Tropic of Cancer | Study Guide

Henry Miller

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Tropic of Cancer | Chapter 1 | Summary



Henry Miller, an American, lives in Paris. Abandoned by his wife Mona, who has returned to the United States, Henry suspects he's in Paris for a purpose, but he doesn't know yet what the reason is. He lives in an apartment called the Villa Borghese with Boris, a stingy writer who thinks life is meaningless. Boris, always worried about money, wants to sublet the apartment where they live; he never shares his food or eats in front of Henry, because it makes Boris feel guilty. Henry doesn't care about being broke, doomed, or hopeless; he's happier than he's ever been. In Paris he no longer thinks about being an artist, he is an artist. The book he writes is not really a book at all, but a slap in the face to God, art, and literature. He promises not to change a single word that flows out of him.

Henry describes his friends. Borowski and his wife feed Henry lunch on Wednesdays, and Henry thinks they are both a pain to be with. Borowski dresses carefully in hats and corduroy suits, with a different cane for each day of the week. Henry calls his friend Moldorf "God," because "Moldorf is God," yet Henry also thinks Moldorf resembles the type of man who in his own mind "hears a roar where others hear only a squeak," someone who projects himself as bigger than he is. Moldorf is a coarse man, yet delicate at the same time, and Henry thinks he has a lot in common with him. Being with Moldorf is like "looking ... in a cracked mirror." Van Norden, in contrast, Henry calls "cunt-struck," meaning Van Norden lives only for sex and chasing women. Van Norden and Sylvester both want to be writers, but Henry says they won't ever make it. Carl and Boris, however, Henry respects, because they suffer and are completely neurotic.

Henry secretly has sex with Tania, Sylvester's wife, and he uses his sexual experiences with Tania to torture Sylvester—in Henry's imagination. Henry helps his friend Carl write letters to a woman named Irène, whom Henry says is like a valise, or suitcase, without straps. Like Tania, she wants words, not just sex. Henry compares Tania and Irène's desire for love letters with Llona, a woman he admires because her only desire is to publicly expose herself, masturbate, and have sex with everything that moves.

Henry fears his manuscripts qualify as actual literature, which he detests. He mainly desires to write down whatever other writers fear and hesitate to include in their works. Henry elaborates on his creative process, which he calls recording: "Nobody, as far as I can see, is making use of those elements in the air which give direction and motivation to our lives." He lives "fast and furious" and prefers "the world to be out of whack" because he enjoys suffering and finds it exhilarating. He cries out "for more disasters ... bigger calamities ... grander failures," and he wants everyone "to scratch himself to death." Henry also mentions his friends are Jewish, and says he could be Jewish, too, because he is ugly enough and hates himself. To Henry Jews are fearless because everyone around them attacks them.

Mr. and Mrs. Wren come to look at the apartment, and Henry spills out his story. Henry describes his life in Paris, before meeting his current group of friends, as a wandering drunken blur, landing him in strange places, such as Madame Delorme's home. Her lesbianism frightens him; he feels more comfortable around prostitutes. Henry describes walking through the filthy, exhilarating Paris streets. Henry reminisces about his wife, Mona, and her visit to Paris to see him in 1928, where they slept in a hotel infested with bedbugs, had a lot of sex, and switched hotels. He forgot they needed money to get on the boat back to the United States. Henry also relates a memorable night when he had sex in a restaurant bathroom with a strange woman, and comes out to find Mona waiting for him with a disapproving look. He ends up getting so drunk he throws up all over everything when they get back to the hotel. Henry recalls overlapping memories of leaving New York for Paris without Mona, as her patron watches from the sidelines, as well as Mona's return visit to Paris some months later. He remembers how passionate their relationship is.


