Tropic of Cancer | Study Guide

Henry Miller

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Tropic of Cancer | Chapter 15 | Summary



In the spring, after spending a brutal winter teaching English in Dijon, fortune smiles again on Henry Miller. His friend Carl sends a telegram about a vacancy in his apartment building and promises to pay the fare if Henry wants to return to Paris. Henry flees "the penitentiary," without so much as a goodbye to the students and faculty. When Henry arrives back in Paris, he finds Carl in the midst of a drama. He recently bedded and lived with a girl who turned out to be only 15 years old. When her parents found out, they were furious, and threatened to notify the police. However, when they came to take her away, her father was impressed with the serious literature in Carl's apartment, particularly the Goethe and Shakespeare, so they didn't press charges.

They still dragged the girl home with them and made Carl promise never to see or write to her again, but Carl hopes she will find a way to sneak back to him. Henry figures only Carl could get into a mess such as this. But then Carl tells Henry he loves the girl's mother, too, and offers to show Henry the letter he started writing to her. Henry thinks "there's something funny about this." He asks Carl if he's joking. Carl doesn't answer. Instead, he shows Henry the watercolors the 15-year-old painted, and babbles about how she was a virgin when they first met, and how Carl had to help her with everything, like dressing herself and brushing her teeth. He shows Henry the lollypops he used to buy for her. Meanwhile, Carl has a prostitute sleeping in his bed; she wakes up and wonders what Henry and Carl are talking about. Carl offers the prostitute to Henry, who goes downstairs and has sex with her.

Henry starts having breakfast at the Coupole with Carl and Van Norden every day, so they walk back and forth to work together, like they used to when they all worked at the newspaper; this implies Henry has his old job back, but he doesn't say so directly. To Henry's amazement Van Norden has discovered a "new diversion": he likes to masturbate into hollowed-out apple cores. Henry also learns from Van Norden that Fillmore is in the hospital, possibly insane or with syphilis, but definitely in trouble. Henry visits him in the hospital. Fillmore bursts into tears when he sees Henry, and tells him the doctors think he's crazy, that he has "delusions of grandeur." Down to his last 500 francs and unemployed, Fillmore also tells Henry he's gotten into trouble with a French girl, Ginette. Fillmore has given her the clap and gotten her pregnant. Fillmore believes he has to marry her, so Henry offers to talk with Ginette to try to sort things out.

Ginette turns out to be a big-boned, bold, and saucy French girl whose parents have a lot of money. She calls Fillmore her "Jo-Jo," and is ecstatic to meet Henry when she finds out he's Fillmore's friend. She invites Henry for dinner, and buys more wine when her friend Yvette shows up. Henry "fills her up with a lot of baloney" to comfort her. He also brings up the fact, "tactfully as [he] could," that if Ginette has a baby, and has the clap, the baby could be born blind. Ginette doesn't care; she makes Henry promise to be the godfather of the child.

Ginette and Yvette show up at Henry's room the next day to say they are transferring Fillmore to the château, which is what the French call a mental hospital. While Fillmore's in the hospital, Ginette keeps Henry informed of all the news. Sometime during his recovery, Fillmore tells Ginette "he has no intention of marrying her," and if she wants to have a baby "she [can] support it herself." Ginette goes to the country to stay with her parents. Meanwhile, Yvette and Carl have hit it off. One night at Henry's, Yvette tries to convince Henry that Ginette's faking the pregnancy, saying Ginette's just an alcoholic with a "bloated belly." Much later Henry finds out from Fillmore Yvette is lying; she's just jealous. Finally released from the hospital, Fillmore goes to Ginette's parents' house in the country. Fillmore works on their farm, where they publicly announce the engagement. Fillmore has all kinds of escapades, including drinking with Ginette's father.

