Tropic of Cancer | Study Guide

Henry Miller

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Tropic of Cancer | Chapter 10 | Summary



Henry Miller loses his job in a layoff and has to figure out how to feed himself. Carl and Van Norden, who still have jobs, needle Henry about what he'll do if Mona shows up, but they figure she could help Henry, making a little money if she still has her looks. Tania can't let Henry stay with her because she's still married, and living with a man could make her look bad in front of her boss. Also, she's sending money to Sylvester, so Henry can't depend on her for any financial support at all. Henry gets to know all sorts of people he really doesn't want to know: people he avoided previously, bores and drunks he loathes. He searches for "prominent Jews" to help him find employment, which works out. He gets a job as a ghostwriter, writing articles whose complex scientific content he doesn't fully understand. He also finds a job writing pamphlets for a new whorehouse, where he gets paid in champagne and sex. He takes Van Norden there one night, to make a commission for bringing in clientele, but the madame finds out Van Norden works for the paper and gives him a prostitute and drinks for free. Henry ends up having to write the article for Van Norden, too.

Henry works for a photographer, but he has to pose naked. He and the photographer walk through seedier parts of Paris, where Henry gets to know the history of each place. Through the photographer, he meets Kruger, a sculptor, painter, and "esoteric" thinker, who gives Henry money to help him improve his circumstances. Henry does not respect Kruger's artistic abilities, and he refers to Kruger's Eastern spiritual ideas as "flapdoodle," meaning nonsense, but listens to him, so Kruger will keep giving him money and food. Henry also falls in with an Irish painter named Mark Swift, who used up his Jewish girlfriend's dowry. Swift belittles his girlfriend, a painter herself, and treats her cruelly, to get her to leave. She makes excuses for Swift's cruelty, saying his genius causes him to be rotten.

Swift gets Henry to befriend Fillmore, an adventurous young man in the diplomatic service, with a lot of money to spend. Henry goes out with Fillmore and gets used to having big meals and long nights on the town, but the rich food makes him extremely ill. Henry has the bad luck to get sick at the same time Kruger needs his studio for a big exhibition, which, if successful, could launch his career. Terrified Henry will actually die in his studio apartment, Kruger calls Fillmore and his acquaintance, a sailor named Collins, to come pick up Henry and take him somewhere else. Kruger feels bad about kicking Henry out, but his exhibition needs to be a success. Collins handles Henry gently, paying off a hotel proprietor to allow Henry to stay with him. He keeps Henry entertained with stories of catching syphilis in China, which sparks Henry's fevered memory of lighting firecrackers as a kid and smelling them on his fingers, infusing China into his bloodstream.

Later Collins, Fillmore, and Henry take a trip away from Paris. They end up at a place called Jimmie's Bar in Le Havre, another French city. Henry, acting like he has money, orders drinks and entertains prostitutes at the bar. He ends up fooling around with Marcelle, a mixed-race ex-prostitute with a nice house for Henry to crash in for a few days, but Henry, Collins, and Fillmore leave the restaurant and go to a brothel instead. Fillmore and Collins both have a "dose of the clap," or gonorrhea. They take "Vénétienne," a sailor's liquid remedy for the venereal disease. In the brothel parlor, Collins talks about a boy he loves. Fillmore and Collins remain downstairs while Henry has sex upstairs. Afterward, they head over to a sailor's bar, which functions primarily as a gay bar. They carouse all weekend, then return to Jimmie's Bar.

Collins tells Henry and Fillmore he wants to go home to Idaho. Jimmie's wife, Yvette, has a crush on Collins, and she keeps flying into fits of jealousy over a Russian woman who also has a crush on Collins. Later that night the women have a showdown, and a violent bar fight breaks out. The fight trashes the bar. Yvette, drunk, angry, and weepy, decides to kill herself. She takes a taxi to a sea cliff she wants to jump from, but when she arrives, she's too drunk to do anything but rip off half of her clothes. The taxi driver takes her home, where her husband Jimmie beats her. The next day, as Henry, Fillmore, and Collins bid each other goodbye, they get sentimental about America, but Henry says America's nothing more than an abstract idea, not the way they remember it.


