(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Tropic of Cancer (novel) 1934
Black Spring (novel) 1936
Max and the White Phagocytes (essays and stories) 1938
The Cosmological Eye (essays) 1939
Tropic of Capricorn (novel) 1939
The World of Sex (essay) 1940
The Colossus of Maroussi (travelogue) 1941
Sunday after the War (memoir) 1944
The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (essays) 1945
Sexus (novel) 1949
Plexus (novel) 1953
Quiet Days in Clichy (essay) 1956
The Time of the Assassins: A Study of Rimbaud (criticism) 1956
Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch (essays) 1957
Nexus (novel) 1960
The World of Lawrence: A Passionate Appreciation (criticism) 1980
Crazy Cock (novel) 1992

∗These works were published in one volume as The Rosy Crucifixion in 1965.

Anaïs Nin (essay date 1934)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A preface to Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller, Grove Weidenfeld, 1961, pp. xxxi-xxxiii.

[A French-born American autobiographer, novelist, short story writer, and educator, Nin established her early artistic reputation through experimental novels exploring the feminine psyche and through her association with Miller, whom she met in Paris in 1932 when he was writing the early drafts of Tropic of Cancer. In the following essay, which was originally published in 1934 as a preface to the first edition of Tropic of Cancer, she praises Miller for addressing the visceral roots of human experience.]

Here is a book which, if such a thing were possible,...

(The entire section is 876 words.)

George Orwell (essay date 1940)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Inside the Whale," in his The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell: An Age Like This, 1920–1940, Vol. 1, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968, pp. 493-502.

[An English novelist and essayist, Orwell is the author of such well-known works as Animal Farm (1945) and 1984 (1949) as well as the autobiographical narrative Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). His essays evince a profoundly moral concern for the victims of economic, political, and social exploitation. In the following excerpt from an essay that was originally published in New Directions in Prose and Poetry in 1940, he applauds Miller's use of vernacular and poetic language...

(The entire section is 4285 words.)

Stanley Kauffmann (essay date 1961)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tropic of Cancer," in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books, 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright, 1972, pp. 211-16.

[Kauffmann is an American dramatist, critic, and educator. In the following essay, which was written shortly after the first legal publication of Tropic of Cancer in the United States, he assesses Miller as a minor figure in American literature—a bawdy and funny provocateur, but one whose incessant use of scatological language and amateur philosophy reveals an immature and unsophisticated cast of mind.]

Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer is now published in this country in an unlavish edition of 318 pages set...

(The entire section is 2095 words.)

Alan Friedman (essay date 1966)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Pitching of Love's Mansion in the Tropics of Henry Miller," in Seven Contemporary Authors, edited by Thomas B. Whitbread, University of Texas Press, 1966, pp. 129-53.

[Friedman is an American critic and educator. In the following essay, he remarks on past critical opinion and legal actions concerning Tropic of Cancer, examines contradictions in some of the book's central themes, and concludes that Tropic of Cancer is ultimately a work of negation rather than affirmation.]

More than any other year, 1926 climaxed the era of the so-called "Lost Generation" of American expatriate writers, although by then almost all their important...

(The entire section is 8566 words.)

Ihab Hassan (essay date 1967)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Life in Fiction," in his The Literature of Silence: Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett, Knopf, 1967, pp. 59-67.

[Hassan is an Egyptian-born American critic and educator who has written numerous books on modernist and post-modernist literature, including Radical Innocence: The Contemporary American Novel (1961) and The Dismemberment of Orpheus: Toward a Postmodern Literature (1971). In the following excerpt, he analyzes the themes and technique of Tropic of Cancer, characterizing the novel as a profane yet lyrical paean to the chaos of raw experience.]

The trilogy that begins with Tropic of Cancer (1934) is still Miller's most...

(The entire section is 3106 words.)

William A. Gordon (essay date 1967)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Volcano's Eruption," in his The Mind and Art of Henry Miller, Louisiana State University Press, 1967, pp. 85-109.

[In the following excerpt, Gordon discusses the imagery, style, and themes of Tropic of Cancer, arguing that the novel is a documentation of Miller's struggle for self-liberation.]

Tropic of Cancer, which came out in 1934, was Miller's first published full length work. He had written several "novels" before this, but those who have read them, including Miller, agree that they lack his essential quality, that they are derived and imitative. Although Tropic of Cancer is not part of the central work which Miller had planned in...

(The entire section is 7949 words.)

George Wickes (essay date 1969)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Cancer and Delirium," in his Americans in Paris, Doubleday, 1969, pp. 239-61.

[Wickes is a Belgian-born American critic and educator. In the following excerpt from his study of American expatriate writers of the 1920s and 30s, he discusses the crucial influence that the avant-garde, bohemian atmosphere of Paris had on Miller's artistic growth, and the personal tribulations and friendships which contributed to the genesis of Tropic of Cancer.]

On March 4, 1930, a slight, bald, middle-aged American arrived in Paris. Mild-mannered and bespectacled, he had the air of a college professor. Café waiters often took him for a German or a Scandinavian. "I lack that...

(The entire section is 8709 words.)

Jane A. Nelson (essay date 1970)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Fragmentation and Confession in Tropic of Cancer," in her Form and Image in the Fiction of Henry Miller, Wayne State University Press, 1970, pp. 19-49.

[Nelson is an American critic and educator. In the following excerpt, she analyzes the structure of Tropic of Cancer using Jungian theories of unconscious, primitive archetypes and Erich Neumann's writings on ancient myths about the "primordial Great Mother."]

The demonic, obsessive quality of the erotic experience in Henry Miller's fiction has been sufficiently recognized, as have the Medusa characteristics of his women. This recognition, however, has not led his critics to examine the formal...

(The entire section is 11350 words.)

Leon Lewis (essay date 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tropic of Cancer: The Journal of a 'Year' in the Surreal City," in his Henry Miller: The Major Writings, Schocken Books, 1986, pp. 75-103.

[In the following excerpt, Lewis provides an overview of the major themes of Tropic of Cancer.]

Henry Miller's first book, Tropic of Cancer, remains startling and unique. The radiant spirit and exuberant anger which Miller projected from the opening sentences of Cancer are as alive now as the day when they were released. Twenty-five years after its first publication in the United States, and half a century after Miller began his final revisions on the manuscript, Cancer is one of the best...

(The entire section is 11185 words.)

Linda R. Williams (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Critical Warfare and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer," in Feminist Criticism: Theory and Practice, edited by Susan Sellers, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991, pp. 23-43.

[Williams is an English educator and critic. In the following excerpt, she criticizes Kate Millett's influential attack on Henry Miller's misogyny as theoretically naive and ineffectual. Williams proposes a feminist reading which takes account of the sexual ambivalence implied by Miller's masochism and suggests that Miller embraced a desire for self-annihilation.]

Tropic of Cancer is Henry Miller's polemic of antihumanism. It is an attempt to write 'The last book', an affirmation of...

(The entire section is 8369 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Moore, Thomas H., ed. Bibliography of Henry Miller. Minneapolis, Minn.: Henry Miller Literary Society, 1961, 33 p.

Comprehensive primary and select secondary bibliography, with sections listing doctoral dissertations on Miller's works, recordings by Miller, and the locations of early first editions of his works.

Shifreen, Lawrence J. Henry Miller: A Bibliography of Secondary Sources. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1979, 477 p.

Extensive secondary bibliography.


Brown, J. D. Henry...

(The entire section is 741 words.)