- Part 1
Orwell notes that a novel written about American dead-beats cadging drinks in the Latin Quarter of Paris seems an unlikely candidate to be a novel of outstanding value at the time, as its mental atmosphere belongs to the 1920s rather than the 1930s. Orwell is not concerned with the proliferation of 'unprintable words', but is more interested in the way Miller writes about the man in the street. He sees its value not by revealing what is strange, but what is familiar, and in this respect it has much in common with James Joyce in Ulysses. He describes the prose as astonishing.
Orwell rejects another popular comparison with Céline's Journey to the End of the Night which is a book-with-a-purpose, but introduces a comparison with Walt Whitman whose literature is one of "acceptance" of life as it is rather than a struggle to change it. It is because he is passive to experience that Miller is able to get nearer to the 'ordinary man'. This is out of key with the times when writers had an active involvement in politics and is reflected in the difference between the literature of the Spanish Civil War written by "cocksure partisans telling you what to think" and that of the Great War literature written by "victims".
- Part 2
Orwell sets Tropic of Cancer against its literary context with a perusal of literary trends since the First World War. First there is A. E. Housman with nostalgic descriptions of the countryside and adolescent despair in A Shropshire Lad, which Orwell revered as a teenager. After Housman and the nature poets there was a new movement of the 1920s of unrelated writers with a similar outlook such as Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lawrence, Wyndham Lewis, Aldous Huxley and Lytton Strachey. These were noted by their pessimistic outlook and lack of interest in politics in the narrower sense. In the 1930s writing took on a serious purpose with the W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender group including Cecil Day-Lewis and Christopher Isherwood. Orwell saw a Boy scout leader type of proselytising from this group which consisted of people from an almost identical public school–university–Bloomsbury background.
Orwell notes the left-leaning tendency of this group and its fascination with communism. Describing the communist as a Russian publicity agent, Orwell seeks an explanation for this. In addition to the common ground of anti-fascism he sees that after the debunking of Western civilisation and the disappearance of traditional middle class values and aspirations, people need something to believe in and Communism has replaced Catholicism as the escapist ideal. Orwell identifies another factor which is the softness and security of life in England against which the secret police and summary executions are too remote. He cites Cyril Connolly in Enemies of Promise for whom the key eventful period in his life was his public school education – "five years in a lukewarm bath of snobbery". As an adjunct Orwell notes that what really frightened him about the Spanish Civil War was how these people adopted the mental attitudes of the Great War in support of their cause.
- Part 3
For Orwell, Miller is a writer who gets away from being a political animal. His passivity is illustrated by his declaration that Orwell's plan to go to Spain was "the act of an idiot". Miller used the analogy of Jonah and the Whale to apply to Anaïs Nin, and this is taken up by Orwell as describing the final unsurpassable stage of irresponsibility. Referring again to the great war Orwell notes the surviving readable works are those written from a passive negative angle and he highlights Prufrock by T. S. Eliot. Miller's is a human voice among bomb explosions. Orwell predicts the break-up of laissez-faire capitalism and of the liberal-Christian culture and suggests that any novel worth reading will have to follow the lines of Miller's work.