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Tropic of Cancer Summary and Analysis

by Henry Miller

Section I: To “She was a whore all the way through – and that was her virtue!”

When the novel opens, Miller is living at the Villa Borghese. The name actually refers to the Villa Seurat in Paris, where Miller spent a prolonged sojourn as the guest of Michael Fraenken, who, by many accounts, was the one to inspire Miller to write Tropic of Cancer. Here, Fraenken’s name has been changed to Boris, and Miller begins the book by describing Boris’s lice problem and his views on the “cancer of time.” It is the fall of Miller’s second year in Paris. Here, Miller steps back to introduce the book that is just beginning: “This is not a book,” he writes. “This is libel, slander, defamation of character.” He concludes by calling the novel a “song” and writes: “It is to you, Tania, that I am singing.”

Tania is a Jewish woman for whose sake Miller “would become a Jew.” She lives with a man named Sylvester, but she carries on an affair with Miller. “Your Sylvester is a little jealous now?” he writes. He continues to invoke Tania’s name as though she were a muse, a goddess, but also a sexual fantasy: “O Tania, where now is that warm cunt of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft, bulging thighs? There is a bone in my prick six inches long. I will ream out every wrinkle in your cunt, Tania, big with seed. I will send you home to your Sylvester with an ache in your belly and your womb turned inside out.”

Miller writes of other friends and companions. Borowski, for one, and “Carl and Paula, and Cronstandt and Boris, […] and Moldorf and Lucille.” Almost all Montparnasse – where the Villa Borghese is located, and where many of the expatriates make their home – is Jewish, according to Miller.

It is winter in Paris, and Miller notes the spectral trees, the ash-white pallor of the city. “Passing by the Orangerie I am reminded of another Paris,” he writes, “the Paris of Maugham, of Gaugin, Paris of George Moore.” He complains that there is no one to whom he “can communicate even a fraction of [his] feelings.” He thinks of women – a woman named Irene, to whom he writes letters, though under what pretext we do not yet know. Then there is Llona, sex-crazed, not “a prick in the land big enough for her.”

Miller declares that the only thing that currently interests him in any vital way is writing – particularly “the recording of all that which is omitted in books.” Too often men “fall back on ideas,” he argues. Then his thoughts are interrupted by a telephone call. A husband and wife come to visit the apartment; they are looking to rent it. Miller, who is not paying anything to stay there and is surviving on Boris’s good graces, must go “upstairs to lie down during the transaction,” and wonders in the meantime what his next move will be. Luckily, Mr. and Mrs. Wren are only talking about taking the apartment; nothing is final yet. Boris calls Miller down to be introduced. It turns out Mr. Wren is a writer, but Miller has difficulty imagining the inarticulate man as such.

Miller thinks back to a year ago, when he used to wander the city with a woman named Mona, another friend of Borowski’s. He thinks of Borowski’s hats and canes, Borowski’s disgust at Miller for dancing with every “slut” in a dance hall. Tucked away in a vestibule, while Mona and Borowski are waiting for him, Miller, unafraid of being caught, tries to have sex with a nameless American. Unfortunately, with the little amount of “wiggle” room available, he is unable to stick his member inside her, and he winds up ejaculating on her once they go back out on the dance floor.

These memories give way to more recent ones. Mona has been away for some time, and Miller comes to meet her at the Gare St. Lazare. He waits for her, and finally that night she appears. He falls deeply in love with her at that moment, and they sleep together in a cheap hotel. The following morning, Miller wakes to look at her – “her beautiful wild hair” – and feels something crawling. The bed is swarming with bed bugs. Miller and Mona make an escape from the hotel, change locations to the “Hotel des Etats-Unis.” They go to bed “in broad daylight.” Miller adds: “No more bedbugs now.”

Back to the Villa Borghese, and back to the present day. A girl named Elsa is now staying with Miller and Boris. She is German and a musician. She plays some Schumann for Miller, and he describes looking at her big mouth – “so wet and glistening.” Miller is thinking about the book he wants to write; it has begun to “grow inside” him. He and Boris talk about it, and give the book “its final imprimatur.” It will be “a new Bible – The Last Book.” Miller goes to Tania’s place and solves the “problem” of breakfast – meaning he manages to scrounge up or mooch some food. Tania is angry at him for sleeping with other women. Sylvester reads Miller’s manuscript.

Another visitor comes to look at the Villa Borghese apartment – an “American, of course.” Miller notes, perhaps with a hint of envy: “Amazing how these rich dames come to Paris and find all the swell studios.” He himself is hanging on dimes. This time Boris does not introduce Miller to the visitor. “Whenever it’s a rich cunt he forgets to introduce me,” Miller writes.

One Sunday, Miller leaves the Villa Borghese shortly before noon. Food is the issue. Boris says he cannot afford to invite Miller to share his lunch with him, and Miller can tell it pains Boris to see him sitting at lunchtime with an empty stomach. So Miller steps out, and goes to visit the Cronstadts. They are eating as well. He pretends to have already eaten and declines their offer to join him, although he is in fact stricken with hunger.

