And we're not the first to say it. American writer, literary and social critic Edmund Wilson lays it out for us:
The tone of the book is undoubtedly low; Tropic of Cancer, in fact, from the point of view both of its happenings and of the language in which they are conveyed, is the lowest book of any real literary merit that I have ever remember to have read. (Source, 185)
But what we love about Miller's writing is that he can jump from low to high and back again in a matter of words. Hey, in the middle of an elegy to penises ("The whale with his six-foot penis in repose" [1.9]) you might just want and elegy to Paris ("Paris. Paris. Everything happens here" [1.56]). You never know.
Just don't be on the lookout for consistency here. Because everything is up in Henry's head, we get a lot of half-baked, semi-delusional sentences that express fear and joy all in one place. The one thing it all has in common? Cynicism. According to Henry, things aren't looking so good for America, Paris, or civilization as we know it.
You're probably not surprised to hear that Tropic of Cancer doesn't fit snugly into one genre category. Miller is all over the map, just as he intended.
We've definitely got some autobiography going on, as it is the story—however embellished—of Henry Miller's life in Paris. But we also know that our author adds and subtracts at will. So fictionalized autobiography might be more accurate.
For example, Miller's long-time affair with Anaïs Nin goes completely unmentioned. Sure, some critics have identified Tania as a stand-in for Nin, since almost all of the characters in the book are roughly based on real-life people from his time in Paris. But because we know Nin was a major part of his life—she gave him a typewriter and funded him with cash from her rich husband, Otto (a source of income that goes conspicuously without mention here)—he is probably leaving a lot of other stuff out, too.
Bottom line: we have some serious myth-making going on in here.
We threw in the dystopian and philosophical tags because Miller has so many stinkin' visions of destruction and death. This is a man reduced to begging, living hand to mouth, mooching off friends, and working minimum-wage jobs—but he still celebrates life, mocking and scorning everyone and everything. He hates institutions and anything conventional, and rejects manners and propriety.
Most of all, he looks into his crystal ball and predicts that man, nation, and civilization itself will lead nowhere and may even end in apocalypse: "The world is a cancer eating itself away […] it is the world dying, shedding the skin of time" (1.8). Why? According to our guy, because men have no purpose, meaning, or passion.
No need to get your globe out: Tropic of Cancer isn't about the Northern tropic.
Instead, it's a little play on words. We can actually look to Miller himself for an explanation of the title: "It was because to me cancer symbolizes the disease of civilization, the endpoint of the wrong path, the necessity to change course radically, to start completely over from scratch" (source).
To Miller, Paris at the time was a place of great transition. Disease, death, and poverty were overwhelming culture, which is why you'll notice so many references to syphilis, excrement, bugs, and general disease. But is the message to use a condom and carry a nit comb with you? No. Embrace it, Miller would say—turds and all. Maybe the cancer will burn away all of the excess and greed and the world will have itself a rebirth.
Before we get to the ending, let's jump back to the beginning for just a second.
Tropic of Cancer starts in the Villa Borghese, with Henry's friend Boris and some lice and some hunger; and then it moves into a pervy love song to a woman named Tania. It's pretty grim in an everyday sort of way.
By the end of the book, though, our guy has gotten pretty poetic. Plot-wise, Henry has just managed to smuggle his friend Fillmore out of the country and back to America. That effort has led Henry to reflect on the possibility of returning home himself. But, of course, we know he won't do that, given that he's just spent the whole novel being in love with Paris—for good or ill.
The novel closes with Henry down at the banks of the River Seine, counting the money he has basically stolen from his friend:
Human beings make a strange fauna and flora. From a distance they appear negligible; close up they are apt to appear ugly and malicious. More than anything they need to be surrounded with sufficient space—space even more than time. (15.112)
That's a little different from the penis elegy that started the book, right? Though he's getting pretty metaphorical here, he may be suggesting that Paris is a city that gives him the sort of mental, artistic, emotional space he needs.
