Tropic of Capricorn

by Henry Miller

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Critical Evaluation

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Tropic of Capricorn is the first of Henry Miller’s volumes of autobiographical fantasy. In spite of the title, it is not a sequel to his novel Tropic of Cancer, published five years earlier. Tropic of Capricorn is less of an attempt at portraying reality than is Tropic of Cancer. Tropic of Capricorn is more of a free flow of fantastic and subjective associations. It contains more of the ornate, poetic prose that Miller called dictation or cadenza. Tropic of Capricorn is a diatribe in which the outraged artist and prophet escapes into grotesque fantasy. It is an account of his alienation within the spiritual dearth of America. Miller’s self-proclaimed aim in Tropic of Capricorn was to create a monstrous verbal skyscraper that parodied the American consciousness.

Tropic of Capricorn is subtitled On the Ovarian Trolley. The metaphor suggests a sexuality that is mechanistic, automatic, not within control of the individual. Certainly the novel, located in Miller’s Land of F——k, has a more than usual share of the compulsive pursuit of sex. The ovarian metaphor goes beyond this level. Early in the novel, readers are introduced to Hymie’s wife’s diseased ovaries. Miller recounts that the image germinated a tropical growth of free associations in him. In particular he mentions that he had never done what he wanted and that out of this frustration had grown an obsessional plant in his psyche, a coral growth that, as it grew, killed all else including life itself. It made life and killed life simultaneously—much as diseased ovaries produce diseased eggs.

The obsessional plant is an image of a destructive growth strangling individual life. This theme of individual spiritual death is expanded to the cosmic level in many references to the spiritual bankruptcy of New York City. The city is described as growing like a cancer; to counterbalance this deadly growth, Miller the artist must grow like the sun. Tropic of Capricorn proselytizes against the dehumanizing effect of the industrialized city. Miller says that the smell of a dead horse, although almost unbearable, is preferable to the smell of burning chemicals. The sight of a dead horse with a bullet hole in its temple is better than the sight of a group of men in blue aprons with a truckload of freshly made tin.

Miller is unrivaled in his ability to sum up large truths in colloquial language. For example, he writes that music is the can opener of the soul. When he remarks on the necessity of breaking with one’s friends to live creatively, he announces such a time as moving day for the soul. Tropic of Capricorn also contains striking examples of Miller’s half-serious apocalyptic rantings, such as the declaration that all department stores are symbols of sickness and emptiness, and if all the significance hidden in the miscellany of Bloomingdale’s were gathered together on the head of a pin, what would be left is a universe in which the grand constellations would move without the slightest danger of collision.

A more serious apocalyptic treatment is saved for the Dark Lady, or Mona, or Mara, the sexually alluring yet devouring female figure whom Miller identified with his second wife, June Smith. When he meets her, he is as if baptized anew, with his real name: Gottlieb Leberecht Müller. The relationship collapses, and later, when he revisits the place where they met, he realizes that the book that he will write about her has become more important than her. The book becomes a tomb in which to bury her.

Miller surrounds the Dark Lady with paradoxical images of fullness (such as...

(This entire section contains 965 words.)

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the moon and a ship in full sail) and of death and destruction. Toward the end of the novel, he describes her in terms worthy of the biblical book of Revelation. She is the personification of evil, the destroyer of the soul, the maharani of the night. In the power and intensity of the sexual experience generated by her and Miller, the ovarian trolley image is taken to its furthest extreme. In the final image of the novel, he commands her to tack her womb to the wall, an act of violence and reverence simultaneously.

The novel provides many instances of iconoclastic comedy that challenge hypocrisy. Miller likes to shock, whether it is by copulating with Valeska while his wife is out having an abortion or by asking the grieving Maxie for money in the hushed silence of the funeral parlor over the coffin of their dead friend. Even readers who are appalled at Miller’s cynicism cannot fail to relish the sheer theater of such occasions.

Tropic of Capricorn is a flawed work. The fragments of narrative are too slight to support Miller’s endless diatribes. His time at the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company is poorly described. The important character Valeska disappears from the novel without significant comment. The characterization is almost nonexistent, since Miller is too bound up in his own egomania to observe anyone else. One notable exception to Miller’s general self-obsession is the account of his father’s descent into a sickness caused by too-sudden abstinence from liquor, renaissance via religion, and final disillusionment and retreat into slumber.

Despite its shortcomings, the novel makes glorious reaches into high spiritual realizations, such as the epiphany involving the stars and the cabbage leaf. The possibility of redemption shines through the grim chaos of the city. In one of his most beautiful passages, Miller says that Christ will never more come down to earth, yet he expects something terrifyingly marvelous and absurd, an invention that will bring a shattering calm and void—not the calm and void of the death that infects urban life from the roots up, but of life such as the monks dreamed.


Tropic of Capricorn