Miller walks around some more on an empty belly, “like a leper with crabs gnawing at my entrails.” He stops by a bookstore and sees a book called A Man Cut in Slices. He is furious at himself for not having thought of a title like that for his own book – and we learn that this book was once called Crazy Cock (as an early manuscript of Miller’s had in fact been titled).

Miller remembers Germaine, a former lover. He met her while drifting down a boulevard, some change his wife had sent him in his pocket. Germaine, a prostitute, approached him – all “run-down heels and cheap jewelry” – and she and Miller came to terms in the back of a tabac. They took a five-franc room, and Miller was struck by her way of moving, her way of touching herself: “There was something about her eloquence at that moment and the way she thrust that rosebush under my nose which remains unforgettable." "Her words,” he writes, imbued her genitalia “with a peculiar fragrance; [this] was no longer just her private organ, but a treasure, a magic, potent treasure, a God-given thing – and none the less so because she traded it day in and day out for a few pieces of silver.”

Miller repeatedly describes Germaine as “different”, although she “was a whore all the way through.” Later, while with another prostitute named Claude, Miller’s thoughts return to Germaine. Claude is too delicate, too ladylike, whereas “Germaine was a hustler.” A “whore all the way through,” Miller repeats, “and that was her virtue!”


At the start of his novel, Miller notes that he is not quite sure what he is doing in Paris: he says that he was “sent here,” although he came in fact by his own volition. It is as if he simply allowed himself to be blown by the wind and happened to land in the City of Lights. He has “no money, no resources, no hopes,” and yet describes himself as “the happiest man alive.” In other words, being blown by the wind is, in a sense, the goal. Miller wants to live only in the present, day by day. Existence and action trump thought. A year ago he thought he was an artist. Now he no longer thinks about it, he just is.

Ironically, though Tropic of Capricorn was written and published after Tropic of Cancer, it documents an earlier time in Miller’s life. Cancer concerns itself with Miller’s current state, at the time of writing – his wanderings through Paris, his daily encounters, his struggling to scrape by, his art. Capricorn concerns itself with how Miller got there – his early years in New York, his development as a writer. Miller had been planning a large work and putting together a lengthy manuscript when his friend, Michael Fraenken, suggested he instead write the way he talked, focusing on what he saw on a daily basis – this to say, to write his life. Out the window went the work-in-progress, tentatively titled Crazy Cock, and in came Tropic of Cancer, an almost free-form mix of fiction, autobiography, essay and poem that shocked readers and critics when it was released.

“This is not a book,” Miller writes, by way of introducing his novel. The sentence posits a certain linguistic paradox. To what does “this” refer? The book in our hands? Well, surely that is a book. The book Miller is thinking up, the book “growing” inside him? It is telling that Miller does not reject the label of “novel”; he instead goes for an abandonment of logic, and rejects the label of “book”, which represents a physically justifiable fact, namely that Tropic of Cancer is a bundle of pages bound and covered, and thus a book. Perhaps Miller is referring not to the physical object but to the idea of a book, to its abstract form as a series of ideas transcribed to language. Tellingly, his phrasing recalls Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe, completed in 1929. In the painting, Magritte writes: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe,” meaning “This is not a pipe.” The seeming paradox actually points to an obvious fact: there is no actual pipe present, only a painting of one. Thus, Miller suggests by association, all Tropic of Cancer is is a representation of a book – a physical book as transmitted through thought and imagination. Miller thereby demonstrates the proximity of the idea to the physical, the spiritual to the material; these things coexist, within and outside of the “book”. The notion of the invisible inhabiting the visible is carried forward in Tropic of Capricorn, when Miller writes of the importance of objects.

Later in Cancer, Miller writes of the lure that Paris represents, re-invoking the notion of having been “sent” or “pushed” to the city: “It is no accident that propels people like us to Paris. Paris is simply an artificial stage, a revolving stage that permits the spectator to glimpse all phases of the conflict. […] Paris is the cradle of artificial births. Rocking here in the cradle each one slips back into his soil: one dreams back to Berlin, New York, Chicago, Vienna, Minsk. Vienna is never more Vienna than in Paris.” Thus, Paris is a sort of projection booth, casting the world on a single screen for spectators to watch. It is a city of dreams in which expatriates feel somehow even closer to their original home than they did before they arrived. Like childhood in Tropic of Capricorn, it is an arena of greater clarity; things are sharper, Vienna is more Vienna, America is more America, and art is more quintessentially art.

Paris is also a place of babies; that is to say, the artists and thinkers who come there return to a state of infancy; the city serves as their cradle. “Everyone has lived here some time or other,” Miller writes. “Nobody dies here.” Paris is a place of beginnings, not ends. It is here that Miller begins the “book” we now have in our hands, and Tropic of Cancer is in many ways a chronicle of its own birth. If, as the French director Jacques Rivette famously put it, every film is a documentary of its own making, Miller’s novel carries the equivalent notion in literature to something of an extreme, blurring the borders between meta-essay, fiction, and memoir, while steering clear of the more obviously modernist trappings of some of Miller’s peers.

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