Miller spent much of his time as an expatriate in Paris in the 1930s—a time when the city was considered the world's artistic and intellectual capital. No wonder he's such a snob.
When Tropic of Cancer was released in France, World War II was also only five years away. But Henry doesn't really seem aware that there's a political storm on the horizon? Why not? Well, the way we see it, the book is, in a lot of ways, set in his head.
Still, it's not like Henry is totally removed from his political climate. By now, you're probably asking, what on earth was Miller's beef with Jewish people? Yeah, this guy definitely has some major anti-Semitism going on. So while he doesn't comment on the politics of his era, he thinks in ways that reflect the period's bigoted mindset.
The Paris in Tropic of Cancer is hedonist and diseased, amoral and indulgent. Henry even mentions more than once that civilization is more or less coming to an end—so you might as well enjoy yourself before the whole place implodes.
It's kind of a love-hate relationship.
He goes on and on about what the city means to him as an artist: the sense of freedom he experiences there (in contrast to America) and the beauty of its great boulevards, its trees, the Seine River, and the majestic architecture:
wandering along the Seine at night, wandering and wandering, and going mad with the beauty of it, the trees leaning to, the broken images in the water, the rush of the current under the bloody lights of the bridges, the women sleeping in doorways […] Paris. Paris. Everything happens here. Old, crumbling walls and the pleasant sound of water running in the urinals. (1.49, 56)
But he's equally as preoccupied with its ugly sordid side: the alleys, tenements, and bums. These conflicting qualities leave the city feeling like a "whore," deceitful and seductive, leaving him feeling empty: "Paris is simply an artificial stage, a revolving stage that permits the spectator to glimpse all phases of the conflict" (2.19).
The hotel rooms Henry finds himself in don't help things. His first room at the Villa Borghese, a seedy dump of an apartment full of dicey characters, sets the gold standard for the places he stays. And it never gets much better.
"These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies—captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences that which is really his experience, and how to record truth truly." Ralph Waldo Emerson
This epigraph is basically Miller's way of saying, hey, look what this great 19th-century American essayist thought of romanticized autobiography. It's the best thing out there! Better than novels!
Now keep that in mind as you read Miller's proclamation at the beginning of chapter one:
This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art (1.6)
With Emerson's support, Miller sees that books as we know them have to change—and will change—because of authors like him who write straight from the gut.
As long as you can go with the flow and relax yourself into the twisted mind of Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer isn't too tough. Sure, there's some jumping around and a few flashbacks that can lead to a little confusion—oh, and he goes on for pages about how the world is imploding—but if you put on your philosopher's hat and don't mind the filth, it'll be an easy ride.
We're here to tell you that Miller is going to make you do a little work following his train of thought. This guy is no Hemingway. Nope, Henry Miller liked to fancy it up. He wrote during the what we call the Modernist era, which was basically a period of radical interpretation. And the almost stream-of-consciousness writing style of Tropic of Cancer fits in perfectly.
As an example, here's Henry going on a typical tangent on his favorite subject:
Tania, where now is that warm cunt of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft, bulging thighs? There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt, Tania, big with seed. I will send you home to your Sylvester with an ache in your belly and your womb turned inside out. Your Sylvester! Yes, he knows how to build a fire, but I know how to inflame a cunt. I shoot hot bolts into you, Tania, I make your ovaries incandescent. […] After me you can take on stallions, bulls, rams, drakes, St. Bernards. You can stuff toads, bats, lizards up your rectum. You can shit arpeggios if you like, or string a zither across your navel. I am fucking you, Tania, so that you'll stay fucked. And if you are afraid of being fucked publicly I will fuck you privately. I will tear off a few hairs from your cunt and paste them on Boris' chin. I will bite into your clitoris and spit out two franc pieces. (1.19)
It's not easy to offer sophisticated literary criticism about that one. But the point is that Miller clearly writes straight from his mind—or, um, something else altogether. It's all about instinct, a love of pure experience, and freedom from all of the hypocrisy he sees in the world.
