Tropic of Capricorn

Tropic of Capricorn Summary and Analysis of Section III: “Life drifting by the show window” to “It gave me the feeling of the stupidity of the blood tie and of the love which is not spiritually imbued.”

Miller is out with MacGregor, who still wants to introduce him to Paula the "nymphomaniac." Miller drifts along, finds himself staring at a “juicy ass,” then suddenly gets nervous and wonders if perhaps he should “beat it and go home and begin the book.” He’s stalling on various writing projects, torn between expressing himself on paper and leading an increasingly delirious lifestyle, carried along by friends like MacGregor. For now, he’s at the Roseland Ballroom, reading the signs posted all around – “No Improper Dancing Allowed” – and gazing out over the dancing crowd. He can’t help but feel as though he can see through everybody. Then, “at the outermost limit of this momentaneous nothingness,” MacGregor reappears, Paula on his arm. She has “the loose, jaunty swing and perch of the double-barreled sex, [her] flesh rippling like a lake furrowed by a breeze.” This vision of sex-crazed Paula bleeds into a larger vision of the dance floor, of all the girls screaming for sex, of “Laura the nympho…her sex defoliated and twisted like a cow’s tail,” paragraphs of fevered poetic writing that seem to imply a certain narrative trajectory: Henry takes (or imagines he takes) this Laura home with him and makes love to her, after which she falls asleep, “lost Laura, last of the Petrarchs, slowly fading on the brink of sleep.” The overriding feeling is again one of deep emptiness, of “black frenzied nothingness” – lots of clamoring and noise and sweat and stink and sex, but beneath it all a great void.

Sunday morning, Miller’s friend Maxie Schnadig calls, announcing that their friend Luke Ralston has died. Miller is snarky to Maxie, telling him Luke was just a “so-so” guy, which offends the mourning Maxie. "The truth was," Miller writes, "I was really glad Luke had kicked off at the opportune moment: it meant that I could forget about the hundred and fifty dollars which I owed him." Miller, rejoicing, decides to go visit Lottie Somers, Luke’s sister, who he’s always wanted to have sex with. Now he fantasizes about going up to her place, offering his condolences, wrapping his arms around her to comfort her, and going from there to a “lay.” Unfortunately, since it’s Sunday, he knows her husband is home.

He goes out, trying to think of how to filch some more money, since he only has a quarter in his pocket. His best bet, he decides, is his “little friend Curley,” a seventeen-year-old from Harlem who three years ago came looking for a job as a messenger at the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company and quickly became “the pet of the office,” and who has “no moral sense, no scruples, no shame.” If Curley doesn’t have some money to give, he’ll just as gladly steal it for Miller. Of course, Miller recognizes that Curley’s lack of morals can be a liability: the teenager is prone to playing wise and loyal while scheming for his own needs. Miller goes with Curley to the office, where Curley cleans out the loose change from the wardrobe. Miller warns him that O’Rourke is on to him. Curley protests, says “Supposing…I tell him I stole the money in order to help you out?” Miller calmly responds that O’Rourke would likely not believe that.

While drinking schnapps with Curley, Miller remembers that Maxie said he’d be at Luke’s house that day to pay his respects. Miller decides it’s the perfect opportunity to go apologize to Maxie for his callous remarks over the phone and to get back in his good graces, and maybe thereby squeeze a date out of Lottie. When Miller gets to the house, however, Lottie has already left. “[That] helped me to keep up the sad look,” Miller wryly notes.

Finally, Miller finds some time alone with Maxie by Luke’s coffin and asks for money, having gotten none from Curley. “Listen, Henry,” Maxie says while reaching into his pocket, “I don’t mind giving you the money, but couldn’t you have found another way of reaching me?” Taking the money, Miller hurries out of the house, telling the family, who ask him to stay, that he must go: “it was awkward to refuse.” He rejoins Curley on the street and starts laughing hysterically, as if letting out all that he’d been bottling up inside. He decides to ditch Curley and go off “on a little spree,” maybe to find some “low-down, filthy cunt who hadn’t a spark of decency in her.”

