Places: Tropic of Cancer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1934

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: Early 1930’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Paris

*Paris. Tropic of CancerFrench capital city to which the narrator has moved with the hope of becoming a writer. Tropic of Cancer is a largely autobiographical account of Henry Miller’s life and experiences in the south-central Parisian quarter of Montparnasse, from his arrival early in 1930 through 1932. Although Miller appears as himself, or at least a version of himself, his wife June is portrayed as Mona and his good friend Alfred Perlès as Carl. Colorful journalist Wambly Bald becomes the obsessive womanizer Van Norden. As the novel’s narrator, Miller is not consistent in his treatment of Paris; he portrays it from different viewpoints as his mood changes and as his acceptance of circumstances grows. Initially, he presents Paris as a symbol of everything he finds wrong with life-denying modern civilization: a “huge organism diseased in every part.” Some neighborhoods he describes as literal garbage heaps. Later, in the spring sun, the city looks different, and the narrator grows more content.

As a down-and-out writer, the narrator often has no place to stay; at such times, the streets of Paris become his refuge. Popular sidewalk cafés such as the Dôme, the Rotonde, and the Coupole provide him with vantage points from which he observes the city’s fascinating street life, hoping for the appearance of an acquaintance who may treat him to a drink or a meal.


Apartments. Parisian homes of the friends of the narrator, who is obsessed with shelter and food. He sleeps wherever someone will give him space on a floor or in a hall. After some thought, he devises a scheme whereby he eats a meal with each of seven friends once a week. What he sees in their abodes provides him with further material for his indictment of society. The apartment of one friend is strikingly sterile: “There is not a crumb of dirt anywhere, nor a chair misplaced.” Boris and Tania’s apartment is squalid but equally repugnant. At one point the narrator is taken in by a group of Russians, but their heavy food, their habit of sharing meals with worm-ridden dogs, and their poor hygiene drive the suddenly fastidious American away. For a while he stays with an Indian named Nanantatee, but the man’s hypocrisy and meanness lead to the narrator’s labeling him Mister Nonentity.

Miss Hamilton’s brothel

Miss Hamilton’s brothel. Brothel to which the narrator is asked to accompany another Indian man, a naïve disciple of Mohandas Gandhi. In one of the novel’s comic high points, the Indian shocks the brothel’s otherwise worldly employees by mistaking the function of the bidet. Tropic of Cancer was outspokenly explicit for its day, and much of its content involves the prostitutes of Paris.

*Seine River

*Seine River (sayn). Major French stream flowing through Paris that serves the narrator as a metaphor for everything flowing and in flux. Like Paris and its teeming streets, the Seine’s character changes as the narrator learns to accept his fate. Looking at it once, he sees “mud and desolation, street lamps drowning, men and women choking to death, the bridges covered with houses, slaughterhouses of love.” Later he characterizes the river as a “great artery,” and later still feels it flowing through him.


*Dijon (dee-ZHAHN). French city southeast of Paris where the narrator teaches English at a lycée (school) after he loses the proofreading job that Carl gets for him in Paris. His new position involves terrible meals and a dingy room but no pay. It is winter, so bitterly cold that toilets freeze, and the narrator feels like a prisoner in the spiritless institution. Dijon itself strikes him as a dirty hole.

BibliographyHutchison, E. R. “Tropic of Cancer” on Trial: A Case History of Censorship. New York: Grove Press, 1968. This is the detailed history and analysis of the now infamous obscenity trial.Martin, Jay. Always Merry and Bright: The Life of Henry Miller. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1978. Of all the biographical reminiscences of Miller’s life, this is still the most comprehensive.Nelson, Jane. Form and Image in the Fiction of Henry Miller. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1970. In her chapter on Tropic of Cancer, Nelson uses a correlation between Mythology and psychology to analyze the novel.Widmer, Kingsley. Henry Miller. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1990. Widmer’s short biographical/ critical monograph provides a good overview of both Miller’s life and work.Williams, Linda R. “Critical Warfare and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.” In Feminist Criticism: Theory and Practice, edited by Susan Sellers. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991. This article traces the debate over various feminist readings of the exploitative sexuality of Tropic of Cancer.
Categories: Places