Tropic of Cancer | Study Guide

Henry Miller

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Tropic of Cancer | Chapter 3 | Summary

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Summary

Henry Miller goes to Cronstadt's because Boris won't invite him to eat lunch. Boris says he can't afford to pay for Henry's meals. As hungry as Henry is, he lies and says he's eaten already when Cronstadt offers him food. Starving, Henry sees food everywhere, through the windows of restaurants, in bicycles, in outdoor markets. Walking along with an empty belly, he describes Notre Dame's gargoyles: "leaning far out over the lace façade," hanging there "like an idée fixe in the mind of a monomaniac." Henry passes people sitting on benches, "other monsters—old people, idiots, cripples, epileptics." At noon, to put aside the tormenting feeling of hunger, he wanders around in the rain, looking in store windows.

A bookstore window displays the philosophy of Joan Miró, which Henry says is "the philosophy, mind you," and a book called A Man Cut In Slices! The title makes Henry jealous with wishing he thought of it first. Henry riffs on what a sequel to the book might be: "We need meat," he thinks, and envisions being back in New York, putting down "everything that goes on in [his] noodle—caviar, rain drops, axle grease ... slices and slices of it." He moves on, describing the slime and garbage in the streets, the falling-down buildings, the smell of mildewed mattresses through open windows, and people in doorways staring vacantly into the street. He thinks about another book he read recently, set in Paris during medieval times. Germaine, his favorite prostitute, comes to mind.

Henry likens other prostitutes he remembers to vultures because they bring in the next customer, or "victim," as Henry calls them, assembly-line style, before the previous man even has time to wash up. Germaine stands out from other prostitutes. She loves her own body, and, enthusiastic with her customers, makes men feel she desires them. Henry and Germaine become friends. She gives Henry sex on credit and helps him negotiate with pawnbrokers when he needs money. Henry compares Germaine to Claude, another prostitute Henry has feelings for. Claude, a delicate girl with a soul and a conscience "not tough enough to withstand the shock of daily experience," offends Henry's idea of what a prostitute should be like. Germaine, a "hustler" who is fun to be with and actively seeks out her customers, earns his respect.

Analysis

Henry's days revolve around two things: food and sex, neither of which he can obtain in this chapter. The chapter's focus is on physical hunger, want and desire, feeling empty and needing to be filled, and what it represents to Henry, the narrator. The book title A Man Cut in Slices! helps reveal the deeper meaning of food in the novel. Henry's hungry for good ideas, maybe even more than literal food, and when he gets back to New York he's going to "put down everything that goes on in [his] noodle." The pun on noodle, figurative for the mind, and literally a food, makes the point overt and comical. Even though Henry recalls sex in this chapter, it is important to keep in mind he does not have actual sex in this section of the narrative: he only has the idea of sex. Henry lets the reader know what kind of thoughts obsess his mind: food, sex, and the search for inspiration for his writing. They form a link in Henry's consciousness, and he doesn't care if they make him a monster. To Henry everyone is a monster. Like the Notre Dame gargoyles Henry passes along the way foreshadow his revelation in this chapter, "they hang there like an idée fixe in the mind of a monomaniac," so do food and sex, and what they represent take a prominent position in Henry's psyche.

Aligning with his views on writing and art—distaste for internal editing and overthinking—Henry prefers prostitutes who are open about sex, and not modest. However, his assessment of prostitutes ignores the brutal fact that most women who sell their bodies on the street do so out of desperation and only for survival. Henry has a lot in common with these women in terms of his financial situation, but the things he does periodically to get by humiliate him much less, at least so far in the narrative. With Germaine, he doesn't have to see the dark side of prostitution: Germaine can serve as his muse, inspiring his work, allowing him to imagine "the whole damn current of life flowing through [her]." He admires her because she is "a whore through and through—and that [is] her virtue!" as if being a prostitute is proof of a more authentic way of life.

Henry provides vivid and compelling descriptions of the seedier side of the city. Places like this draw him in because his interior suffering matches the exterior gloom and desperation on the streets. Throughout the novel, Miller includes imagery based on the body, often to convey the squalor he sees around him. Henry doesn't sigh over how lovely the Eiffel Tower is, as Miller refuses to romanticize Paris. Instead he describes Paris—and New York, too, in this chapter—as if it were the body of someone suffering from syphilis or some other venereal disease: "the city spreads out like a huge organism diseased in every part, the beautiful thoroughfares only a little less repulsive because they have been drained of their pus." Henry describes people sitting in the park, as grotesque: "On the benches, other monsters—old people, idiots, cripples, epileptics." The fact that Henry lumps Paris and New York together in this chapter, both as diseased and rotting places, shows just how low and down and out he feels at this point. Typically, Henry exalts Paris—splendor and squalor—and chastises New York for its machinelike coldness, not giving it enough credit to be oozing and fluid. Either way Paris's squalor appeals to Henry and clearly fires his imagination and his writing.

In Chapter 2 Henry overhears Tania and Sylvester talking about "The Manifesto," and Miller adds yet another reference to the surrealist art and literary movement in Chapter 3, when he comments on Joan Miró's philosophy, lauding it joyfully as "the philosophy," implying it alone matters. Joan Miró (1893–1983) was a Spanish surrealist painter and sculptor. André Breton, who wrote the "Manifesto of Surrealism" and founded the movement, demanded allegiance to its rules, and at one time even kicked out the famous surrealist painter Salvador Dalí (1904–89), after a "trial" in 1934, around the same time Miller published Tropic of Cancer. Miller alludes to Breton's famous image of a man cut in half, with Miller's made-up book title—A Man Cut In Slices! Breton uses the image of a man cut in two in "Manifesto of Surrealism" to explain how to capture imagery and use it to unlock automatic thinking and create associations in the mind.

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