Tropic of Cancer | Study Guide

Henry Miller

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Tropic of Cancer | Chapter 14 | Summary



Henry Miller prepares to become an exchange professor of English at a school in Dijon. The unpaid position provides Henry free room and board. Fillmore thinks they should celebrate, and they go on a drinking binge before Henry leaves. In the early morning hours on the Sunday Henry leaves, as they wander through the city, they pass by a mass in session at a Catholic church. Fillmore wants to go to mass for "the fun of it"; but, when they get inside, Henry remembers all of the humiliating times when he had to beg for food. He remembers going to a synagogue in Florida to ask a rabbi for help, but when the rabbi discovers he isn't Jewish, he sends Henry and his friend Joe to the Salvation Army. Henry and Joe head to see an Irish priest, who sends them right back out onto the street again and drives off in a limousine, blowing cigar smoke out at them through the window. The "sexless" vision of little boys in choir gowns, and priests in frocks, horrifies Henry.

When Henry arrives at the school, he realizes he has made an awful mistake. The gloomy buildings house a staff described as a collection of "colorless individuals," and Henry can't find the refectory. He finally finds it and has dinner, after which everyone goes into town. The dingy and dank bistro features both prostitutes who will chat with him as well as an orchestra of women who sound terrible.

The professors act above socializing with the lecturers, so Henry spends most of his time alone in the dorms. Henry, terrified of teaching children, and not knowing what he is supposed to teach them, decides he will be an "ask me anything" kind of teacher, which makes the experience tolerable. But, Henry is still miserable, and always hungry, because the food consists of "just calories," not actual cuisine, with only enough to keep "heads above water." Everything about the "bleak and empty" school and the town, inside and out, feels like a prison, so much so, he refers to it as "the penitentiary." The silence and gloom, the snow and fog, make him feel "full of longing." He thinks of all of the women he has known, "a chain which [he's] forged out of [his] own misery." The attempt to embrace an opportunity, try to stick it out in France, and enter regular society, has dictated Henry's life. Now, having drifted here, surrounded by people, Henry finds himself completely alone.


In Chapter 14 Miller takes on education and organized religion, revealing them to be grotesque, hypocritical, and dehumanizing institutions. First, Henry describes a series of adventures, in Paris and Jacksonville, Florida, where priests and a rabbi turn away Henry and his friends when they ask for help. He punctuates his tale with an image of a priest—who refuses to help Henry—driving away in a limousine. The details Henry uses to describe the religious mass also convey his distaste for organized religion. The chilly cathedral, he calls "a dismal tomb," with a cold, "mean temperature." He chastises organized religion for being sexless, for blessing war, for funding war's "battleships and high explosives." He criticizes how the religious practices are all just "so the worker may have more strength in his arms." All this pomp and circumstance, "just to furnish a little strength!" For Henry, a character who has been starving on the streets, suffering in poverty, and rolling around in the Paris filth, displaying tremendous amounts of inner strength, organized religion is a cold, dead, hypocritical absurdity.

By the end of the chapter, it is clear to Henry, who had a major joyful epiphany before leaving Paris, that the institution of education, like the institution of religion, is also the exact opposite of celebration and life. Power structures crush the humanity out of people. In Dijon Henry takes a step backward into the abyss he recently escaped. Rather than reaching for the stars, he's fallen back into gloom and doom, and his situation is worse. There was more life in his poor existence back in Paris than there is at the school, where his most basic needs are supposedly met: they don't pay him; he has no choice about where and what to eat, who to see, or where to live; he has no friends and no freedom, and Henry can't live without freedom.

On the train to Dijon Miller has Henry poke at other institutional systems: charities, such as the Salvation Army, which don't help Henry anyway, the police, and materialism in general. Henry rants about all of the things people think they need and concludes, "If you want bread, you've got to get in harness, get in lock step." This is another way to say, if someone wants to eat, they have to be a part of the system. To not buy in to materialism, to live outside systems of mass production and institutional organization, means to starve.

Henry's descriptions of his life in Dijon pour out in lists of astonishing, horrifying imagery of the stagnant town Henry hates and the aspects of institutional learning he despises. When he's trying to figure out his curriculum, by way of what he cannot possibly teach here, he throws in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, which is an interesting choice, because Henry loves Walt Whitman's soulfulness. It's not that Henry is being an unreliable narrator in this chapter, as much as he tries to show how soulless his environment is. Obviously Henry loves to learn and to read; he mentions writers and artists throughout the novel; it's just that in a place with no soul, an overly rigid place like the military, Henry feels learning isn't possible, because it doesn't mean anything, disconnected from experience and struggle.

Figurative language referring to food, particularly bread, to make this point, runs through the narrative in this section: he calls the students "upper-crusters," and learning, an "empty bread basket"; he must wait to eat; misses breakfast because it's too early, and says he feels "like a jellyfish nailed to a plank," among other images. He references the soullessness by using Whitman as a contrast, again, when he describes the educational system as a dead zone with "leaves dull as cement: leaves no dew can bring to glisten again ... The trees bleach and wither." In Whitman nature is alive, infused with the divine. Where Henry is, nature is lifeless. Henry's tirade, also filled with Miller's trademark body imagery, mirrors Henry's disgust. He describes not only the piles of human waste in the school's bathrooms ("the shit piles up like anthills"), but the blood he discovers every day in his stool. Even walking up the stairs to his humble room triggers a stream of sensory imagery, as if the place makes Henry so sick, he has to vomit up his description of the peeling paint, the sound of scurrying rats, and the room's nauseating stench.

Henry connects with no one in Dijon in any meaningful way, and without friends, Henry is lost. The places he visits in Dijon are full of people he thinks are empty and dead. Only the school's night watchman, or "le veilleur de la nuit" in French, brings Henry any hope. The figure of the night watchman drinking wine conjures up a rapid stream of lush imagery for Henry. He imagines the man "drinking down the dregs of human sympathy," and when the watchman smiles, Henry feels as if his smile floats above the abyss of "the whole stinking civilized world." Henry imagines Matisse's Mediterranean world of color and light hidden inside the night watchman, but buried under the deadening avalanche of life in Dijon. Without true friendship and without sunlight, without the connection to the fertile earth and exuberant life around him, Henry doesn't know who he is anymore. The work he does, teaching English conversation to students he considers "zeroes," represents the exact opposite of the writing he wanted to do, which would connect people with each other and bring joy.

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