Chapter 1 develops Henry's idea that writers are not to be trusted or respected unless they're crazy, which is a romantic cliché, but Henry doesn't get much done himself, thanks to his adventures with women and alcohol, along with his tendency to wander the streets of Paris. Worrying about getting Tania back and other problems keeps him too busy to write. However, Henry enjoys suffering and lives in a state of poverty on purpose, for the sake of his art. Therefore, it makes sense that the two friends Henry respects and considers real writers are Carl and Boris, both emotionally unhinged and willing to say anything in their writing.

Chapter 1 includes graphic, no-holds barred descriptions of Henry's sex life, a famous component of the novel, which led to its being banned in the United States until 1961. Henry tends to see almost every woman through the lens of his own high-voltage sexual appetite, such as his description of what he wants to do to Tania, replete with profanity that refers to her anatomy. His lust for her also seems to be inspired by his need to make her husband, Sylvester, fume with jealousy: "I will send you home to your Sylvester with an ache in your belly and your womb turned inside out ... I shoot hot bolts into you, Tania, I make your ovaries incandescent." The scene with the stranger in the bathroom, as Mona waits for him, is also typical of Henry's dealings with women. He and Mona have a deeply passionate relationship, but when Henry drinks, every beautiful woman looks like a possible sex partner. Sexual freedom may be something they have both agreed to in their marriage. The person they wire for money is one of Mona's patrons, meaning she sleeps with other men in return for financial support. But, Henry's bathroom escapade makes Mona unhappy and doubtful of any place for her in Henry's wild life. He forgets all about her when he sees a woman who wants to have sex with him. For Henry sex itself is part of the changeable flow of life.

The novel also includes imagery intended to disgust the reader. The novel practically crawls with references to lice, bedbugs, cockroaches, spiders, and ants. Miller's insect imagery conveys how sordid living in poverty can be. After he makes love to Mona, Henry is startled to see bedbugs swarm over her pillow. This imagery represents Henry's own disgust with the state of the world, and it reflects the trouble in Mona and Henry's relationship, too. Also, Henry, who hates being obligated to anyone, regularly equates people with insects: "People are like lice. They get under your skin and bury themselves there." The imagery in the novel also incorporates all kinds of bodily fluids. Readers can expect references to vomit, bile, blood, semen, and urine, among others.

Miller is often criticized for his descriptions of Jews in his books, and this particular chapter is often used as an example. He describes his Jewish characters in an unflattering light, but he also expresses a willingness to convert for Tania, and he mentions that almost all of his friends are Jewish. This detail, according to some Jewish critics, is bolstered by the fact that Tropic of Cancer would not have been published without the help of the Jewish people who backed Miller during his legal and publishing battles. One aspect of Henry's friendships, particularly with men consistent across the board, though, is his willingness to critique and insult everyone, even if he is grateful for their interventions to keep him alive. The back-and-forth insults are an integral part of male friendships in the novel.

Tropic of Cancer, narrated by Henry, a fictional version of Miller himself, uses modernist techniques and follows many tenets of poet André Breton's 1924 "Manifesto of Surrealism." Miller will point to surrealism more directly in later chapters but plants vital clues for readers in Chapter 1, letting them know Henry is a character, and not altogether to be trusted as a reliable narrator. For example, Henry contradicts himself when he describes Moldorf, yet also says he is so much like Moldorf it frightens him, implying Henry is contradictory. When Henry describes wandering through Paris, he says he thinks about art and writing styles during his walk but then admits, "it is not true ... it is only later ... I allow my mind to play with these ideas." He lets readers in on his secret writing process, where he makes "use of those elements in the air which give direction and motivation to our lives."

Other important surrealist components appear in Chapter 1, such as creating shocking imagery by juxtaposing ideas to reveal characters' subconscious drives and explain subjective emotions. Henry's description of Llona is a good example. When Henry says of Llona, "not a prick in the land [is] big enough for her ... Men went inside her and curled up," he provides an image that reveals Llona's characterization: she is sexually insatiable. Miller intends for the reader to know he projects and magnifies everything out of proportion. For the reader, awareness of the author's style tends to deflate his shock tactics.

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