Tropic of Cancer Henry Miller
American novelist, critic, short story writer, editor, and nonfiction writer.
The following entry presents criticism on Miller's novel Tropic of Cancer (1934). See also Daisy Miller Criticism, Henry Miller Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 4, 9, 14.
Tropic of Cancer (1934), Miller's most famous and acclaimed work, is a lyrical, profane, and surreal portrait of the author's experiences in the bohemian underworld of 1930s Paris. The novel was a personal and artistic break-through for Miller, who was an obscure and impoverished writer when it was first published. The theme of sexual and artistic liberation, which pervades Tropic of Cancer, manifests itself in its Whitmanesque poetic embrace of sexuality, its open disdain for the constraints of bourgeois society, and its declarations of antagonism toward the conventions of the modern novel. At one point Miller writes: "This is not a book … this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art…." While some critics have dismissed Tropic of Cancer as a merely autobiographical rant which is reckless and nihilistic in its abandonment of literary conventions, others have recognized Miller's notoriously liberal use of profanity and sexual description as an attempt to broaden the expressive means of the novel. The unusually polemical and partisan tenor of much early criticism on Miller's novel should be considered against the background of its publication history. Before Grove Press won its censorship struggle in the early 1960s, Tropic of Cancer was ruled obscene and its sale was banned in the United States and England.
Plot and Major Characters
Tropic of Cancer begins with the narrator describing his companions, whom he depicts as bohemian aesthetes living in varying degrees of squalor. He disdains Moldorf as a "word-drunk" poetaster and dismisses Van Norden and Sylvester as failed writers, reserving his praise for Boris and Carl, who are "mad and tone deaf … sufferers." The protagonist also sings paeans to the sex organs of Tania and Llona, describes his love of prostitutes, Parisian vistas, and food, and relates his methods for cadging meals from his wealthier friends. Interspersed among these thoughts are statements that reject the conventional standards of literature and art for the spontaneous stream of consciousness which eludes artistic representation. In a conversation with Van Norden, and in watching him make love to an impoverished prostitute, the narrator realizes that his companion's understanding of sex and women is adolescent, reductive, and mechanical. On visiting an art gallery to view the paintings of Henri Matisse, the narrator expresses admiration for the vivacity and transformative power of the artist's work and recognizes a dramatic contrast between Matisse's vision and the lifeless materialism of Van Norden and Carl. After failing to seduce Tania, the narrator tries to alleviate his depression through drinking and brawling. He meets Fillmore, another neurotic American expatriate, whose attitude toward women is as degenerate as Van Norden's. Towards the end of the novel, the narrator travels to Dijon where he makes a cursory attempt at teaching a course in English. Upon his return, he accompanies a despondent and spiteful Fillmore to the train station before the latter departs for America. Pathetic in the naivete of his deflated idealism, Fillmore's whiny tirade against France allows the narrator to comprehend his own resilience in the "cancerous" environment of Paris.
A central theme of Tropic of Cancer, as suggested by its title, is the pervasive sickness and squalor of modern society and the resulting degeneracy of its literature. In reacting against conventional art and morality, Miller's protagonist adopts a Whitmanesque attitude of unblinking acceptance and affirmation and announces his intention of "recording … all that which is omitted in books." The novel's descriptions, animated by a celebratory, ribald tone, frequently linger on the deviant and sordid elements of Parisian life, particularly its prostitutes and vagabonds, and dramatize the protagonist's freedom from the lifestyles and conventions of mainstream society. This theme of personal emancipation accounts for the audacious liberties Miller takes with Tropic of Cancer's style, a pastiche of poetic exultation, bland pornography, and the banalities of a personal diary. On occasion, Miller explicitly rails against conventional artists and denounces their adherence to established artistic norms as a lack of passion and verve. Erica Jong has suggested that this theme has strong autobiographical undertones since Miller's first attempts at fiction were derivative and unsuccessful, and Tropic of Cancer was written while he was "finding himself" as an artist.
While Tropic of Cancer's setting and some of its themes evoke comparisons with the works of other expatriate American writers living in Paris in the 1920s and '30s, Miller's experiments with form in this work signal a uniquely radical departure from the conventions of the modern novel, and its extremities of expression and style have elicited sharply divergent critical opinions. For some, Miller's blatant disregard for a coherent and linear plot and his exclusive adherence to autobiography are symptomatic of his failure as a novelist. A similarly dismissive and disdainful view is taken by critics who view Miller's liberal use of profanity as little more than impish prurience. At the opposite extreme, such professional associates and friends as Lawrence Durrell and Anaïs Nin circumvent aesthetic and formal objections to Tropic of Cancer by praising it as a "vitalizing" or "nourishing" antidote to the arid intellectualism and effete sentimentality of the modern novel. Because Tropic of Cancer's legal troubles quickly made it a cause célèbre, early reviews of the novel tend to be compromised by an eagerness to either validate or indict Miller for his use of profanity and sexual candor. In the wake of other highly publicized victories over censorship, notably, Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1956) and William Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1959), numerous studies have appeared which focus more objectively on the literary merits of Tropic of Cancer. While some feminist critics attack Miller for what they view as his blatant sexism, others contend that Tropic of Cancer embraces an emancipatory conception of women, insofar as its celebration of sexual freedom flouts the social constraints of marriage and bourgeois morality. Other commentators have suggested that Miller's imagery and visionary rhetoric are more articulate and complex than would be suggested by the author's chaotic style of writing. Although there is little overall consensus on Tropic of Cancer's literary value, novelist Norman Mailer argues that it is "one of the ten or twenty great novels of our century."