As foreshadowed in the previous chapter, where Henry renews his artistic quest to—as all famous artists must do—descend "to the very bowels of the earth," fate gives him a hand by taking away his job and plunging him once again into poverty's clutches. And poverty in Tropic of Cancer influences all the other main elements the novel explores: sex, friendship, disease, writing, and art.

Poverty illuminates the sex theme once again, by way of sex for sale, showing how the poor, who own nothing, must sell the only items they possess, their bodies. The rich control; the poor submit. Miller makes his point clear when he shows Henry being paid for writing, with sex instead of money, or even food. Then Miller takes it further. Van Norden, on only the merit that he works for a newspaper, gets sex for free while Henry loses his commission: like the old adage, "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer." If the reader fails to notice the metaphor, Miller delivers the next eye-opener when Henry has to write Van Norden's article for him, because Van Norden can't figure out how to hide the fact that the venue is a brothel. Then the final punch line comes when Henry says of the whole sordid affair, "I was getting fucked good and proper." However, Henry's situation has worsened, and this time, he must pose nude and sell his own body to survive. No matter how destitute Henry may be, though, there is always a female prostitute worse off and more desperate for money. Henry and his friends can always access sex, even if they have to pay for it out of the money they beg or borrow.

The theme of friendship is also further developed in this chapter when Henry's poverty proves to affect his friendships, too. Clearly his former friendships have weakened if not dissolved altogether, and Henry finds himself befriending "sots ... like lice," people he avoided in the past. Always optimistic, Henry makes the most of it, and some of his new friends keep him from falling completely over the edge. Collins, an acquaintance, and Fillmore, who becomes a close friend, turn out to be Henry's saviors when he becomes sick. They also take him on quite an adventure outside of Paris, which leads to a sentimental and fun-loving Henry not seen in other chapters of the novel. He even misses America for a moment, by the end of the chapter.

Collins's storytelling and his "quiet and gentle" voice help Henry recuperate, demonstrating the power of art to bring renewal. Collins tells Henry a long story about how he went to China, got syphilis, and was cured. With its foreign location, sex, drugs, famine, and disease, the story sounds similar to Henry's own stories of Paris, on an even grander scale. The story, revolving around Collins's recovery, represents rebirth. Henry believes that "it was as though [Collins's] spirit had been cleansed by all the suffering he endured." Henry feels Western civilization is like a diseased body, a hopeless case, but he eventually concludes that it too can be reborn.

As Henry drifts along with the story, it inspires his own stream-of-consciousness memory of lighting Chinese fireworks as a child. He can see the wrappers and smell their smoke. The sensory experience saturates him, "infiltrates his blood," as if he has absorbed China itself into his veins. He believes this is a deeper way to experience China than through mere facts. This reflects Miller's own literary style in Tropic of Cancer with its occasional stream-of-consciousness interludes, its strong sensory imagery, and its protagonist's feeling of being immersed in the flood of sensations and events Paris has to offer.

Homosexuality comes up again in the novel. Up to this point, Henry's had some homophobic views, calling gay men "fairies" and harshly criticizing lesbian relationships as "sterile." However, in this chapter, Collins claims he loves a boy and takes Fillmore and Henry to a sailor's bar, where they observe a "homosexual rout ... in full swing," which Henry embraces and criticizes not at all. Henry also mentions how sentimental all three men get about men being men back in America, "ready to bugger everything in sight, man, woman, or beast." Henry and Fillmore understand Collins really is in love. Perhaps Henry embraces Collins and feels less threatened by his open homosexuality because Henry's character has gone through an internal change in this chapter. Henry's not in Paris, he's in Le Havre, a place with sunshine and salty air from the sea, and the benefits of the setting produce tremendous effects on his mood. Poverty may have tried to sink Henry and take away all of his friends, but new friends open new doors, and new states of consciousness. Being able to go with the flow and trusting "Providence" brings Henry great rewards.

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