Tropic of Cancer | Study Guide

Henry Miller

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Tropic of Cancer | Chapter 2 | Summary

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Summary

Boris hires Elsa to be a maid and cook for him and for Henry Miller, telling Henry not to seduce her. Henry does the opposite, eventually sleeping with Elsa, because in his mind she wants sex, and because her renditions of Schumann on the piano make him sentimental and unable to resist seducing her. He feels sorry for Elsa, who says men are just out to use her, but he also says he doesn't care. The German music she plays makes him think about the way Germans, who had successfully taken over Belgium in the war, raping "a neutral country," have a way of taking over while making people think everything is normal.

Henry says he feels pregnant, as though he carries a book around inside him, and strangers on the street sense it: "cops escort [him] across the street. Women ... offer [him] their seats. Nobody pushes ... rudely any more." He and Boris work together on an anthology of writings they call The Last Book. Henry says, "It is colossal in its pretentiousness. The thought of it almost shatters us." Henry hopes the book will blow up the world, which in his mind, "has been dying," rotten to the core, for some time. When they destroy the world, Henry envisions the "masses for the dead, prayers, confessions" and hymns to follow; he imagines "rose windows ... gargoyles ... acolytes and pallbearers." Henry and Boris will build a town for those who remain, "for spirits who are willing to give up the ghost and put on flesh." His lover Tania feels jealous of the time he spends on the book, and her husband Sylvester feels jealous of Henry's attentions to Tania. Later, Henry likens Paris to an artificial stage, "an obstetrical instrument that tears the living embryo from the womb," incubates the embryo, and becomes its cradle.

Sylvester pontificates about Borowski's paintings to Tania, and Moldorf and Boris plan to come to dinner. Henry says Cronstadt will probably make a poem out of the entire experience. Henry feels upset with Boris at the moment, because a rich American woman came to the villa to see the apartment and Boris failed to introduce him. Henry mocks American women who come to Paris to paint. To the reader, he associates her with a sparrow, "easily ... provided for," calls her a "velvet-snooted gazelle," and rails against how the rich never have to worry about finding a place to work, "there's always a chair standing ready for them."

Moldorf idolizes Sylvester, who is ill, and stays to take care of him. Moldorf also idolizes his own wife, Fanny. She sends him letters about how their sons are doing in school, what has to be paid for when, and other mundane details about daily life, and Moldorf sings her praises. Henry, however, imagines Fanny kicking Moldorf, torturing him until he shrinks and disappears, and laughing at a tickling sensation she feels inside herself she can't identify. Henry believes Fanny is emotionally dead.

Analysis

Henry and Boris's work-in-progress, The Last Book, will be an anthology incorporating work from other writers. Henry's description of the book shows how cynical he is about literature. He believes the book is incredibly pretentious, and his involvement with it only solidifies his determination to never correct what he writes, or censor himself, but to write everything other authors dare not say. Henry wants to be a successful writer, but it is more important to him to be honest in his writing and reveal what he sees: the world is in a rapid state of decline. And Henry won't let readers forget he wants to help the world self-destruct. Throughout Tropic of Cancer Henry focuses on death and dying, using imagery of things dissolving, disappearing, and shifting, in a chaotic urban backdrop, often referring back to the Great War and its accompanying violent imagery. Even when he contrasts death with birth imagery, the imagery appears threatening, not comforting or alluding to rebirth, which would be uplifting. Paris is not a life-giving womb, but an "an obstetrical instrument that tears the living embryo from the womb."

To describe the content of The Last Book, Henry creates a catalogue, or list, of images, a device Miller uses throughout Tropic of Cancer. It recalls the 19-century American poet, Walt Whitman, who tried to encompass all of America in his poems by including encyclopedic lists of people, places, and things. Using a similar approach allows Miller to gather disparate elements into a flood of images or sensations: "There will be oceans of space in which to move about, to sing, to dance, to climb, to bathe, to leap somersaults, to whine, to rape, to murder ... There will be masses for the dead, prayers, confessions, hymns, a moaning and a chattering." Such catalogues in Tropic of Cancer create a sense of exhilaration and abundance, and capture the swift flow of creativity in motion.

Unlike Whitman, however, who infuses everything with soul and spirit, Miller turns that idea on its head, calling "for spirits who are willing to give up the ghost and put on flesh," after the apocalypse Henry longs for occurs. This highlights Henry's allegiance to the physical and hints at Miller's purpose for making sex, epitomizing physicality, so prominent in Tropic of Cancer. "The ghost" is an allusion to Christianity's Holy Ghost, but the idea is inverted here, since Henry wants those who will give it up and be earthbound. Miller strikes another chord of this kind when he likens the rich American woman to a pampered sparrow. The reference alludes to Matthew 6:26 in the New Testament, where Jesus advises against materialism and storing up wealth. It's unclear whether Henry intends to align his own quest (living in poverty on purpose) with the biblical associations, or if he seeks to point out religious hypocrisy in general. Henry tackles organized religion directly in later chapters.

Chapter 2 reveals more about Henry's complex sexuality and what sex means or doesn't mean to him. Henry is not to be trusted around young women who are in a position of servitude. He is incapable of resisting the urge to have sex with Elsa, and blames the music she plays for making him sentimental; but in truth, he has his eye on Elsa as soon as she comes to work for Boris. Henry is not kind about Elsa's lot in life, and when he admits he feels sorry for her but actually doesn't care how her life is going, he reveals his main goal is not to connect with Elsa as a person but to have sex with her and satisfy himself. Sex here becomes more than just a physical need though. Henry is enamored of his sexual prowess at times, and Elsa, a servant, is just another notch on his belt. Henry's desire to meet the rich American woman who comes to see the apartment is solely based on sex, too—and his desire to escape poverty. As with Elsa, Henry doesn't want anything to do with the American woman beyond sex. Further, he views American women in Paris as pretenders who want to be artists but are not even close to succeeding at their dreams. Wanting to be an artist, according to Henry, is very different from actually being one. Henry has a stringent view of authenticity in art, and anyone who doesn't pass muster with him, he mocks mercilessly. Henry's sexual feelings for Tania differ markedly from his thoughts on Elsa and the American woman. Henry respects Tania's mind, and because he does so, wants to possess her, and he finds sex with her to be a pleasure.

Henry's friendships with men are often problematic, and they tend to reveal character flaws Henry doesn't know he has. His assessment of Moldorf's character shows he thinks Moldorf is a pushover, satisfied with being around people Henry considers dead inside. Henry's focus on Moldorf's money and all the gifts it buys Fanny, hints at some jealousy in that area, too. Marriage, to Henry, means loss of freedom, and he views Fanny's letters as her way of controlling Moldorf. Henry's negative assessment of Moldorf, as a shrinking man who's content to spend time next to his wife on a quiet evening, sounds like jealousy. Henry's own marriage has fallen apart, however, and Mona rarely contacts him. In Chapter 1 Henry claims Moldorf is an image of himself seen in a cracked mirror, but success in marriage is one thing the two friends do not have in common. Henry exposes his own blind spot through this relationship.

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