Miller describes the cold of the Dijon winter, the “blue coffee” and “unbuttered bread” in the refectory, the frozen toilet-pipes – and the silence, a deep silence at night that conjures up memories for Miller of “the women [he’s] known.”
He doesn’t manage to escape until the spring. A telegram from Carl arrives, informing Miller that there is a vacancy “upstairs.” Miller immediately accepts, Carl sends train fare, and Miller beats it to the station. “French leave, as they say,” he writes.
Carl’s place is a mess, as usual. “Like a squirrel cage and shithouse combined,” Miller describes it. Orange peels and ham sandwich remains are in the bidet, condoms and manuscripts are littered about. A woman lies in the bed. “If you need a lay you can take her on,” Carl tells Miller. “She’s not bad.” Miller, however, is not concerned with sex. He feels “like a man who has just escaped from jail.” He wants to see the sights, re-experience Paris. Carl tells him a story about another girl he slept with recently who turned out to be only fifteen. The parents came to take her away. Miller breaks into laughter. “What are you laughing for?” Carl asks. “I may go to prison for it.” Then he explains that he’s now in love with the mother, after having met her. “If I had seen the mother first I’d never have looked at the daughter.”
The next morning Miller rents a room and meets Carl for breakfast at noon. He learns that Carl and Van Norden have begun doing breakfast together at the Coupole in Miller’s absence. “So it’s just like it used to be again,” Miller writes. He, Carl, and Van Norden are reunited, back to their fights and rivalries, Van Norden still complaining about his women – though now he’s discovered it’s less aggravating to just masturbate. He likes to take an apple, bore out the core, rub cold cream on the inside, and then go at it. He also informs Miller that Fillmore is in the hospital. “I think he’s nuts,” he says.
Miller goes to visit Fillmore. He’s upstairs in a private room, and he bursts into tears upon seeing Miller. “They say I’m crazy – and I may have syphilis too,” he says. “They say I have delusions of grandeur.” We learn that Fillmore began a relationship with a French woman while Miller was away and knocked her up – before realizing he had gonorrhea. Fillmore tells Miller he wants to get married to the girl, to atone for what he did. “You see, I didn’t know I had the clap,” he explains. “I told the doctor I don’t care what happens to me, but I want him to let me get married first. He keeps telling me to wait until I get better – but I know I’m never going to get better. This is the end.”
Miller goes to visit the girl in question. Her name is Ginette, and when she learns that Miller is a friend of Fillmore’s come to visit her on his behalf, she insists he dine with her. She is deeply worried about Fillmore. She asks Miller if he will get his old job back when he gets out of the hospital. Her family does not approve of her ways, and now she is pregnant with a dose of the “clap.” Miller assures her Fillmore that will have his job back, and that he will marry her. “It was my duty now to comfort her,” he writes, “and so I just filled her up with a lot of baloney, told her everything would turn out all right and that I would stand godfather to the child, etc.”
A friend of Ginette's, Yvette, arrives. She claims to work in the police department as a “sort of stool pigeon,” though it’s clear to Miller that she is “just a little whore.” The next day, both Ginette and Yvette call on Miller. Fillmore has been transferred from the hospital to a place they call the “chateau,” and they’re in a panic. Miller does not want to have to escort the two women there, so he calls up Carl, who quickly hits it off with Yvette and does the job for him.
Ginette spends time with Fillmore, and things seem on the mend. Fillmore does not have syphilis, after all, which is a big relief. In the meantime, however, Yvette informs Miller that Ginette is a “whore” and a liar, and is not even pregnant; she apparently only wants to marry Fillmore because he is too stupid to see her for what she is; due to her criminal record, she is unable to get any other husband. Miller is not sure what to think of these allegations, but he is unable to communicate anything to Fillmore, who upon his release goes directly from the chateau to the countryside with Ginette and her family. There, he is pressured to publicly announce the engagement. It’s now official.
When Fillmore returns to Paris with Ginette, he has a new wardrobe and a bunch of money, but he confides his misery to Miller. He has lost his job, and Ginette controls every step he takes. Her family has a plan all set up for him: he is to work at their stationary store, and he shudders at the idea of years and years behind that desk. He pleads to Miller to help him get out of this mess. Miller tries to comfort him, and then simply suggests that he return to America. At first Fillmore rejects the idea – he does not want to leave France – but it doesn’t take long for him to have second thoughts.
