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Tropic of Cancer | Symbols


Wedding Ring

Henry Miller buys a wedding ring for Mona, his wife, after three years of marriage, because they have never had a ring. The ring has orange blossoms on it, and he puts it on his pinky for safekeeping. He waits for her to show up at the train station, but she never does, and even though she keeps saying she's going to come see him, it never happens. Although it has become clear to Henry that Mona is not coming back to him, he keeps the ring on his pinky anyway. At one point, he loses the ring, but gets it back again, and one of the blossoms has fallen off. He never takes off the ring after that, until he tries to pawn it so he can eat, but he won't sell it because no one will give him what he thinks it's worth. The ring symbolizes both the loss of Henry's relationship with Mona and his hope that someday she might come back to him. The loss of the ring and the fact that a blossom has fallen off it symbolize the hopelessness of the situation and the loss of the most important romantic relationship in Henry's life, as well as his inability to resurrect it.


Writers serve as important touchstones for the character of Henry, and likely for Miller, too. These include the 19th-century American poet Walt Whitman, who wrote encyclopedic, ecstatic poems embracing all aspects of American life. Henry does not share Whitman's optimism about America by any means, but he has a similar, all-encompassing style, piling on long lists throughout the novel, including the many sights, sounds, and smells of Paris that Henry experiences as he wanders through the city. He also admires Dostoyevsky, a 19th-century Russian novelist, because "there was no place too low for him to enter, no place too high for him to fear to ascend." This, too, resembles Henry's own approach to life, which ranges from descriptions of the "low" (toilets, brothels, sex with prostitutes, and the black, rotting guts of civilization), to the ecstatic heights of reinventing the world through art.

Henry is writing a book, but he insists it is not really a book, just an insult, "a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty ... what you will." He finds existing literature tiresome, but he keeps writing anyway. To Henry books and literature symbolize repression. They only include what people are willing to say out loud, but his goal in his writing is to say what no one else is willing to say. In Chapter 13 he tells readers that "my idea in collaborating with myself has been to get off the gold standard of literature." He wants to lift the censorship from literature and speak the unspeakable. In the beginning of the novel, Henry believes words are futile—the only writers who are trustworthy are the ones who are not ruled by words, but are living their passions. However, in Chapter 13 Henry has an epiphany and comes to realize the power of words to restore humanity and bring joy.

Female Body

In a novel so full of sex it is difficult to find more than one page that doesn't talk about it, the female body functions as a multipurpose symbol. Sometimes Henry describes it as the womb from which he has been ejected and to which he wants to return. At other times he describes it as the cesspool of the world, the repository of all that is bad, and the symbol of trickery and false advertising. At other times he describes the female body as a gateway into the world of imagination and creativity.

Henry has a complicated relationship with the female body. He both loves and hates it, and it serves both as his nemesis and his deepest desire. He views the female body as a mechanism by which to achieve a short-term pleasure that is, in the end, unfulfilling. Henry uses Matisse's representations of the female body to illuminate what Henry believes to be beautiful and full of light in the world, though, and says none of Matisse's works could be complete without the spark of the female form the artist uses. Later, when he is with a prostitute, her body, specifically her sex organs, inspire an ecstatic vision in which Henry explores the end of civilization and the role of the artist. The female body itself serves as a symbol of Henry's own state of mind, changing with his moods, becoming beautiful when Henry's life is going well, and terrible, devoid of meaning, when he is angry or destitute.

Paris and New York City

Paris symbolizes excess, good and bad, as well as poverty and squalor for artists who come there to gain inspiration. In Paris, even if you are poor, all vices are on display and are there for the taking. Henry believes Paris gets inside a person and eats them away, but he also thinks that Paris is the one place in the world where artistic types like himself are able to see the world stripped of all its pretenses, expanding their creativity. Henry simultaneously sees exuberance and destruction in process in Paris, and his relationship to the city may be his most intimate in the novel, despite the many women in his life.

New York City, in contrast, appears like a treadmill to Henry, where he has to work nonstop in order to stay alive, and still never gets ahead because he and others are always under the thumb of the rich. Unlike Paris, which offers a nonstop stream of physical sensations that provide an immediacy and energy that Henry craves, New York is "cold, glittering, malign." There is no joy for Henry in New York, even though Mona, his wife, has gone back there, and Henry misses her terribly.

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