History: The book was first published in 1934 by the Obelisk Press in Paris, France. Its publication in 1961 in the United States by Grove Press led to an obscenity trial that was one of several that tested American laws on pornography in the 1960s. While famous for its frank and often graphic depictions of sex, the book is also widely regarded as an important masterpiece of 20th century literature.
Plot: Set in France (primarily Paris) during the 1930s, it is the tale of Miller's life as a struggling writer. Combining fiction and autobiography, some chapters follow a strict narrative and refer to Miller's actual friends, colleagues, and workplaces; others are written as stream-of-consciousness reflections. It is written in the first person, as are many of Miller's other novels, and often fluctuates between past and present tense. There are many passages explicitly describing the narrator's sexual encounters.
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.
Review: 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.
Opening Line: ““I am living at the Villa Borghese. There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced. We are all alone here and we are dead.”
Closing Line: “It’s course is fixed.”
Quotes: “I sometimes ask myself how it happens that I attract nothing but crackbrained individuals, neurasthenics, neurotics, psychopaths, - and Jews especially.”
Rating: It was awful.