Places: Tropic of Capricorn

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1939

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Autobiographical

Time of work: c. 1900-1928

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*New York City

*New Tropic of CapricornYork City. City that represents the contradiction of opposites that must be annihilated for the self to emerge, and the spiritual and physical settings of the novel, ultimately, become the symbols and instruments imperative to crush and rebuild the false, imposed dream of society into the truthful vision of the artist. New York is a huge tomb, and among the human ants and human lice his “microcosmic life” is a reflection of the “outer chaos.”

Henry’s friends serve as dimensions of Henry himself that must be abandoned or transformed, and his long walks through New York’s streets and stores (Bloomingdale’s is an emblem of sickness and emptiness) become inner philosophical meditations on sex, death, religion, racism, and politics. He constructs spiritual universes within spiritual universes that harbor galaxies of doubts, fears, hopes, denials, and affirmations that explode and reform through annihilation and rebirth.

Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company

Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company. New York City company for which Henry works, hiring and firing messengers and other exploited workers. The company is heartless and inefficient, and mirrors, as does Henry’s job, the degradation imposed by the city on those who work simply to survive. The company, like the city and America, is a Darwinian jungle. Henry resists and plays Robin Hood, the mark of his defiant nature, evident since his childhood in Brooklyn.


*Brooklyn. Borough of New York City in which Miller spent his childhood. His childhood in Brooklyn, vividly recalled, represents the only period until now where everything was clear and honest, except for school which made everything obtuse. His descriptions of Brooklyn, the clear reminiscences of sexual initiation, killing, stealing, friendship, and loyalty, symbolize the belief that one loses oneself as an adult, one becomes separate but not an individual.

*United States

*United States. For Henry, America is a contradiction of pacifism and cannibalism. Outwardly, it seems to be a “beautiful honeycomb,” inwardly, however, it is a “slaughterhouse.” America degrades and humiliates all voyagers; it is a “cesspool of the spirit in which everything is sucked down and drained away to everlasting shit,” and into the sewer he journeys, the mythic labyrinth in which the minotaur of the self must be encountered and made one with the hero through mutual destruction.

His introduction to literature and deep thinking in his early twenties opens up new sexual worlds–the “Land of Fuck” and “Realm of the Cunt”–glorious and yet unsatisfactory worlds, likened to Dante’s purgatory, but capable of regeneration, like the world of his childhood, now lost, unlike America where the destruction is complete, annihilating, permanently apocalyptic.

In this section of the novel, “The Interlude,” most of the setting is within Henry, his soul leaving its body and roaming, traveling through time and space with no restrictions save time and space (paradox upon paradox); his astral projections become allegorical and metaphysical representations of human existence from its earliest forms to the present, the creation and destruction of life, hatred and love, compassion and cruelty, all the contradictions that must be annihilated in order for the self to materialize, to truly be at one with the universe. The ultimate realization of this quest will be Woman, and once she is found, boundaries will dissolve and everything will belong. Life is love, he asserts, not God. In the end, dying and reborn, leaving America for France, he begins to live, realizing that the one way to accept life absolutely is to be wide awake without writing or talking about it. Such is the plight and the triumph of the artist, Miller acknowledges, continuing the paradoxes to the conclusion, which is merely another beginning.

BibliographyBrown, J. D. Henry Miller. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1986. Intersperses biography with criticism. Useful for placing the works in context of the life. Bibliography includes interviews.Hassan, Ihab. The Literature of Silence: Henry Miller and Samuel Beckett. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967. Contains a brief but sound discussion of the themes and imagery of Tropic of Capricorn.Lewis, Leon. Henry Miller: The Major Writings. New York: Schocken Books, 1986. The chapter on Tropic of Capricorn focuses on the author’s relationship with June Smith. The author intelligently answers those critics who accuse Miller of misogyny and pornography.Wickes, George, ed. Henry Miller and the Critics. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1963. Contains an incisive, unforgiving, and appreciative critique of Tropic of Capricorn.Widmer, Kingsley. Henry Miller. Boston: Twayne, 1990. The most comprehensive introduction to Miller’s life and works, containing a chapter on the main themes of Tropic of Capricorn. Notes and bibliography.
Categories: Places