more detail. The story is called "The Tattooer" available in Seven Japanese Tales. As a young woman receives more and more tattoos she changes from a submisive doll to a dominating seductress. Tattooing also acts as a mark of change in several cultures as well, not just another symbol of penetration (although these 2 are interconnected- a permanent Scarlet Letter of sorts). More than likely a wild conjecture on my part, but the tattoo as mark of overcoming/ defeat is an alternate to the Freudian view which almost seems too cliche to use.
posted by rodz at 10:22 AM on September 11, 2004

When I hear "snake tattoo", I think of The X-Files, and the episode with Scully's experiences with the Ouroboros tattoo motif--a snake eating its tail, symbolizing life-->death-->life.
posted by Asparagirl at 10:38 AM on September 11, 2004

Tangentially: googling for Stranger unearthed this cache of SF PDFs, including Stranger.

The tattooed lady is a carnival performer:

In place of a tattooed man the show had a tattooed lady who was also a snake charmer and for the blow-off (at another half dollar per mark) she appeared "absolutely nude! .. clothed only in bare living flesh in exotic designs!"-and any mark who could find one square inch below her neckline untattooed would be awarded a twenty dollar bill.

Her tattoos reflect her faith:

she was serene in her conviction that she was the canvas for religious art greater than any on the walls or ceilings of the Vatican.

Jubal (another character) also appears to believe that the full-body tattooing is some sort of mental aberration, as well:

He knew enough about the syndrome which can lead to full tattooing to be quite sure that if he did not now remark on them and ask to be allowed to examine them, she would be very hurt even though she might conceal it.

Therefore I conclude that while RAH deliberately set out to depict the character of Pat as the sanest, most well-adapted of Mike's crew (she is also described as the "high priestess" and helps lead the way into Mike's polyamorous utopia), there was indeed a commonly-held view of at least full-body tats as some sort of psychological aberration.

Perhaps a psych diagnostic manual, circa 1955, might shed further light.

Regarding snakes and the fact that Pat is a snake charmer, that's kinda obvious, I'm gonna have to say.
posted by mwhybark at 11:21 AM on September 11, 2004

mwhybark -- I knew there was another reference to tattooing being part of a "syndrome", but I couldn't remember where it was -- thanks!

Yeah. I know the symbolism of the snake, but the tattooing symbolism has pretty much lost me since I first read it back when I was a teenager. What syndrome? Is this something I should've taken abnormal psych in college to understand or is Heinlein just talking out of his ass again?
posted by Katemonkey at 12:37 PM on September 11, 2004

Given the context of the references, he's basically just saying that she is narcissistic. Given that RAH embraces a healthy self-absorption, that lines up. Is there / was there a specific form of socially recognized madness that involved putting on an ink suit? I have no idea.

I suspect that Heinlein is seeking to involve the reader by referring to obscure things as if the reader is expected to know what he's talking about. He flatters you and aligns your viewpoint with that of his characters, who clearly do think that there's some sort of gentle madness involved.

Keeping in mind that the book is also about a madman, he's also undermining the viewpoint - and therefore having both ways, which could well be construed as talking out of his ass.
posted by mwhybark at 1:01 PM on September 11, 2004


posted by mwhybark at 1:02 PM on September 11, 2004

I read it that Patty was an exhibitionist. Funny, that passage comes to mind often, when I see excess tatoos on folks today.
posted by Goofyy at 11:18 PM on September 11, 2004

grumblebee: Subconscious connections? Where's the evidence that we all make the same ones.

The evidence is not sequestered in a vault, nor is it even a secret, or obscure, or even very controversial. Taking even the vaugest, most cursory, superficial glance at anything by Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell is a good beginning. The basic idea is that diverse cultures with little or no contact with one another often come up with similar symbols to mean similar things. A lot of writers use those symbols on purpose in order to provoke a visceral reaction. And, even if they don't use them on purpose, the idea is that they're choosing those images due to their close connection to the collective subconsciousness.

So little is known about how the subconscious mind works (or even if it DOES work) that it seems strange to pin a literary theory on such dubious science.

What's the "dubious science" you're referring to? Psychology? Anthropology? History? Comparative literature? And what's the "literary theory" that's being "pinned"? Naturalism? Structuralism? Deconstructionism? Or is it the new hybrid all-encompassing theory of "meaningful symbolism"? Why, the nerve of those brash academics who would go a step further and suggest a connection to that other dubious and seldom-examined field, "themes recurring in storytelling around the globe since as far back as we can find records."
posted by bingo at 10:23 AM on September 12, 2004

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