Tropic of Capricorn opens with a passage of philosophical musings, in which Henry Miller compares himself to the people around him and contemplates the futility of life. Everyone around him seems to be a failure; those who aren’t technically failures strike him as all the more ridiculous. In other words, Miller immediately posits a clear disconnect from societal norms of “success” and “progress.” The work ethic holds no appeal for him, nor does the ideal of ambition and upward mobility: “there was nothing I wished to do which I could just as well not do.”
What then follows is an account of his first stabs at employment. Having established his persona as an unmotivated drifter, a man inherently at odds with society, Miller describes how as a young man he floated from “one miserable job” to another. He refuses to blame his state on “the war” – specifically World War I, a cataclysmic event for his generation. Instead, Miller explains that even the war felt distant to him: it “had nothing to do with me, with my life.” He is hired and fired in rapid succession, one round after another, sowing “discord” wherever he goes. He can’t stand sucking up to his superiors, and exposes stupidity almost without effort. His refusal to conform relegates him to marginal status, on the fringes of the work force.
Miller's inability to connect to his surroundings, to empathize and emote in “normal” ways, is underlined by his reactions to the death of a childhood friend named Jack Lawson. When Miller is but a boy, Jack falls seriously ill and lies in bed for a whole year, “suffering the worst agonies.” At first, young Henry feels sorry for him, but it doesn’t take long before callousness sits in. As Jack suffers and suffers, Henry wonders why he can’t just get along and die, as if his friend’s illness were a burden. Henry resolves to forget about him and abandon him, and feels proud of his decision. He describes the funeral as “a disgraceful affair,” and relates how he defiantly farted next to the coffin.
Things change - at least on some level - when Miller, now in his twenties, realizes one day that he does desperately need employment. He decides, as a last resort, to apply for a position as messenger boy for the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company of North America, in New York. To his shock and indignation, he is turned down. The following night, he writhes about in his sense of thwarted entitlement: how can they turn down “Henry V. Miller, a competent, superior individual who had asked for the lowest job in the world”? He marches back into the Cosmodemonic offices the next day and demands to speak to the president. He winds up meeting with the general manager instead. He is treated like royalty, offered fat cigars, and allowed to tell his whole story in detail while the general manager nods his head and notes that “Hymie” – the “runt” who Miller initially talked to about the job – had no business turning him down, that he had acted outside of his duties.
Mr. Clancy, the manager, tells Miller he wants to make him “the boss of the works.” Before that can happen, he asks Miller to serve an apprenticeship as a special messenger, paid the salary of employment manager, with the duty of spying on the various branches of the company and reporting on the conditions to his superiors. In a few months, he has a post at the employment office, replacing the former employment manager, Mr. Burns, and is “hiring and firing like a demon” without batting an eye. He describes the company as a farce, a waste of humans and work. The ousted Mr. Burns dies “of a broken heart,” and Miller dives into his work – physically, that is, not emotionally. Men come and go in a rush, dozens hired in one day, fired the next, “holes” plugged on an hourly basis. Miller finds himself responsible for hundreds of men and their livelihoods, reviewing their applications, judging them suitable or unsuitable, luring them in and ushering them out the door in a single swoop. “I never saw such an aggregation of misery in my life,” Miller writes.
A couple of years pass in this fashion, until one day the vice president casually mentions to Miller that he’d “like to see some one write a sort of Horatio Alger book about the messengers.” The idea lights up in Miller, and when he takes his vacation – his first in three years – he writes the book. Of course, his version is more a rhapsody on “the cosmococcic shits of North America” than a paean to the hard-working messengers. “I was determined to wipe Horatio Alger out of the North American consciousness,” Miller explains. The resulting book is huge, unwieldy, and unreadable. Everyone who opens it says it is terrible. But it is Miller’s first book, and he loves it as such. He learns to internalize Balzac’s dictum – “that one must write volumes before signing one’s own name.” You only become a writer by writing. And it seems that Miller has finally discovered a vocation, an avenue that beckons him and motivates him. He resolves to write “at least five thousand words a day,” for “one doesn’t become an artist overnight.” One must be crushed first, let it all hang in the first opus and then collapse; art is the rebuilding, the climb back up to the crest.
