Tropic of Cancer | Study Guide

Henry Miller

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Tropic of Cancer | Chapter 6 | Summary



After mulling over an Emerson quote about life consisting "of what a man thinks all day," Henry Miller decides he would rather be "a poor man of Europe" than go back to the daily grind in America, where getting on the "treadmill" of work pays the bills but makes him feel spiritually dead and unable to write. In the interest of keeping himself from starving, though, Henry takes advantage of any opportunity he can find for a bed and a meal. He meets Serge, a Russian truck driver, in the alleyway of the Folies Bergère, and Serge begs him to come stay with him and teach him English. In exchange Henry will get a Russian meal every day plus a mattress in the hallway. The apartment teems with all kinds of insects, including tapeworms. Henry tries to sleep on the mattress, but the scent of formaldehyde in the mattress both overwhelms him and invites bugs. He plots his escape the next day, leaving his knapsack behind so as not to arouse suspicion and have to explain himself.

Henry feels his sense of freedom return. He notices a prostitute with a wooden leg. He pities her for being ground down by the world, then wonders what it would be like to have sex with her. Henry bumps into Peckover, a proofreader at a local newspaper where Henry wants to get work. Peckover lives a miserable life because he only gets three hours of sleep a night and his wife thinks he isn't working hard enough or bringing in enough money. Henry begs a bit of money from Peckover. Then he finds a concert ticket in a public bathroom.

He goes to the concert, noting he has "never been to a concert before on such an empty belly." He observes the rich people there, many of them sleeping through it. To Henry the crowd resembles vegetables, unthinking people who "if they knew they were thinking of nothing ... would go mad." Ravel's Spanish music "electrifies" the audience, but the quiet ending to an otherwise exciting piece disappoints Henry. He says Ravel has missed his opportunity to end the piece with a bang because he "sacrificed something for form," and the piece lost its nerve. However, Henry's own "thoughts are spreading." Everyone drifts listlessly through the rest of the concert except a lesbian woman he observes, who is swept away emotionally by the music.


An internal shift begins in Henry, and Miller uses a quote from Emerson to signal the shift to the reader: a person is what a person thinks. Miller weaves the idea through the chapter. Until now, Henry's been bogged down in allegiance to the physical, but now he sets himself free to live in his imagination. Surrealism gives artists permission to believe in their subconscious thoughts, to believe in their dreams, and to blur the line between reality and dream. In the "Manifesto of Surrealism," Breton urges artists and writers to question reality and consider dreams to be another reality.

The theme of poverty, central to this chapter, is not portrayed in a completely negative light. Henry can find a meal and a bed again, but he will not sleep in such a disgusting, bug-ridden place. The smell of formaldehyde, being used as insecticide, nauseates him. Henry appears to be able to handle the diseases that spread in the neighborhoods he frequents, but not the bugs. Poverty-stricken areas tend to have more problems with bedbugs and lice, and the tapeworms Serge shows him from his dog present the last straw. Henry can't sleep, thinking about the bugs, and the smell of formaldehyde overwhelms him. Even Henry has his limits. His earlier experience with Mona and the bedbugs has stayed with him, and he knows what to avoid now. Even Henry's imagination can't overcome real bugs.

Disease follows poverty closely in Tropic of Cancer—one state breeds the other. Henry describes Paris's grime, bugs, disease, yet again, and he's forced to sleep on the street, but he still strongly prefers Paris to New York. He may not have a place to stay, but wandering the street without a place to go or any money to get there feels like freedom to Henry. The ease with which Henry is able to survive compared to what he would have to do in America to get by makes him stay in Paris, unwilling to give up the raw intensity of the city. "Paris is filled with poor people ... and yet they give the illusion of being at home," because the city has personal meaning for them. New York is a "whole city erected over nothingness. Meaningless. Absolutely meaningless." The concert ticket he finds by accident represents the kind of luck occurring regularly for him in Paris. He always manages to find food, lodging, sex, and even art and music for free. For Henry it's better to be poor in Paris than snared by a job full of drudgery in America.

The scene at the concert exemplifies how Miller's style follows the flow of his protagonist's thoughts. Henry's hunger heightens the intensity of listening to the music, and the stream of associations he experiences during the concert: "My nerves are taut, vibrant! ... Nothing escapes me ... It's as though ... every pore of my body [is] a window and all the windows open and the light flood[s] my gizzards." This hunger-high causes him to "lo[se] all sense of time and place." He imagines a lake inside him with flocks of birds rising from it—a surrealist image—projecting his strong feelings of joy and ecstasy, and taking one of the first turns in the novel, away from death, toward rejuvenation. The rest of the audience may be dead, like vegetables, but Henry's thoughts spread. As he takes in the audience, most of whom have fallen asleep during the performance, he meditates on a lesbian in the crowd, who excitedly listens to the music. In a true moment of stream of consciousness, as he imagines her experience of the music, his language breaks apart into dreamy fragments, some of them bits and pieces of associations from earlier chapters: "the gargoyles ... the Jaworski nonsense ... the river lights." He wants the reader to be immersed in his thoughts, listening to the music with him, realizing, as he does, poverty's emotional and creative rewards.

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