Tropic of Cancer | Study Guide

Henry Miller

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Tropic of Cancer | Chapter 8 | Summary

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Summary

As previously agreed, Henry Miller calls on his friend Van Norden, who wakes up hating himself and his life, and complaining about everything. He hates all of the women he sleeps with, particularly the married ones, who talk about being in love with him, and try to move in with him. Addicted to chasing women for sex, particularly virgins, Van Norden sleeps with a different woman every day, including prostitutes. He and Henry affectionately call each other "Joe," and Van Norden confides his fears and shortcomings to Henry. He admits he tires of chasing women, because the sex has become "mechanical," but he also recognizes being "too much of an egoist," he "can't fall in love." He offers Henry the virgins who bore him now. Van Norden gives Henry the lowdown on every woman they know, describing their good, and bad, points in terms of their anatomy and sexual talents, or lack thereof.

Van Norden also wants to be a writer, to "get the dirt out of [his] belly," but his job exhausts him, leaving him no energy to write. He begs Henry to help him try to bed a young woman, by getting Henry to sleep with her jealous mother, and when Henry refuses, Van Norden begs him to stay and talk. Van Norden is lonely, never ending up with anything permanent in his life. He feels jealous of Carl, who has been writing letters, with Henry's help, to a rich woman, Irène, but won't introduce her to Van Norden.

Later, Carl gets a letter from Irène, saying she wants to see him. Henry escorts Carl to Irène's hotel. Terrified and trembling, Carl walks around the block, gathering the nerve to go up to Irène's room. The next morning, Henry shows up at Carl's to find out what happened last night. Henry grills Carl for details, and Carl finally admits he did not take Irène to bed; at 40, the woman is too old for Carl's taste, but he offers her to Henry, since he's capable of having sex with women for financial support. Carl and Henry talk about the possibility of both of them running away to Borneo with the woman, who wants to leave her husband, but Carl can't stand the idea of taking handouts for sex the way Henry does. Carl wishes he could marry someone rich and then get a disease disabling him just enough to save him from being forced to have sex with the woman; he would prefer to be paralyzed, in a wheelchair, and taken care of for the rest of his life. When Henry meets up with Van Norden again, he's angry with Carl for planting romantic and sexual imagery of his night with Irène in Van Norden's mind. Apparently, Carl tells Van Norden the exact opposite of what he tells Henry, making Van Norden believe the sex with Irène was fabulous.

Henry helps Van Norden move from his apartment to another, less expensive room, with the help of Van Norden's maid. Van Norden openly insults the maid, and in a fitful rage, tries to damage the apartment on his way out. Supposedly Maupassant, at one time, lived in the new apartment building Van Norden moves into. The romance of living in a famous writer's former abode, however, doesn't diminish its squalor, where an old woman with a screeching baby lives next door. Something about the apartment reminds Henry of a recent dream he had about Van Norden. In the dream Van Norden has sex with a woman and leaves his penis on the sidewalk.

While lounging around on dirty laundry in the tiny new room, Henry and Van Norden smoke, play cards, and talk about books. Van Norden wants a woman in his life, but only a woman he thinks is better than he is; he wants a woman who can make him forget about himself. Henry thinks to himself about Bessie, Van Norden's only female friend, who could be the perfect match for Van Norden, but Bessie doesn't respect him enough. She thinks Van Norden's "just a worn-out satyr." She sees herself as more than "just a lay." A soulful woman, Van Norden, to her, mistakes his erection for real passion.

A while later Henry and Van Norden venture out for a night on the town. At the Coupole bar, they stumble into a guy from the newspaper where Carl and Van Norden work. Henry and Van Norden find out Peckover, one of the proofreaders, fell down an elevator shaft and died shortly after. Peckover, while in the throes of death, cried out for someone to find his false teeth, and Henry remarks how some people can be so ridiculous, even their death sounds ridiculous. Henry ends up taking Peckover's job as a proofreader.

On the way home Van Norden offers to share a prostitute with Henry, since neither of them has much money. The girl tries to get more than 15 francs, but sensing her story about her baby in the country falls on deaf ears, her "misery [sits] there inside her, like a stone," shifting "from one place to another." Trying to have sex feels "exactly like the state of war," and Henry imagines himself as a soldier, who "goes on butchering and butchering the more cowardly [he] feels." In the end Henry cannot rise to the occasion, because his "mind is on the peace treaty all the time." When he watches Van Norden try to have sex with her, it's like "looking at a machine whose cogs have slipped," or the "crazy machines" that spit out millions of newspaper copies, but Henry feels he must continue because the 15 francs, like a primal reason countries war with each other, are at stake. Henry gets down on the floor to watch the process closely and even tries to help by touching Van Norden's buttocks, but Henry ultimately realizes sex without passion and emotional interaction is useless.

Henry describes his new job as a proofreader at the newspaper. He downplays his large vocabulary to stay in line around his coworkers and the boss, and he sticks to his editing work, finding punctuation and spelling errors in the news stories he proofs. He sees this as a kind of death without pain. He thinks the idea that everything is against you in Paris makes Paris an ideal place to be. With no ambitions or expectations, Henry finds happiness as a proofreader. Henry enjoys reading all the headlines, learning about all the world catastrophes every day, and his position, to find the perfect word or punctuation mark, keeps him aloof from what he reads. He likes being invisible. While the three men walk home from working at the newspaper, Henry thinks about how strange it is that the "absence of any relationship between ideas and living" causes them "no anguish, no discomfort," but he tells Van Norden and Carl not to despair: they may feel hopeless in Paris, but they can still enjoy a drink, a meal, and prostitutes.

