Study Guide

Tropic of Capricorn

by Henry Miller

Tropic of Capricorn Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In a meditation on his alienation from family and homeland, the narrator reflects that his family is made up of Nordic idiots—clean, tidy, industrious, but unable to live in the present or to open the doors into their souls. Nowhere on earth has he felt so degraded and humiliated as in America, which he envisions as a cesspool of the spirit. Over the cesspool is a shrine to the spirit of work, with its chemical factories, steel mills, prisons, and insane asylums. Miller wishes to see the shrine destroyed, in vengeance for unnamed crimes against him and others.

Miller comments that he had a good time as a child because he did not care about anything—a lesson learned at the age of twelve as a result of the death of a friend. He realized then that things are wrong only when one cares too much. As if to prove that he had learned not to care, he let out a loud fart beside his friend’s coffin.

During wartime, Miller has a wife and child and badly needs a job. In a farcical episode involving a clerk named Hymie, office politics, and racism, Miller talks the manager of the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company into giving him a job hiring and firing messengers. The company is inhumane, corrupt, and exploitative. After the company decreases the messengers’ pay, Miller is forced to be less selective in hiring, which results in a number of grotesque incidents involving epileptic, criminal, and delinquent messengers. In response to the poverty around him, Miller gives all his money away, in turn cadging dollars from acquaintances to buy food for himself. During Miller’s time at the Cosmodemonic, he meets an African American woman named Valeska, with whom he has a brief sexual liaison. She commits suicide.

Miller recalls an episode from his childhood in which he and his cousin Gene killed a boy in a gang fight. Miller and Gene hurried home afterward, and Aunt Caroline, Gene’s mother, gave them rye bread with butter. Miller remembers this image as particularly potent. In that house, he was never scolded; the image conveys an angelic forgiveness,...

(The entire section is 848 words.)

Tropic of Capricorn Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Henry Miller planned to explore his relationship with June Smith in a multivolume proto-epic that covered his life in the 1920’s in extraordinary detail. While his plans were never completely carried out, Tropic of Capricorn is the first book in the series, an introduction to the world in which he was living and a prologue to the later volumes, which concentrate on his life with Smith. It is divided into three parts, beginning with the protagonist employed by the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company, an apt name for the metaphorical conceit he developed to dramatize the bureaucratic insanity of modern industrial society. As an employment manager, the protagonist is able to meet and describe a staggering variety of people, representative of a full range of strange and fascinating characters in the United States.

After the failure of his marriage, the narrator is thrown into a kind of sexual psychic hell that almost destroys his mental stability. Then, he is redeemed by a woman he barely knows but who promises to lead him from, as Jay Martin puts it, “the Inferno of civilization and the Purgatorio of sensuality into the Paradiso of the liberated imagination.” The book concludes with the protagonist so totally absorbed by his idealized sense of love that it is clear that he is on the verge of further psychic calamity, but the aura of romance is so great that it overwhelms everything else, including judgment and perspective.