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Tropic of Cancer

Tropic of Cancer


by Henry Miller

Diseases and other Ailments

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Let's start by taking a look at some of the nasty stuff that goes down in Tropic of Cancer:

  • Syphilis
  • The Clap
  • Lice
  • Bedbugs

Had enough? Just about everyone in this book has some grotesque bodily issue. Miller lists them all, returning again and again to what happens to people who are poor and associate with prostitutes.

Henry also experiences disease in his own body and mind—but it's all part of his grand experience of getting down and dirty: "I'm walking about like a leper with crabs gnawing at my entrails" (3.4). Yeah, he doesn't really seem to bothered by it. All of the filth, infection, and infestation seem to be part of his work as a writer.

It might be that Henry welcomes all the ugliness because he sees it as one of the few ways to get close to the grit of life:

Everyone has a private tragedy. It's in the blood now—misfortune, ennui, grief, suicide. The atmosphere is saturated with disaster, frustration, futility […] However the effect on me is exhilarating […] I want the whole world to be out of whack, I want everyone to scratch himself to death" (1.41)
Okay, so it may not be the nicest thing to wish on people, but to Henry, it's better than walking around with your senses dull and your character unchallenged. Bottom line, Henry loves ugliness because it's real life.

Tropic of Cancer

Yeah, it's called Tropic of Cancer for a reason. Disease is a big deal.

But have you noticed that the book connects disease with something in particular? Women. Yep. Sometimes subtly and other times not so subtly, Miller equates women, sex, and death. It's hard not to see syphilis, the clap, and a host of other sexually transmittable disease as an inevitable result of all that great sexual freedom, but it still seems a little harsh.

And you can be sure that many critics have jumped on Miller for his natural association between women and disease. It may comfort you to know that even his long-time lover, Anaïs Nin, criticized his attitude toward women as a disease in itself. Zing.

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