Tropic of Cancer | Study Guide

Henry Miller

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Tropic of Cancer | Chapter 5 | Summary



Henry Miller describes dinner with Sylvester and Tania. It is likely the last time because he has slept with the wives of most of the men who invite him to dinner. When they find out, they disinvite him. As he thinks about the food arrangements he has tried to make, he remembers a wedding ring he purchased for Mona when he thought she was coming back to Paris to see him. Mona never showed up, and Henry still wears the ring on his pinky finger. One of the orange blossoms on the ring fell off when he lost it, and a pawnbroker offered him a pittance for it, so he kept the damaged ring, a reminder of his failure to stay married to Mona in any meaningful way. He hopes she will come back, but knows she probably won't.

Henry has a brilliant plan to get fed every day. He asks various friends to each have him over once a week, and all of his friends are generous enough to do it. He finds enough people willing to help, in this minimal fashion, so now, wined and dined, he eats well and gets drunk every night of the week. He can drop someone for being annoying because he knows another meal waits for him somewhere else. The friends he drops never ask questions but respond with relief. He gives copies of his work to Cronstadt's wife in exchange for dinner, but if he forgets to bring them, he has to babysit their small daughter.

Moldorf has also come to eat dinner at Sylvester and Tania's place. Sylvester, a dramatist, who has just returned from Broadway, Henry says, has "a heart full of love" for Tania. In her hair Tania wears the lilacs Henry gave her earlier that day. Sylvester talks nonstop to Tania, which Henry, boiling with jealousy, describes as Sylvester "pissing" all over Tania. He calls him a man with a "weak bladder," and tells the reader Sylvester should hand over Tania to him. Henry insists Tania belongs to him. Henry remembers Mr. Wren—a man who had come with his wife to look at Boris's apartment—saying, "Words are loneliness." Henry claims Sylvester gives Tania nothing but words, and Sylvester puts a fence around Tania to keep Henry from corrupting her, but it's too late.

Henry stays with several people, including Olga, a big Bulgarian woman, who makes shoes and pays the rent, and Eugene and Anatole, two Russians. Eugene and his wife invite everyone in for food, which they store in the commode between meals. Everything tastes rancid and mildewed. Henry helps empty the slop pails, pouring them into a hole in the courtyard, where people also relieve themselves, right next to the well where people draw drinking water. Henry envisions the woman across the way throwing a corpse out her window. Eugene plays love songs on his guitar and sings.

Henry feels as though he has been ejected from the world, surrounded by a festering building full of suffering people, but there is also music. A handless man plays an accordion outside with his stumps. To Henry this is the difference between Paris and New York City. Poverty in Paris includes music and companionship. In New York poverty means strapping oneself to the treadmill and being stepped on by rich people. Henry talks about Papini, an Italian author, who writes that he needs freedom from the demands made on him to make art for other people, and wants to be left alone. Henry takes that concept a step further, saying an artist needs loneliness.


Sex is often detached from emotion in Tropic of Cancer, but when it comes to Henry's relationship with Tania, his pride is at stake. Henry experiences a burst of jealousy when Sylvester lavishes Tania with love and attention, and Tania, wearing flowers Henry gave her, seems to relish Sylvester's attentions—and possibly more so because it makes Henry jealous. Henry has, up to this point, had mainly a sexual relationship with Tania, but the thought of losing her to her husband enrages him. The whole situation puts him in mind of the wedding ring he bought for Mona and the realization she will never come back to him. It also sheds light on Henry's perception of his own masculinity and sexual prowess. Henry thinks having sex with Tania makes her belong to him, viewing mere talk—such as Sylvester's character engages in—as meaningless, unmanly, even disrespectful. He likens Sylvester's constant talk to urinating on Tania, denigrating her, and calls him a "big, empty bladder."

However, Henry reveals a moment of unawareness about himself during his rant. Henry likens Sylvester to a dog marking his territory, but fails to realize he's equally guilty of the same kind of thinking, if not behavior. Henry, who has sexual swagger, thinks Tania is much better off with him. He believes "a change of semen can make a woman bloom," that having sex, or an affair, with him is so powerful it can actually improve a woman. Tanya does not appear to agree with his assessment, since she calls Henry "cancer and delirium." Henry's failure to keep a relationship going confronts him again, leaving him with nothing but a broken wedding ring, damaged pride, and a final meal.

Henry develops his ideas about writing in this chapter. He refers to Giovanni Papini's complaints about the writing life and the demands everyone makes on him, which ring true for Henry. Papini clearly resembles Henry, with his insistence on needing his freedom and owing nothing to anyone, the difference remaining: Papini's famous, Henry's unknown. The idea of being alone to work on one's art resonates most with Henry in Papini's work. Henry goes further, saying the artist needs not just to be alone, but to experience loneliness, a feeling Henry encounters as he loses the important woman in his life: Mona. Henry's first experiences in Paris, when he was friendless, also sparked his writing. Being alone helps a writer have time and focus to write, but being lonely gives a writer something to write about and share with others. However, Mona's absence and Henry's vulnerability always roil underneath his pontifications on art and writing. The truth is Henry doesn't have much choice. Tania won't leave Sylvester, and Mona won't return. Perhaps Henry consoles himself over his losses—both love losses and his poverty—by indulging in artistic visions of grandeur.

In this chapter Miller deepens the discussion on poverty and disease and death and dying in Tropic of Cancer, with vivid, and often disturbing, descriptions of the squalor in which he lives at this point in the narrative. In this poverty-stricken Paris neighborhood, a corpse might appear out of nowhere or get dumped out a window—a neighborhood with omnipresent suffering in its most visible forms. Sanitation is compromised, and Miller does not flinch from including frank imagery of bodily fluids and excretions. These revolting sights and smells reach the grotesque. For example, Henry dumps a slop pail into a hole in the ground in the courtyard of Eugene's building. People go to the bathroom in the hole, too, a "little well ... slimy with excrement," from which Henry hears "a foul, gurgling sound." Henry can barely stand to be in Eugene's room, where the bed crawls with bedbugs over sheets stained with blood from their bites.

These sordid details even carry over into Henry's dreams. But even the rancidity of the butter at Eugene's, which Henry says tastes like "the big toe of a cadaver," gives him some comfort because Eugene shares it with him. Suffering is just part of Henry's way of life, as is going with the flow. Friendships hold him together despite the surrounding poverty and filth. While his imagery may be disgusting, Henry describes his environment with a kind of honesty and without cleaning the images up so they won't horrify or offend. This is one of his major goals as a writer: to be forthright and honest at all costs.

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