Miller devises a scheme. He and Fillmore will go to the British Consulate and obtain a visa for Fillmore, who will then take a train to London, and from there a boat to America. He won’t tell Ginette, and won’t pack his bags. Miller will take care of everything. Fillmore agrees to the plan, and it’s a success – save for the fact that Fillmore almost changes his mind on several occasions during the execution out of pity for Ginette, who, he fears, will be disowned by her family because of his departure.
Before boarding the train, Fillmore hands a few thousand francs to Miller and insists that Ginette get the money. After the train has left, Miller wonders how he should spend the money. He has no intention of giving it to Ginette. He hails a cab and drives around the city for a bit. It occurs to him all of a sudden that he too could go to America if he wanted. “It was the first time the opportunity had ever presented itself,” he writes. “I asked myself – ‘do you want to go?’ There was no answer.”
He wonders what has become of his wife, and then stands by the Seine and watches the water quietly flow along.
Tropic of Cancer, a novel about the expatriate experience in Paris, ends with an American setting off on the first leg of a return trip to the States. Miller himself stays behind, but for the first time wonders if he too should head back to his homeland. Whereas in earlier sections of the novel he writes of Paris’s magnetic allure and his inability to seriously consider leaving, now he is genuinely unsure. No answer reveals itself. At the novel’s close, he stands by the Seine and watches the great river flow. He thinks about his final look at New York, back when he departed by boat for France – “the skyscrapers fading out in a flurry of snowflakes.” Now he reflects on the quiet majesty of the Seine, a river that has seen a millennia's worth of history. “Here […] lies a soil so saturated with the past that however far back the mind roams one can never detach it from its human background,” he writes.
One can compare that sentence to Miller’s earlier reflections on Mona blotting “out the past,” and then on his inability to fully escape the past’s tentacles. For a book that begins with the declaration “I no longer think about it, I am” - an assertion of present-tense confidence if ever there was one – to end with an ambiguous contemplation of history and memory is significant. If Tropic of Capricorn charts Miller’s evolution from confused and lost man to full-fledged artist (and one who is sure of himself as such), Tropic of Cancer chronicles, in some ways, the opposite trajectory: from certainty to uncertainty, from simple to complex, and from clear to muddled. The book ends with Miller asking a question and receiving no answer. He is left hanging, teasing possibilities out of a silent river.
“The hills gently girdle it about,” Miller writes of the Seine, “its course is fixed.” Earlier in Cancer, Miller’s course seems similarly fixed, in that there is no care paid to the destination. Now Miller’s state contrasts with the Seine quite sharply: he has no idea where he is headed and is, for the first time, wondering whether that is a good thing. One should not go so far as to argue that Miller ends his novel by negating the philosophy he has thus far suggested; what the book’s closing does, rather, is complicate that which preceded it, hanging a question mark over the proceedings.
A few pages earlier, while listening to Fillmore rant about Ginette, Miller steps back and offers a description of the American expatriates in Paris – that peculiar subsection of humanity, full of ideas and perhaps short on common sense. “No wonder [the French] think we’re all crazy,” Miller writes. “We are crazy to them. We’re just a pack of children. Senile idiots. What we call life is a five-and-ten-cent store romance. That enthusiasm underneath – what is it? That cheap optimism which turns the stomach of any ordinary European? It’s illusion. No, illusion’s too good a word for it. Illusion means something. No, it’s not that – it’s delusion.” We are reminded of the hospital-bound Fillmore telling Miller that according to the doctors he has “delusions of grandeur.” in the passage above, Miller holds that all the expatriates have delusions of grandeur. Everything is carried to the limit, amplified as in “a five-and-ten-cent store romance.” Everyday interactions become the stuff of melodrama. Optimism of the “cheap” variety inflects the proceedings. The French, weighed down with history (as embodied by the quietly-flowing Seine), are more jaded; the Americans want to turn every narrative into a mothball romance.
Here again, Miller seems to be reflecting on his own writing through the prism of larger descriptions of his environs and companions. He posits a variation on Gertrude Stein’s “Lost Generation” tag when he writes: “We’re pulling the whole world down about our ears. We don’t know why. It’s our destiny.” Thus, the course of the generation is fixed. The expatriates are destined to tear down the old order. In a sense, though, the past looms large in these final pages, and the present remains all-important to Miller, and the future belongs to his generation – even though he and his companions “don’t know why.”