The book largely functions as an immersive meditation on the human condition. As a struggling writer, Miller describes his experience living among a community of bohemians in Paris, where he intermittently suffers from hunger, homelessness, squalor, loneliness and despair over his recent separation from his wife. Describing his perception of Paris during this time, Miller wrote:
One can live in Paris—I discovered that!—on just grief and anguish. A bitter nourishment—perhaps the best there is for certain people. At any rate, I had not yet come to the end of my rope. I was only flirting with disaster. ... I understood then why it is that Paris attracts the tortured, the hallucinated, the great maniacs of love. I understood why it is that here, at the very hub of the wheel, one can embrace the most fantastic, the most impossible theories, without finding them in the least strange; it is here that one reads again the books of his youth and the enigmas take on new meanings, one for every white hair. One walks the streets knowing that he is mad, possessed, because it is only too obvious that these cold, indifferent faces are the visages of one's keepers. Here all boundaries fade away and the world reveals itself for the mad slaughterhouse that it is. The treadmill stretches away to infinitude, the hatches are closed down tight, logic runs rampant, with bloody cleaver flashing.:180–182
There are many passages explicitly describing the narrator's sexual encounters. In 1978, literary scholar Donald Gutierrez argued that the sexual comedy in the book was "undeniably low... [but with] a stronger visceral appeal than high comedy".:22 The characters are caricatures, and the male characters "stumbl[e] through the mazes of their conceptions of woman".:24
Michael Hardin made the case for the theme of homophobia in the novel. He proposed that the novel contained a "deeply repressed homoerotic desire that periodically surfaces".
Music and dance are other recurrent themes in the book. Music is used "as a sign of the flagging vitality Miller everywhere rejects". References to dancing include a comparison of loving Mona to a "dance of death", and a call for the reader to join in "a last expiring dance" even though "we are doomed".