Tropic of Cancer | Study Guide

Henry Miller

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Tropic of Cancer | Chapter 11 | Summary



Chapter 11 opens with Henry Miller saying, "Paris is like a whore"; it looks wonderful and tantalizing from afar, "until you have her in your arms. Later you feel empty ... disgusted ... tricked." Henry tries to find a cheap place to stay with the bit of money Collins gave him before he left, more money than Henry's had in a long time. After spending too much money on dinner, Henry ventures out into the rain, where a woman approaches him and begs him to take her to a café because she has no money. Her English accent, politeness, and way of complimenting Henry by calling him "good sir," and "kind sir," makes her seem fake to Henry. He brings up getting a hotel room (for sex), but, abashed, she says she's "not that kind of a girl." While he walks her home, Henry can't tell if she's clever or innocent, but when he caves in and gives her 50 francs, she takes his hand and kisses it. This gesture, he says, unhinges him and makes him want to give her everything he has. He calls the gesture "a new thrill," and feels he "ought to atone for such unexpected bursts of goodness." The encounter makes him feel "like a saint."

On his way home, Henry stops in at a bar and orders some champagne. A beautiful blonde woman takes the seat next to him. The woman begins to cry, right there on the dance floor and tells Henry she "just buried her child." Henry, genuinely concerned, buys her a shot of whiskey and some cigarettes. She also says her mother is ill. Henry grabs her for another dance, to get her to stop crying, and she gropes him this time. "Maybe grief makes one more lecherous," he thinks to himself. She gives him "the willies," but he suggests they go somewhere else anyway. Henry doesn't exactly believe her tales of woe; he thinks she's a whore and out to con him, but when he tells her bluntly he wants sex for money, she's offended. He offers to pay for a room for the both of them for the night, but she needs to check on her mother, so she offers her place.

Once they're in her apartment, she tells Henry he can take a bath while she goes downstairs to see her mother, but he decides not to. He has a feeling something bad could happen to him. When she comes back, she freaks out, shouting that her mother is going to die. Henry offers her 100 francs, for her mother, but they both know he wants sex. The woman rushes him through intercourse and then gets out of bed to go check on her mother again. Henry gets dressed after a while, and looks at her belongings, noticing her diploma, which says "first class." When the woman doesn't return for a long time, he finds her purse. He takes back his 100 francs and all of her money, too; then he bolts out the door and heads to a restaurant to have another meal. He says he doesn't care about the woman's mother, but it bothers him that he can no longer remember whether her diploma said "first class," or not.


Miller reinforces the idea that Henry's character is unreliable, and subjective—which is encouraged in the surrealist literary movement—in this chapter. Henry's subjectivity (basing his observations on the way he feels) comes through in how he kicks off the chapter describing Paris as a whore. Henry's in a disgusted mood, and everything that happens in the chapter causes it, considering the events Henry narrates have already taken place. He's just writing them down in retrospect, afterward. The chapter focuses on two anecdotes involving women, money, and sex. Henry doesn't believe a word either of the women he meets says about her life. However, he feels good about having given the first woman money because the encounter has nothing to do with sex. He describes the encounter as "a new thrill," and the experience cleanses him, making him feel like atoning, and "like a saint." He is so touched when she kisses his hand, he "felt like giving her every damned thing [he] had." This is the second time in Tropic of Cancer that Miller shows how too much sex loses its value.

In stark contrast with Henry's first encounter, the second woman disturbs Henry, gives him "the willies," and begins the whole experience by mentioning death. Perhaps Henry's had enough of poverty, death, and disease. He's never liked thinking about the "reality" of death, only the figurative idea of it, so when the French woman confronts him with images of a dead baby and a dying mother—real death, happening in real time—Henry assumes two things: she's a whore and a liar, again, bringing his subjectivity to the forefront and showing he is an unreliable narrator at times. Miller purposely blurs the narrative so the reader cannot tell whether the woman is a whore or not. Further, Henry's reaction—his coldheartedness when faced with death—reveals just how much he actually fears and loathes death. Henry's never stolen or taken advantage of anyone before. This is out of character for him. He always pays what he agrees for sex. The chapter also shows how Henry's sense of morality can swing from one side to another, depending on how he perceives a woman's willingness to be thankful for his presence, or at least pretend to be grateful. Again, Henry lashes out judgments against women, but fails to judge himself by the same standards, or any standards at all.

Paris, as a symbol in the novel, represents degeneracy and poverty, as well as pleasure and joy. Up to this point, Henry has viewed Paris through the lens of his desperation for a meal. He has experienced the benefits of friendship, as well as all the vices Paris has to offer. Prolonged poverty has made Henry more conscious of what he spends and what he gets for his money. The city is taking its toll on Henry's disposition. Miller combines two symbols in the opening of this chapter, Paris and the female body. Henry's angry with both Paris and women, and women who use their bodies for money. He refuses to even consider the woman's mother could be real and really dying. Henry refuses to humanize the woman he sees as a whore, another change in his character. The change occurs when he happens to have more money than he's had before. A little money in his pocket makes him more demanding about his pleasure and more vengeful when he doesn't get what he wants. Or perhaps Henry's in a disgusted mood because he's disgusted with himself in this moment.

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