Tropic of Cancer

Tropic of Cancer Themes


Tropic of Cancer was initially banned for its explicit sexual subject matter, and Miller does not flinch from describing his sexual encounters in detail. Van Norden trains a flashlight on a woman’s vagina and seems to find nothing there. Was he expecting meaning to reveal itself? Miller writes of the significance of objects, but the female anatomy remains just that: anatomy. All that reveals itself is a “zero.”

A prevalent motif in Cancer is prostitution. Time and again, Miller and his compatriots share a bed with street-corner harlots; they duck from one brothel to another, and Miller describes the proceedings with an eye for the wry comedy that emerges. The bawdiness of the Indian defecating in the bidet seems straight out of Rabelais, but it underlines a poignant cultural misunderstanding. Likewise, Miller explores the culture of sex, the institutions built around it, and the economy it engenders.


At times, Tropic of Cancer is about its own making. Miller writes about the book that is “growing” inside of him, but rarely does he actually describe the process of writing. He seems prone to procrastination, akin in some ways to Van Norden, who would much rather think about the book he is to write and pontificate on other books than actually put words to paper. Ironically, Miller seems to find his greatest employment-related enjoyment proofreading at the newspaper. He imagines the world reduced to just the confines of his professional world – commas and semicolons, parentheses and quotation marks. The result is a sort of mise-en-abime, sentences describing their own construction, spiraling down toward some kind of center – perhaps the omphalos to which Miller wants to return literature.

The Past

At the end of the novel, Miller thinks of his wife. It is the first time he has thought of her in a while – the reader could be forgiven for forgetting Miller even has a wife. Earlier, Miller writes about Mona, the one woman he seems to truly have loved, and describes how the memories of her seem to rise back out of the shadows and cling to him. One can never be entirely free from the past, Miller concludes, and what better place to come to such a conclusion than a city as weighted with history as Paris? Present-tense living is impossible, or at least incomplete. Miller’s prose shifts tenses throughout Tropic of Cancer, reflecting this slippage between temporal registers.


Miller survives day-to-day, meal-to-meal, and his book is largely one of subsistence. There is a joke about Parisians, that even the “clochards” seem happy, their bottles of good red wine perched by their sides. Miller, indeed, seems for the most part satisfied with his migratory existence, although he never sugarcoats the hardships – the empty stomachs, the rainy nights without shelter. Poverty forces him to make friends quickly. He is unable to remain an island; he falls easily into a crowd, and Tropic of Cancer is thus full of encounters, good and bad. “I have no money, no resources, no hopes,” Miller famously writes. “I am the happiest man alive.”


Compared to the largely internal Tropic of Capricorn, Tropic of Cancer is very much an external book. This is to say, it is a book concerned not just with thoughts and philosophies, but with things actually happening. It is in that sense more traditional than its later counterpart, in that it depicts a series of events ordered into a discernible narrative, but that difference in content stems from a difference in thematics. Capricorn chronicles the development of an artist, a process which one must undergo on one’s own. Cancer, on the other hand, is about the life of an artist, and with that comes other artists. So Miller mingles with his fellow expatriates – mostly writers, journalists, sculptors, painters, photographers – and forms close friendships with many of them. Boris, Van Norden, Carl, Fillmore…each lends Miller a helping hand at one time or another. Without friendship, Miller suggests, the artist’s life – a life lived largely without money or other such resources – is an impossibility.


“Paris is like a whore.” So Miller writes, in one of his novel’s most famous sentences. He waxes lyrical about the City of Lights – the sense of freedom it imparts, its great boulevards and spectral trees, the quietly flowing Seine and the majestic steeples rising into the sky – but argues that the city is, like a “whore,” deceitful. She leaves a visitor or resident feeling “empty, disgusted”...and yet Miller rarely considers leaving. The city is for “maniacs,” he writes, and so it suits him well. “And God knows,” he adds, “when spring comes to Paris the humblest mortal alive must feel that he dwells in paradise.”


America hovers over Tropic of Cancer like a specter. “It doesn’t exist, America,” Miller writes. By that he means the idea of America has little to do with the reality. From across the Atlantic, one can imagine America “unchanged, unspoiled, a big patriotic open space with cows and sheep and tenderhearted men ready to bugger everything in sight,” but once there the illusions break down. That is, in fact, precisely what American expatriates live off of – illusions. So Miller argues toward the novel’s close, when he comes close to defining his generation – a pack of “senile idiots” who see in life a “five-and-ten-cent store romance.” Americans abroad exist in a world not entirely moored to reality; they see things not quite as they are, but as what they could be, or as what they’d like them to be. The anti-narrative becomes narrative, the real becomes imaginary – and America remains as far away as ever.