Tropic of Cancer

Tropic of Cancer Summary and Analysis of Section V: “A few weeks later, upon receipt of a pressing invitation from Collins” to “So you see why once in a while I must let myself be sucked by a Lesbian…”

For the first time since his arrival in Paris, Miller ventures outside of the city, going with Fillmore to Le Havre, a port town in Brittany, to see a friend of Fillmore’s: a sailor named Collins. Miller, Fillmore, and Collins go together to a local restaurant – “a huge tavern with big, smoky rafters and tables creaking with food” – before heading to Jimmie’s Bar, where they find “such a bubble and blabber of merriment that you felt like pulling off your clothes and doing a war dance.” Jimmie and Yvette are remarkably friendly, and the local prostitutes think Fillmore and Miller are rich because of their association with Collins. Miller soon finds himself “somewhat embarrassed with two stunning-looking whores hanging on my arms waiting for me to order something.”

Miller begins to charm the pants off a girl named Marcelle. During dinner, they fondle each other under the table, their actions hidden from sight. Then Miller, Collins, and Fillmore head for the waterfront, soused, while Collins tells a story about a boy he has fallen in love with. They enter a brothel on the Quai Voltaire, then zip on over to “a rough joint which was packed with drunken sailors on shore leave,” where they sit for a while and enjoy “the homosexual rout that was in full swing.”

The last day in Le Havre (Fillmore needs to return to Paris on Monday for work), the three friends carouse some more, and Collins confides that he has been thinking of returning to his ranch in Idaho. He is fed up with Le Havre, Jimmie’s wife has fallen in love with him and made things difficult for him (she is especially jealous of a Russian girl who comes to visit Collins now and then), and the town is too packed with “vultures.” That night, Collins gets into a bar fight involving Yvette, the Russian girl, and “a big Swede.” Yvette is in such despair afterwards that she tries to kill herself by ordering a cab driver to drive over the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea. She stumbles out of the cab in a drunken stupor, melts into tears, and begins tearing her clothes off. She is dragged back home by the driver, and Jimmie, furious at her, proceeds to beat her with his belt.

“It was high time we were leaving,” Miller remarks. And so he and Fillmore do, the following morning. We learn that Collins, still dreaming of Idaho, will never see America again.

Miller returns to Paris with a few hundred francs Collins has shoved in his pocket. It is more money than he has had in his hands at any single time in several years. He looks up a cheap hotel near the Montparnasse quarter, but doesn’t like the idea of having to pass through the room of a blind man in order to get to his lodging. So he looks elsewhere, trying out a place on Rue Cels that seems to him “like the public ward of a hospital.” He decides to wait for the night and find a place then.

After dinner, it begins to rain in buckets. It’s too early to go to sleep, Miller reasons, but he needs to find somewhere to duck in and dry off. He runs into a girl who, after learning he speaks English, begins pleading with him to take her to a café. She calls him “good sir” and “dear sir,” at which he bursts into laughter. She hasn’t any money left, and explains that she was born in Poland, is alone in the world, and needs advice. Miller obliges, and sits and chats with her at a bistro. He asks her if she knows a “nice little hotel” where she can take him.

“Oh, my dear sir,” she replies, “I’m sure you don’t mean that! I’m not that kind of a girl. You were joking with me, I can see that.” The girl speaks to him as though he were a gentleman, or even a saint. Miller wants to get away from her. He accompanies her to her hotel, and gives her fifty francs when she asks for fifteen or twenty “to quiet the patron.” She says she’ll go to the bistro to grab change. He says not to bother. With that, she seizes his hand with dramatic flourish and kisses it. Miller is “flabbergasted.”

“I felt like a saint,” he writes. “When you feel all puffed up inside it isn’t so easy to go to bed right away.” He parts ways with the girl. Feeling as though he should atone for his burst of “goodness,” he stops at a dance hall called the “Jungle.” There he dances with a French but Norwegian-looking blonde, who afterwards weeps to him because, as he learns, she has just buried her child. She and Miller converse, and she tells him one sob story after another – few of which Miller believes. When it’s time to leave Miller decides to spend the night at her place, but when he mentions he has very little money to pay for her company, she throws a tantrum. He calms her down and says he was only joking, knowing full well that he is about to part with his last centime on her account.

They repair to her apartment. She cries about her mother, who is apparently very ill. Miller pays her the money she wants – it’s for “maman,” she assures him – and they go at it. Miller hopes that she will at least make it last, make it worth the money he has spent, but she insists on hurrying the process up, and then says that she must duck out for a moment to check on her mother downstairs. Miller, bitter, lies in bed for some time, until a thought crosses his mind. The woman has left in a hurry, and her purse is still hanging in the wardrobe. He peers into it, snatches the money he gave her, and sneaks out of the building.

Toward the end of that summer, Fillmore invites Miller to stay with him. Miller makes a habit of lying in bed until noon, grows a beard upon “Swift’s request,” frequents dance halls with his friends. Miller likes his new neighborhood, likes the sense of squalor and lugubriousness it exudes at night, the way in which the little square near Fillmore’s place, “so charming and tranquil at twilight, [can] assume the most dismal, sinister character when darkness [comes] on.” Now and then Carl brings him a job – travel articles he’d rather not do himself.