After a feverish description of a night out on the town, Miller reminisces about an episode from his childhood. One summer afternoon when he was eight or nine and staying with his Aunt Caroline, he and his cousin Gene got into a rock-fight with some other boys; Henry hit one of the rival boys in the head with a thrown rock, killing him. After leaving Gene at the end of that summer, Miller didn’t see him again for another twenty years. When he met with him again, he was astonished to find that Gene had no definite recollection of the event; he remembered the boy’s death but not that he or Henry had had any part in it. This rendered Miller “terribly despondent.” It was as though Gene had “attempted to eradicate a precious part of [Henry’s] life, and himself with it.”

Miller remembers Weesie, the sister of Joey Kasselbaum, a friend of his and Gene’s that summer. Weesie was in love with Henry and “was the first of the other sex to admire me for being different.” Other memories follow…the smell of his Aunt Tillie’s hair “after she had taken a shampoo”; a friend named Stanley, and one day seeing his father (who had a habit of beating Stanley) attacked by “another Polack”; picking on a choirboy who was “a fairy in the making” (“Nobody knew yet what a fairy was,” Miller writes, “but whatever it was we were against it”); a local bully named Joe Gerhardt losing in a fight to a Jewish boy named Joey Silverstein, and the impact this event had on the Brooklyn neighborhood (“Who had ever heard of a Jew beating up a Gentile?”); boys sitting around sharing the knowledge they’d soaked up from the stories they’d just read. Specific kids…Claude de Lorraine, a French boy, whose occasional breaking into French with his parents shocked Henry and his friends (“German we had heard and German was a permissible transgression, but French!”); Jack Lawson, who was the first boy Henry heard to use the word “really,” and who was made fun for it; Carl Ragner, the son of a politician whose house had brass knobs on its doors.

Miller reflects on how “the wonder and the mystery of life [is] throttled in us as we become responsible members of society.” In his twenty-first year, in a state of despair so great he has decided to leave home and head to California, he meets Roy Hamilton prior to his departure. Hamilton is supposedly the half-brother of MacGregor, but Roy has until recently thought his biological father was Mr. Hamilton, not Mr. MacGregor. He has come East to once and for all “disentangle the mystery surrounding his parentage”; staying with the MacGregors and increasingly baffled, Roy emerges, in Miller’s view, as a true philosopher, one for whom the confusion of life serves as stimulation for the development of his character; “for the first time,” Miller writes, “I was talking to a man who got behind the meaning of words and went to the very essence of things.” Miller finds it ironic that Roy is striving so hard to determine who his father is, when he seems to have no need for such a “solid biological link.” He seems to Miller already a fully-formed individual and thinker, “a teacher and an exemplar.” Miller thinks of him almost as a mystic, full of wisdom, and is flattered that Roy makes him his confidant. Talking to Roy awakens Miller: he feels he is discovering himself for the first time in this would-be philosopher’s words. “In talking to me, [Roy] addressed himself to a me whose existence I had only dimly suspected, the me, for example, which emerged when, suddenly, reading a book, I realized that I had been dreaming.” Thanks to Roy, Miller understands what it is to have a true friendship and not to feel “enslaved” to it. It is a galvanizing and life-altering experience.


Roy Hamilton represents something of a culmination in the narrative Miller is constructing. Ulric’s descriptions of Europe sow some kind of a seed, and from then on viable human connections are, from time to time, possible: the one-night tryst with Pauline, Valeska’s tearful reaction to Miller’s offering to risk his job for her. (Of course, we are not following chronological order here; Miller skips back and forth in time throughout Tropic of Capricorn). Hamilton answers these smaller flickers of hope and fulfills their promise (though, of course, he precedes all of them in temporal terms). He offers Miller a shining vision of something bright, something new. Miller writes: “almost immediately I discarded this side of my nature [his bookishness and intellectualism] and allowed myself to bask in the warm, immediate light which his profound and natural intuition of things created.” Whereas Miller has earlier alluded to books – such as those of Lawrence and Balzac – as comparative beacons of light, here he rejects them in favor of more direct knowledge, the kind that perhaps cannot be transcribed on the page. Roy Hamilton cuts through to the essence of things, free of intellectual pretense. Out of a morass of confusion, represented by his entangled family history, he stands as a model of clarity, and in that regard he is childlike; facing a world thick with contradictions and uncertainty, he sees and describes things with a kind of serene confidence and lucidity.