Henry misses Mona, who periodically cables him to say she's on the next boat, but she never arrives. Anyway, he can't remember what being near her feels like. He spends his evenings at Monsieur Paul's, a bistro where he can eat on credit, hanging out with pimps and prostitutes. Their relationships fascinate Henry, and he feels empathy for the pimps, whose feelings he chides the reader to consider: "You don't think that a pimp is inhuman, I hope?" He revels in the interactions between them. Generally, the wide variety of sexual proclivities in Paris astonishes Henry. A woman missing a limb or with something physically wrong with her, "adds spice" to her sexuality, he says. When a pregnant woman makes a pass at him, however, he loses any sense of desire. At a Matisse exhibit, Henry notices the remarkable difference between the worn-down women in the streets and Matisse's colorful paintings of fleshy, vibrant women, who seem healthy and full of light. Henry thinks when the world comes to an end, dead and icy, Matisse will still be a shining light in the dark. The presence of a woman in Matisse's paintings makes her beautiful, but on the streets of Paris, beauty is hard to find.

Analysis

In Chapter 6 Henry experiences a shift in his consciousness, where ideas become more prominent than physical reality, before the narrative delves into Henry's past in Chapter 7, to explore Henry's loss of old modes of thinking. Chapter 8 brings the reader back to the present, and now that Henry's consciousness has expanded, the gap between thinking and doing widens. Miller uses the three characters' different modes of sexuality—Henry, Van Norden, and Carl—to make his points about poverty, sex, and art. Van Norden's lack of connection with women causes him a life of misery. Henry's portrayal of watching Van Norden have sex with a prostitute highlights the mechanical way Van Norden treats his many conquests. He never seems satisfied with these encounters, and doesn't even remember what he said or whom he sleeps with. Van Norden, a true misogynist, rants against women, claiming, "they are all alike," and treats them with contempt. However, the reader gets the impression Van Norden's only source of power, because of his considerable poverty, comes from sex, specifically from degrading women. Miller also uses Van Norden to show how excessive sex loses its value. Carl's character, slight of build, romantic, and terrified of having sex with the rich woman, sits on the opposite end of the spectrum from Van Norden.

Henry, whose sexuality is somewhere in the middle of the two characters, does not have sex in this chapter. In fact, he empathizes with the prostitute's misery, describing it moving in her like a shifting stone. He recognizes the weight of her sorrow, and its cause, from poverty. He compares attempting to have sex with the prostitute to war. The prostitute fights to arouse him, as her survival depends on it. Henry fights to be aroused. They both lose their figurative battles. This also serves to show how the only power any of the men possess is over prostitutes, women more disempowered then they are. With rich women, Van Norden, Henry, and Carl behave like prostitutes, selling themselves for sex. Poignantly, Van Norden says of Irène, "you never know with these rich cunts what they might expect you to do." Carl would rather be paralyzed than have sex with an older woman, and Henry shouts at him for his squeamishness: "You don't have to look at her all the time, do you? Look at the bedspread! Look at the mirror!" He reminds Carl bills must be paid. Tropic of Cancer seeks to illuminate life in 1930s Paris, which is different from condoning all the sexual exploits that happen in the novel. Fate and poverty toss the female prostitutes into degrading roles just as it negatively affects the male characters—like a cancerous disease.

In the midst of all this sexual degradation, Henry takes a new job, which makes him happy; it reignites hope for a future with Mona. The gap between ideas and doing has widened indeed. Henry fights for survival and encourages his friends not to despair, and his descriptions of death and hopelessness often include humor. His friends around him all despair about the mundanity and lack of success in their lives, but Henry remains optimistic, particularly for a man who thinks the world might end. "Above all, never despair," he says, even though everyone lives in a "world without hope." Nonetheless, Chapter 8, arguably the most coherent narrative style so far in Tropic of Cancer, comes at the same time Henry holds a steady job, and the writing style reflects the benefits a structured life has on the main character's mental state.

Henry draws connections between the best artistic expression and the beauty of the female body, adding lush and gorgeous descriptions of Matisse's work and the role it plays in displaying the beauty possible in the world. Henry doesn't just look at the paintings, he drinks them in and lets them take him over. His visionary experience of the paintings throws him into an ecstatic trance, in which he "fathom[s] the new reality," strips away the tattered "wallpaper" with which "men of science" have tried to cover the diseased body of the dying world, which suffers, in Henry's opinion, from a lack of beauty or truth. Matisse and his creations stand for beauty, pleasure, and life: "Even as the world falls apart the Paris that belongs to Matisse shudders with bright, gasping orgasms." Out on the street, this kind of beauty doesn't exist, but in art, it does. A woman's body, healthy and full of light, not a woman offering herself in a shadowy street corner, "crystallizes" beauty for Henry. Without the presence of the female body, a symbol of meaning in life, the spark is missing. In this way Henry's thoughts about Matisse's depiction of women in art, differs vastly from the way he talks about women in life, where they are often there for his sexual use. Again, ideas and living go in separate directions for Henry's character.

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