Tropic of Cancer | Study Guide

Henry Miller

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Tropic of Cancer | Chapter 9 | Summary



Henry Miller receives a strange, almost nonsensical letter from his friend Boris, whom he has not seen for several months. Henry quotes the letter, elaborating on Boris's ideas of Henry, ideas not founded on who Henry really is, in Henry's opinion. Boris says of himself that he has died, but Henry makes him feel alive; of all his friends, Boris can only feel close to Henry. Boris also tries to explain why, in the past, he wanted Henry to commit suicide. Boris has always talked philosophically about living and dying, particularly with Cronstadt. Henry notes that "nothing of flesh or blood ever crept in," and the discussions were "ghoulishly abstract." Henry recalls how they would "compliment [him] on being alive," which embarrassed Henry at the time, making him feel like "a sort of atavistic remnant, a romantic shred." But back then, instead of giving Henry a much-needed meal, Boris wanted to "nourish [him] with ideas," which Henry found interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying, since Boris saw Henry as "pure idea," rather than a person requiring food to stay alive. In the letter, Boris doesn't ask any practical questions about Henry's life, or whether they can meet. He writes that he just wants Henry to "live more vitally every day, as I am dead." Henry calls Boris's letter "poison gas."

Henry tells the story of how Tania comes back from Russia, leaving her husband Sylvester behind to get a job and take part in the revolution. Extremely enthusiastic about the new social developments in Russia, Tania tries to convince Henry and Carl to move there with her, but Henry says he "wasn't born with this kind of enthusiasm." Riding through Paris, considering leaving the city, Henry knows he "wouldn't ever trade all this whirling about [his] head for Russia or heaven or anything on earth." However, afternoons he spends with Tania, enjoying getting drunk and going to hear jazz music, and his steady job, feel good. "Life seems to lift its head a little higher," he says, but Tania worries him. She wants him to "quit the job so ... [they] could make love night and day." Her intensity makes him feel fuzzy, but when he leaves her, his head clears. He tries not to let drinking interfere with his proofreading job, but makes mistakes and gets yelled at just the same. To keep his job, he has to downplay his intelligence and maintain his place in the social hierarchy at the newspaper. Proofreading causes Henry to lose sleep, become neurotic, and develop "echolalia," where facts, dates, and headlines, run on repeat through his mind at night.

Henry reminisces about Mona, and how she has been like a religion to him for seven years, the whole time he's been roaming Paris: "How many thousands of times, in walking through the streets at night, have I wondered if the day would ever come again when she would be at my side." He remembers her asking him to show her the Paris he writes about, but he cannot, because it doesn't exist "except by virtue of ... [his] hunger for her." When he realizes Mona may be lost to him forever, "a great void opens up," and Henry feels like he falls "into deep, black space ... the abyss into which Satan was plunged." The Paris Mona wants to know about, "that has to be lived, that has to be experienced," is a form of torture "that grows inside you like a cancer ... until you are eaten away by it." Henry's mind wanders back to the day he visited August Strindberg's old room in the Pension Orfila, because Mona had compared Henry to the Swedish playwright, whose works she was reading when Henry met her. Thinking of Strindberg and his major work Inferno opens up for Henry the meaning of the artist's journey: "the mystery of his pilgrimage, the flight which the poet makes over the face of the earth." Dante, Rabelais, Van Gogh, all had to take a similar pilgrimage, just like Henry's in Paris, and he understood then why "Paris attracts the tortured, the hallucinated, the great maniacs of love."

Henry mentions he recently received a letter from America, notifying him that Mona is sick and starving. He remembers how in the past in Paris, Mona begged him never to leave her, but only a few days later it was Mona on a train, leaving him for good. He can't remember what happened to make her leave, and feels the cruelty and squalor of the streets mirrors the hopelessness of his situation with Mona. But, with an ocean between them, "a mask ... clamped down over [his] grief," and "hot tears scalding [his] face," Henry turns back to his present-day Paris. He immediately sees signs, saying "Impasse Satan," "tuberculosis," and "syphilis," and posters of crabs, "heralding the approach of cancer." He sees nothing but "evil portent[s]." Cancer "is written in the sky."