Miller’s glowing descriptions of Hamilton come shortly after a prolonged elegy to the glories of childhood – the clarity of vision of those years, the sanity of it all, as compared to the muddled world of adults. Writing of childhood conversations, he could just as easily be referring to his talks with Hamilton: “Facts had little importance for us; what we demanded of a subject was that it allow us opportunity to expand. What amazes me, when I look back on it, is how well we understood one another, how well we penetrated to the essential character of each and every one, young or old.” Facts, or bookishness, or intellectualism, are dismissed, leaving in their absence a kind of discourse that is sharp, pure, clear. The world of schoolbooks and lessons only stifles a child’s perceptiveness: “From the day we went to school we learned nothing; on the contrary, we were made obtuse, we were wrapped in a fog of words and abstractions.”

Words, then, are the enemy. Paradoxically, as an adult Miller turns to writing as a way of returning to childhood truths – of conjuring memories, of describing a place as Ulric might, of imparting wisdom as Hamilton might. The words Miller refers to here, though, are somehow different; they are the words of edicts, formulas, rules and prescriptions; words that constrain rather than free, stifle rather than stimulate. The words children bandy about, in contrast, are keys to greater awareness, to the kind of bright, new world Hamilton represents. They are the words that cut to the quick, see the “essential” in everything, and separate the children from the hopelessly confused adults.

A slice of sour rye delivered by Aunt Caroline becomes a symbol of childhood’s simple pleasures; bread unearned (instead of worked for) seems to taste better than bread that comes with a paycheck, because it comes free of tainting, is unsullied and somehow more pure and perfect. The rye is Miller’s “madeleine,” in a nod to Proust: a simple culinary confection that comes to represent all the mysteries of childhood. The irony is that the restricted world of boyhood, with bedtimes, delivered meals, the fear-based power hierarchy of boys and their gangs, “seems like a limitless universe and the life which followed it, the life of the adult, a constantly diminishing realm.” Miller thinks despairingly about what has become of his closest childhood friends. Gene has become “an absolute nonentity,” a boy named Stanley “a first-rate failure,” another named Joey a letter carrier. With adulthood, their distinguishing characteristics melt away, “and we all became more or less alike and, of course, most unlike our own selves.”

The self remains that thing so easily hidden but so crucial to a meaningful existence, that indefinable “I”. Much like Thoreau, Miller is actively seeking out the self, the core of his own being, and Hamilton offers him the clearest glimpse since childhood. Miller’s attempt to recapture some of the spark of his childhood days, his conviction that those early years were a peak, that the greatest wisdom comes close to birth, and that one must be a child or “reborn” as an artist to partake in it, recalls Wordsworth, particularly “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” Wordsworth argues that a baby is born “trailing clouds of glory” from its prior perch, and that the rest of life is a prolonged forgetting, in which those memories of Godliness, clear as day upon birth, gradually fade into nothing. Miller never adopts as explicitly religious a stance, but it is easy to see his twentieth-century views echoed in Wordsworth’s earlier words:

Thou little Child, yet glorious in the might

Of heaven-born freedom on thy being's height,

Why with such earnest pains dost thou provoke

The years to bring the inevitable yoke,

Thus blindly with thy blessedness at strife?

Full soon thy Soul shall have her earthly freight,

And custom lie upon thee with a weight

Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!

Returning to Hamilton, perhaps the greatest thing about him for Miller is that no one but Miller seems to realize the gift he represents. MacGregor simply refers to him as “strange,” for example. But when Roy does finally leave, the MacGregor with whom he’d been staying seem suddenly confused, and they weep. It is as though, Miller notes, they have realized only then that they had missed out on a great opportunity.