When Henry next sees Fillmore, he looks wonderful. However, Fillmore reveals to Henry that Ginette controls every move he makes. Also, Fillmore is stuck in an engagement he doesn't want. He can't get his job back and his money has run out, so Ginette's parents are his only source of cash. Fillmore moves to Henry's building, so Henry spends a lot of time with the couple. One day a big argument between them erupts in a café, which turns into a brawl on the street, during which Ginette slaps Fillmore and he hits her back. Ginette calls Fillmore and Henry "dirty foreigners! Thugs!" and "Gangsters!" Ginette screams at them, "No foreigner can treat a decent French woman like that!" The owner of the café throws Fillmore and Henry out. More than a dozen people follow them down the street to see what will happen. Henry's surprised by Fillmore's gentleness, when Fillmore finally calms Ginette down. Henry finds out later Ginette got her revenge in private that night, tearing up all of Fillmore's clothes and scratching his face and hands. Fillmore tells Henry this has happened before, and she's threatened to kill Fillmore if he leaves her. Henry avoids them both after that.

A few weeks later Henry finds Fillmore completely despondent and under Ginette's control. He no longer loves France, and wants to return to America. Railing against the French culture, Fillmore says, "underneath it's all dead; there's no feeling, no sympathy, no friendship." Henry sees Fillmore "is completely caved in," and determines to help him. However, Henry finds Fillmore's change of heart stunning. He can hardly believe he "[is] the same guy" who only a year ago would have punched someone in the nose for saying something negative about France. Henry comments "he never saw a guy so infatuated with a country," and he thinks about what France means: "being a bad boy, being on holiday." Now, Henry muses, when the party's over, Fillmore sees "it wasn't just a circus, but an arena, just like everywhere." Then Henry thinks about how idiotic Americans must look to the French, with Americans' "cheap optimism." "Illusion's too good a word" to describe what "turns the stomach of an ordinary European" about Americans. Henry realizes the right word is "delusion ... sheer delusion."

Henry convinces Fillmore to take all of his money—from Fillmore's mother—out of the bank and hop the next train to London, then book a ship and head back to America. Henry gets Fillmore to the bank, the British Consulate, the American Express—to exchange the money—and then the train. They realize at the train station they didn't exchange all of the money. Fillmore takes the English and American money; Henry keeps the francs, promising Fillmore he will give them all to Ginette. Excited and "panicky," and so worried Fillmore will back out, Henry can barely say goodbye. Alone again, Henry counts the cash in his pocket, 2,875 francs. He decides not to give Ginette any money, to keep it all for himself. Later, Henry sees a woman taking a taxi with her dog, decides he's as good as her dog, and orders a taxi ride through Paris.

With all Fillmore's money in his pocket, Henry decides to idle the day away and "heads for the Seine." It's a beautiful day; "everything ... close ... palpitant ... vibrant." It occurs to Henry that he has enough money to go to America himself. He asks himself if he wants to, but "there was no answer." He traces the terrain of New York City in his mind and thinks briefly of Mona, "wonder[ing] in a vague way what had ever happened to her." Afterward, "a great peace came over [him]." His thoughts drift to the Seine river and the European "soil so saturated with the past" it is impossible to "detach it from its human background." Henry feels at ease, looking at the Seine flowing by. He has "a little while ... to take in the meaning of the landscape." Humans are strange, he thinks, "more than anything they need ... sufficient space—space even more than time." Henry feels a "river flowing through [him] ... its course is fixed."


Miller leaves the question—will Henry return to America or stay in Paris—open-ended, but all along the way, the author has been training the reader to understand that what Henry chooses to focus on, and Miller to write about, says as much about Henry's character as what Henry says about the subjects he chooses. So, the fact that the last chapter centers on Fillmore's exit out of Paris, should clue the reader in. In Chapter 14 Henry left his teaching position without saying goodbye, a French exit, so it would be out of character to reveal his answer at the end of the novel. A close reading will show how he does not answer the question he poses to himself: "Do I want to go? There was no answer." Then he envisions New York, thinks about Mona—and yes, he is over Mona by now—before his thoughts roll on to how, in Paris "the soil ... so saturated with the past ... can never detach it from its human background." Miller puts a space break, so the second to last paragraph visually stands out, like it's Henry's answer, and in that unusually spaced paragraph, Henry says he needs space more than time. All along, Paris has symbolized time and timelessness, while America, not specifically New York City though, has represented spaciousness.