The approach to Chapter 9 begins with considering the literal events that occur in the chapter: a letter from Boris and a letter from America, perhaps shocking Henry with the news that Mona is ill and starving. Nothing else happens, besides Henry enduring loneliness and dealing with the internal conflicts these two letters spur in his mind. The first conflict is between how Boris sees Henry and how Henry sees himself. The second inner conflict—should Henry leave Paris or stay—remains unspoken, but the question pervades the narrative in the chapter, working its way to center stage with Henry's memory of Tania's wanting him to move to Russia at some indeterminate time over the past few months. At that time he decided he wouldn't trade Paris—and what it means to him as a writer—"for Russia or heaven or anything on earth." In the present it seems feasible Henry's ruminations about Tania are a kind of alternative to deciding whether this is true of Mona, whether he should return to her or not. Miller hides Henry's reality and intentions in the way the narrative flows, and by the end of the chapter, following this line of reasoning—Boris, Tania, Henry's job, America, Mona, Strindberg, Paris—it seems likely Henry comes to a decision: like all the great writers and artists he mentions in this chapter, Strindberg, Rabelais, Van Gogh, and Dante, Henry chooses writing, which means choosing the hero's journey, the pilgrimage, the "descent to the very bowels of the earth," and staying in Paris.

Boris's letter, which brings the first internal conflict for Henry, develops the theme of death and dying, and Henry comes out a Romantic, not a nihilist like Boris and Cronstadt. Something about Boris's letter makes Henry feel the need to define himself on his own terms, not Boris's. Boris and Cronstadt hold nihilistic views, and when Boris talks about being dead, he means it figuratively. He means he does not believe life has any meaning or significance. Henry calls their nihilistic philosophical views "poison gas," and Henry remembers how they used to embarrass him, make him feel like "an atavistic remnant," which means an evolutionary throwback, and "a romantic shred," which implies outdated, old fashioned, and out of style, the last way Henry's character would like to be described by his friends. From there Miller changes the writing style to evoke imagery and ideas that come straight from the coffers of the Romantic literary movement: anguish, grief, Satan's falling into an abyss, Henry's religious-like love obsession with Mona—all of these details signify romanticism. Henry would rather choose old-fashioned romanticism, with its "anguish and grief"—something he says in this chapter a person could live solely on in Paris—than Boris's empty idea of death. The fascination with death, for Henry, lies in decay, disease, and impending doom, preferably accompanied by music and bold imagery.

Henry spends a considerable amount of time remembering Mona in this chapter. His devotion to his art, his affair with Tania turning into love, his job causing his mind to work differently, his feelings for Mona, all of these internal factors, all intertwined, place pressure on him and put him in this hypersensitive, reflective mood, which creates a melancholy tone, quite different from the other chapters in Tropic of Cancer. Henry's mood leads him—and the reader—to discover that the real cancer eating away at Henry is his love and his longing for Mona. This is a defining moment for Henry, but he also realizes Paris and all of his inspiration for writing come from his hunger for Mona. He chooses longing for Mona over the real Mona.

Henry's walks through the city symbolize his journey to become an artist. His ramblings around Paris give him a way to burrow into the meat of existence, to undergo "the bloody struggle to liberate himself." He chooses the journey over the destination. The only truth in the chapter is Henry's conflict: his life is on the upswing, yet his job makes him neurotic.

Paris keeps misery present and obvious for Henry, with poverty and disease everywhere he looks. Henry usually talks about how the world is dying, heading for an explosive end, and Paris is proof, but in this chapter, the apocalypse Henry seeks becomes personal. The posters depicting crabs and the signs he sees, what he calls "evil portent[s]" announce the presence of cancer and syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease that, untreated, has horrible effects on sufferers. Both diseases take over the body as well as the mind, and they symbolize Henry's heading for a breakdown. Henry feels like Paris is eating him alive, but he can't do anything about it. Henry wants to stay in Paris, and its lash on Henry is a welcome pain.

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