We're not going to dance around it: Henry really isn't a fan of America.
According to our guys, once a person has visited America, he becomes "contaminated by the cheap idealism of the Americans, contaminated by the ubiquitous bathtub, the five-and-ten-cent store bric-a-brac, the bustle, the efficiency, the machinery, the high wages, the free libraries, etc., etc." (7.41). In fact, Henry Miller (the author) held such a fascinated disgust for it that in 1945 he would write The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, a book of essays depicting America as a place of death and progress-worshipping, where artists are considered parasites. Not a rave review, to say the least.
Like his poet predecessor, Walt Whitman, Miller was deeply disappointed at what America had become. And, like other American expatriates, he fully believed that America was Hell and Paris was some kind of paradise.
Now, Miller would be the first to admit that Americans abroad don't exactly have a firm grip on reality. They see things as they'd like them to be and romanticize Paris for their own ends—something he and his friends do all the time. But that doesn't mean he ever wants to leave. In fact, he says over and over again that he's staying put:
But I don't ask to go back to America, to be put in double harness again, to work the treadmill. No, I prefer to be a poor man in Europe. God knows I am poor enough; it only remains to be a man. (6.1)
Away from America, Henry feels like he's able to get a better perspective on life back there. But remember, as with so much of what Henry says, his thoughts on the U.S. of A are personal and subjective. He doesn't describe America as it is, necessarily, but as he sees it as an expatriate living in Paris.
Either way, though, his conclusion remains: "I never want to see [America] again" (1.54).
Let's start by taking a look at some of the nasty stuff that goes down in Tropic of Cancer:
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.
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.
Through Miller's meandering narrative we learn to understand one main thing: him.
All of what we learn and know by the end of Tropic of Cancer comes directly from his mind—complete with attitudes, opinions, perversions, and rubbish. Miller idolizes Walt Whitman and sort of sees himself as a 20th-century version of the humanist poet and essayist, but he also doesn't shy away from criticizing Whitman's idealism, which in all fairness was set in the previous century. As Miller announces:
When I think of this city where I was born and raised, this Manhattan that Whitman sang of, a blind, white rage licks my guts. New York! The white prisons, the sidewalks swarming with maggots, the breadlines, the opium joints that are built like palaces, the kikes that are there, the lepers, the thugs, and above all, the ennui, the monotony of faces, streets, legs, houses, skyscrapers, meals, posters, jobs, crimes, loves. […] A whole city erected over a hollow pit of nothingness. Meaningless. Absolutely meaningless. (5.30)
So do we have another Walt Whitman on our hands here? Or is Miller a totally different breed?
Remember that Henry Miller is a faceless narrator. We might know a little about the real, historical Henry Miller, but our narrator is all words. We get to see what everyone else looks like in Tropic of Cancer (basically just variations on ugly), but we only know Miller through his narration.
It doesn't take long to realize that he has a (bad) opinion about almost everyone, so we can't exactly trust him. We mean, Henry was probably no peach either, but since he's in control of the narrative, we have to sort of go with it. That's what we at Shmoop call an unreliable narrator.
Because Tropic of Cancer doesn't have a linear narrative, it's not going to fit exactly into each stage. But we love trying to put square pegs into circular holes, so here's our shot.
Now, we know that Henry is wretched for almost the entire novel. But he never lets that get in the way of a good time. (Now there's a lesson for us all.) He does begin the book in a lice-ridden house, believing that the "The world is a cancer eating itself away" (1.8). So it's not exactly cheery. He is, however, called to write—and that is a huge motivator.
Never mind that Henry's idea of "success" is scoring a prostitute who doesn't have the clap or getting a piece of cheese for dinner. He is clearly proud of the careful balancing act he is pulling off by rotating meals at various people's houses and getting leftover prostitutes from his friends. He has found his rhythm.
