Tropic of Cancer | Study Guide

Henry Miller

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Tropic of Cancer | Chapter 4 | Summary



Henry Miller walks along the Champs-Elysées and thinks the city is like a piece of music. He hasn't written in days, but his optimism springs from his good health, and the guarantee of his future, provided he can find a meal a day. His friend Carl complains about Henry's optimism, and about not having written a book yet himself. Carl wants to be a writer, Henry thinks, without actually writing anything. Carl despises Paris; he wants to move to Arizona or kill himself, and his pessimism gets on Henry's nerves. He tells Carl, "Do it ... one thing or the other ... but don't try to cloud my healthy eye with your melancholy breath!" The problem is, Carl is right about Europe, Henry thinks, "You get contaminated. You rot."

They run into their friend Marlowe, who hangs around at the Dôme, a local bar, on a bender, a drinking binge. Marlowe pretends to suffer from failing eyesight, so people will pay for his drinks. Carl never falls for Marlowe's lies, and Marlowe tries to get back at him by making Carl think he could lose his job in the near future. Marlowe just wants someone around him to be having a worse time than he is. Marlowe suggests Carl and Henry take over the literary review he produces, while Marlowe's back in San Francisco; and later, Carl tells Henry they should fill the review with their own writing to get back at Marlowe. Marlowe ends up having an "attack," falling down drunk, and they lay him out on a bench. A little later they drag Marlowe back to Carl's room. Van Norden arrives, having lost his set of false teeth. The men all go to sleep in the same bed in Carl's room, after they kick out a woman, who was waiting in the bed. The next morning, Van Norden and Marlowe go back to look for Van Norden's teeth. Marlowe, so clueless about what happened the night before, cries, thinking he lost his own teeth.


In this chapter Miller explores the connection between friendship and poverty and disease. Poverty, much like a literal disease, can "rot" a person from within; meanwhile, friendship can contaminate someone, too. Henry doesn't want to catch Carl's "melancholy breath," or any of Carl's characteristics. Carl's desire to be a writer without actually writing could just as well describe Henry sometimes, though Henry writes more often than Carl. Henry uses body imagery to describe his own relationship to creativity and writing, saying, "ideas pour from me like sweat," while Carl annihilates himself in his own mind before putting any words on paper, with Carl's idea "there are too many books already." Henry certainly doesn't want to catch that attitude.

Associations with disease, such as dementia, fill this chapter. When Henry opens this section, saying his health is good, he means mentally good. Because of his optimism, Henry can create, but his friends threaten to infect him with their issues.

Marlowe's drunkenness and his attempts to get people to pay for his drinks show how poverty affects every aspect of life in Henry's social circle. Still, in poverty or an alcoholic haze, Henry and his friends help each other. When Marlowe falls down, Henry and Carl pick him up and get him home. When Van Norden loses his teeth, Marlowe, likely hungover, goes to help look for them with him, though he mistakenly thinks the teeth are his own. No matter how drunk or hazy any of the friends get, they don't leave each other in the gutter alone.

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