One evening Fillmore brings home a Russian “princess” and excitedly tells Miller that she “speaks five languages!” The princess confides to Miller that Fillmore “talks too much,” is too loud, and behaves like a “big child.” Later that night, Miller learns the whole story from Fillmore. He met the princess at the Rond Point des Champs-Elysees, where he had stopped off for a drink. She said she was a princess, had been acting in a movie, and had had an affair with the director, who then gave her the run-around. In despair, she jumped into the Seine, and now here she was – ready for a good time.

Later, the princess whisks him away to a dance hall, where she suddenly breaks into tears, and then leaves without telling him. He dashes after her, finds her seated at the bar of the Coupole, and demands to know why she treated him in that way. She explains that she did not want to sleep with him, and that she is still in love with the director and saw him on the dance floor - hence the tears. The conversation shifts gears, and the princess – Macha is her name – suggests that Fillmore take her to “Bricktop’s”, another night-spot. If he pays her way, she will go home with him. He rejects her, his blood at a boil, but she insists that once he has slept with her he’ll never want to sleep with another woman again: she is the best catch he can hope to find in all of Paris.

Her argument seems to work. Macha shacks up with Miller and Fillmore, and a prolonged ménage a trois sets in, during which time Fillmore tries to convince Macha to have sex with him. One night he finally lies atop her, and seems about to get what he has so long desired, when she casually informs him that she has gonorrhea. He springs back, disgusted, and washes himself off. From then on, he seems to think that if he can cure Macha of her gonorrhea, she may “loosen up” and sleep with him.


“There was nothing pressing,” Miller writes, describing his time at Fillmore’s place, “except to finish the book, and that didn’t worry me much because I was already convinced that nobody would accept it anyway.” It is the first time in many pages that he has directly referred to the book he is writing – what is to be, we can infer, Tropic of Cancer. This section of the book is more narrative-driven than other sections, peppered with colorful incidents and ordered in a linear fashion. There is not much talk of Mona; the focus is on the high life (or low life) Miller experiences in the company of friends.

Solitude gives way to continual human contact. Collins gives Miller enough money to go a few days, and then Fillmore puts him up. Miller encounters a girl who looks up to him as though he were a saint, and then grows a beard and encounters a Russian princess (or a girl who says she’s a princess) who exclaims, “What a horrid beard! […] I think you people must be crazy around here.”

The truth is, Miller has fallen into a supportive group of friends without whom, he will be the first to admit, his lifestyle would be unsustainable. Work comes here and there – travel articles Carl hires him to do, for example – but for the most part cash flows out of his pocket, not in. It is due to this poverty and desperation – which Miller seems largely unconcerned about – that Miller shares so much time and talk with others. Papini’s call for an artist to be alone is implicitly contradicted: Miller constructs his art out of his everyday encounters with the various denizens he describes. Tropic of Cancer is, to a large degree, a narrative about meeting people.

Is that not what Paris is meant to facilitate? From an inside perspective, Miller describes the circumstances under which the expatriate community coalesced in the years preceding World War II, while focusing resolutely on the minute details, the mundane, the day-to-day. One goes to the woods – or, as Collins would like, to Idaho – to be alone; one comes to Paris to meet, mingle, chat, converse, bicker, argue, fight, and reunite. On the one hand, Miller seems quite the unproductive artist, lying in bed until noon, procrastinating on his book, and spending all his time in cafes and dance halls and on the streets; on the other hand, Miller’s art resides in the streets. His is a poetry of the night-life, of the city’s nocturnal underground, of the restless masses heaving and sighing their way to a hung-over dawn. He writes what he lives, and thus his living is, by extension, his writing.

It is also significant that Miller refers to America, his now-distant homeland, as more of an idea than a physical reality. We have heard that discrepancy trotted out before – the difference between the idea and the object. America, however, is a particularly deceptive example; it represents little that corresponds to reality. “It’s best to keep America just like that, always in the background, a sort of picture post card which you look at in a weak moment,” Miller writes. “Like that, you imagine it’s always there waiting for you, unchanged, unspoiled, a big patriotic open space with cows and sheep and tenderhearted men ready to bugger everything in sight, man, woman or beast. It doesn’t exist, America. It’s a name you give to an abstract idea…”

The next chapter opens with the following lines: “Paris is like a whore. From a distance she seems ravishing, you can’t wait until you have her in your arms. And five minutes later you feel empty, disgusted with yourself. You feel tricked.” Miller cuts directly from a passage describing America – vague, unreal – to one describing Paris – physical, like a human. Tropic of Cancer is deeply concerned with the relationship between France and America, the discrepancy between an idea of a place and the place itself, the strange love-hate affair the American expatriates have with their adopted city on the Seine. Paris is, after all, just as deceitful as America; the idea does not correspond to the reality, and the visitor is left “empty.” And yet, Miller is unable – unwilling, that is – to leave. Like some of the prostitutes he encounters, Paris continues to hold a certain intoxicating allure for him – one that cannot easily be resisted.