In another sense, perhaps Miller leaves the ending open because, as much as Henry has changed, he still believes in fate. The very last words in the novel, about the river Henry feels flowing inside him, point this out beautifully: "It's course is fixed." Maybe Henry doesn't decide in this moment. He's going to just keep flowing, like the Seine. But still, everything points to Henry's eventually leaving: Chapter 13 centers on Henry's joyful epiphany, in which he philosophically falls out of love with Paris. And of course, Henry Miller, the author, did eventually leave and return to America.

Henry, the character, by the novel's conclusion, has changed a lot. The most prominent change has occurred in his friendships. When he returns from the academy, everything's out of whack: Carl, who the reader last saw trembling over the prospect of having sex with Irène, is now in a warped relationship with a 15-year-old, deluded about her mother, and babbling about lollipops, even making Henry uncomfortable, which is difficult to do. Van Norden's been distracting himself by having sex with apples, a peculiar image, purposely meant to point to its strangeness. And Fillmore has lost his marbles, so to speak, blubbering and "caved in." The fact that Henry tries to keep up his machismo by sharing a prostitute with Carl, when Henry first returns, contrasts with the tone and tenor of the rest of the chapter. The machismo dissolves quickly, with Henry's friends unraveling, and as the saying goes, "things get real," and quickly. There's no mention of an artistic mission, no partying, no poverty, no doom, gloom, or filth, no surrealist visionary cascades. Instead, Henry tosses about in his friends' relationship dramas, and he takes the role seriously and tries to help as much as he's capable of, considering his character.

This leads to the one area where Henry has not grown, but become bitter and even more misogynistic, in his sexuality and views on women. Henry has presented himself openly throughout the novel as driven by his appetites, which he fulfills without apology, as part of his belief in freedom. In taking his freedom, Henry has not been very nice to prostitutes, though he has empathized with them from time to time, but that was much earlier in the novel. His outlook on women and sex darkens as the novel wears on. However, when it comes to French women of a higher social status, and women who are entangled with his friends, with issues and expectations, Henry shows a new kind of coldheartedness the reader has never seen before. Miller waits until the end of the novel to reveal it. Either this is who Henry really is, and has been all along, or this is the effect living in Paris has culminated in. What Henry's behavior means to all the women he's interacted with in his time in Paris remains unexplored.

Another first for Henry comes when he realizes how the French people likely see the Americans who come to their country, with their "cheap optimism" and their "delusions," treating France like a giant party, "a circus." Henry must look through Fillmore's eyes to see it, but when he does, it's another clue Henry will eventually return to America. Henry has had several moments of realization revolving around being delusional, implying his consciousness is rising to a new level of understanding all along.

There's a kind of feeling of sorrow, or tragedy, the ending leaves the reader with, because Henry finally has money, but he came by it dishonestly. Miller leaves readers to judge Henry, based on readers' own morality. This may leave some readers in a tough position, questioning the admirable or objectionable nature of Henry's freedom, which includes following his own moral code, given his often unethical behavior. Perhaps his refusal to gloss over his own behavior or anyone else's involves paradox, which is a contradiction in which both sides hold true. Possibly, some readers feel disgusted by some of Henry's actions while at the same time inspired by his drive for personal and artistic freedom expressed throughout the novel. Miller also includes specific details, planted perhaps to ease the conscience: Fillmore's family is wealthy; Ginette's family is wealthy; Henry saves Fillmore from a certain breakdown and abusive situation; who knows what will happen later. All that can be known for certain is Henry's no hero. He may be a hero when it comes to his writing, and in his own mind, but in his actions, he takes the unheroic course. Faced with relentless poverty throughout the novel, Henry is kinder, always looking at the bright side, always trying to convince himself being poor is good for an artist, good for the soul. But in the end, Henry feels peace when he has an abundance of money in his hand, when he finally feels secure.

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