Okay, so now he's hungry and has kind of used up all of his friend's good will. He has done everything from proofreading to pimping to try to get by. Now he has to accept humankind's most challenging mission: teaching. What better way to while away the hours than to sequester yourself in a backwater town in eastern France known for making a particularly strong mustard relish?
Dijon is both the best and worst thing that ever happens to Henry. Though Dijon immediately strikes him as "silent, empty gloom" (13.16) and the school sends a "shudder" through him, first impressions can be very overrated. Well, they aren't. He tells us: "After a week it seemed like I had been here all of my life. It was like a bloody fucking nightmare that you just can't throw off. Used to fall into a coma just thinking about it" (13.35). He has clearly hit rock bottom.
Being back in Paris is like a rebirth unto itself. "It was spring before I managed to escape from the penitentiary, and only then by a stroke of fortune" (14.1). Now he returns to the same Paris he left, only his friends are in even bigger messes. But Henry is on the mend. His charitable effort of getting Fillmore out of town nets him a sweet pile of cash and reminds him that he really is happy in Paris. So the riches aren't only the pockets full of francs he now has, but the feeling that "After everything had quietly sifted through my head a great peace came over me" (15.111).
We get the big picture here: Henry is poor and there are some serious bugs around. We get to know our protagonist through his casual attitude. We also learn know that Henry is a romantic and philosophical fellow who spends a lot of time thinking about prostitutes and his next meal in equal measure. How is this guy going to get by without any resources?
Because this book doesn't move in a linear manner, we'll just tell you that Henry's main complication is getting a roof, some ladies, and a hot meal. This effort is not a proper conflict as such, but rather a series of conflicts—all of which he enjoys. Pretty much everything is a conflict for him, but his biggest charm (and most annoying habit) is that he faces everything with a kind of cheerful dismissal.
In a desperate and uncharacteristic move, Henry moves to Dijon to get a "real job" in a penitentiary/school. This is a big deal for someone who prides himself on not working. It's a bit of a "crisis" (in Henry's mind) because the place is just unbearable. At this point, we are asking ourselves: How's he getting out of this mess? We actually start to care that he doesn't get to be an over-sexed bum anymore! Man, he's a good narrator…
There's some serious doubt about whether Henry is a good friend throughout the novel. It's hard to tell what he wants out of friendships when all he seems to want is a hot meal or seconds on a prostitute. But toward the end, Henry does right by his friend Fillmore. Trapped (almost literally) in an ugly cluster of obligations, Fillmore has a nervous breakdown. Turns out he's not really mad, but just doesn't want to marry the abusive one-toothed peasant girl he's impregnated. Henry kicks into action and helps Fillmore ditch the lady. There's finally some resolution to someone's story—even if it's not Henry's.
Henry gets Fillmore on that train. Helping out wretched old Fillmore brings out a lot of new qualities in Henry, and we see him for the sort of decent guy that he is. Unable to see a grown man sob, Henry arranges to get Fillmore back to America. In the process, he gets a heap of money (not really meant to go to him) and begins to (once again) reflect on what he loves about Paris. Will he leave? Will he stay? The ending is actually kind of funny because it's not that different from the beginning. Though he momentarily considers returning to America, Henry re-realizes how good he's got it in the City of Lights.
Henry's living large and little all at the same time. Sure he's starving and risks getting the clap with every liaison he has, but he wouldn't have it any other way. His friends help him get some odd jobs, and he settles into the tedium of proofreading. But when he gets fired, things start getting real.
So the whole Dijon gig isn't so great after all. Henry thinks at least he won't have to struggle as much. But between the whole tipping your hat to everyone ritual and the empty cafés, he can't take it. His success as a lecturer isn't enough to keep him there. Paris, here he comes.
Henry is full of relief back in Paris. He gets into all sorts of shenanigans with his friends—one impregnates a minor, the other impregnates a shrew. But Henry steps up and provides the moral support his friends need. He helps his friend Fillmore man up and get out of Dodge. And in the end, he's all the better—and all the richer—for putting himself out there.