The war comes and goes, barely a “rumble” in Miller’s ears. Then he is ordered to punish a messenger at the company who, freshly returned from the war, wrecks one of the offices. While secretly longing to congratulate the man, an ex-sergeant named Griswold, and hoping he goes up to the president’s offices and reaps havoc there as well, Miller takes Griswold off commission and puts him back on a salary. Griswold is furious and sends Miller a threatening letter, saying he is going to visit him and make him pay; Miller waits for him in his office, shaking with fear, but when Griswold arrives he proves no threat at all. He is “putty” in Miller’s hands, and the two men simply talk it out. Miller realizes then a fundamental truth about this war that had heretofore seemed so distant to him: that “there must have been millions of them like [Griswold], big children with machine guns who could wipe out whole regiments without batting an eyelash; but back in the work trenches, without a weapon, without a clear, visible enemy, they were helpless as ants.”
“Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos.” In the first sentence of Tropic of Capricorn, Henry Miller implies that he (or his first-person narrator, identified later as “Henry Miller”) is somehow separated from the world he inhabits. Much of the writing that follows adopts a detached perspective, regarding the mass of humanity with an inflection of superiority and, in these opening pages, a minimum of compassion. Miller feels disconnected; everything around him is “chaos”, and it has been this way since the beginning – “a fluid which enveloped me, which I breathed in through the gills.” Even in describing his prenatal life he refers to himself almost as an animal, an inhuman creature with “gills”; he is immediately able to see the opposite in everything and is his “own worst enemy.” Evidently, this is no ordinary child.
Miller doesn’t think of himself as ordinary. Everything in Tropic is indubitably refracted through Miller’s consciousness; the reader is implicitly asked to share his own distanced view of humanity. There is much detachment between the narrator and that which he describes, but at first seemingly little between reader and narrator. Miller is famous for a style of bombast and portentousness, in which sexual encounters become celestial events and mundane routines the stuff of the gods; the degree to which irony permeates his vision is often unclear. Are we meant to completely buy his lack of compassion for Jack Lawson as a child? Or is Miller asking us instead to question the sincerity of a narrator who claims he looks upon the funeral’s mourners as “sick monkeys”? In other words, is this all a pose, merely inserted for shock value?
The peculiar narrative perspective of Tropic of Capricorn, in which essayistic and free-form ruminations bleed into ostensible autobiography, complicates Miller’s endeavor. He is relating not just what has happened to him, but what he thinks of humanity. Narrative melds with philosophy. The subjective nature of the enterprise is underlined in one of Miller’s opening paragraphs:
I was the evil product of an evil soil. If the self were not imperishable, the ‘I’ I write about would have been destroyed long ago. To some this may seem like an invention, but whatever I imagine to have happened did actually happen, at least to me. History may deny it, since I have played no part in the history of my people, but even if everything I say is wrong, is prejudiced, spiteful, malevolent, even if I am a liar and a poisoner, it is nevertheless the truth and it will have to be swallowed.
In other words, the reader has no choice but to accept Miller’s “truth.” He is essentially saying: “I am a liar, but you must believe me.” The slippage of the narrative voice is the paradox upon which the entire book hinges, especially if one reads the novel as a portrait of the artist as a young man. If the narrative can be summarized at all, it is as the account of Miller’s early development as a writer. Interestingly, however, Miller implies that to become a true writer, or a true artist, one must first perish: “you have to be crushed, to have your inflicting points of view annihilated...you have to be wiped out as a human being in order to be born again as an individual.” Again, Miller separates himself from other “human beings,” suggesting that individualism represents a break from humanity, the beginning of a different stage of being. The new self, as Miller sees it, can therefore be defined through – and perhaps only through – artistic creation. The annihilation that comes first serves to reduce the self to its “last common denominator”; from there, the emerging artist rebuilds himself, piece by piece. Thus, the self itself does not perish; rather, art allows it to survive, allows it to continue to grow from the “evil soil”; what surrounds the self, every other facet of the “I”, collapses, but the “I” Miller refers to is that of the artist. (He is, after all, looking back on his beginnings from a vantage point years or even decades ahead.)
Thus the “I” survives, and subjectivity reigns supreme. Whatever Miller “imagines” to have happened is what did in fact happen, even if history denies it. Miller is warning us in this makeshift introduction that we are not about to read a standard autobiography, that the age-old distinctions between fiction and nonfiction do not hold here; his narrative is the truth he knows, whether or not that corresponds to the official “truth.” In other words, lie he may, but his lies will be honest ones. Miller thereby redefines autobiography as simply an expression of the self, a personal statement. What follows is his own history, and no one else’s.