Tropic of Cancer
by Henry Miller
Author, Narrator, and Character (Oh My)
Let's just get this out of the way: Henry Miller is the author, narrator, and main character of Tropic of Cancer. Confusing? Yes. Ripe for analysis? Absolutely.
Henry Miller (the author) acknowledged that his narrator in Tropic of Cancer and other books wasn't 100% him: "I created a monstrous character in my books and gave him my name; he's a demon, a rouge, a scoundrel… It was mostly exaggeration and bravado, you see. The character was me and wasn't me. It is as if there are two Henry Millers" (source).
In Tropic of Cancer, Henry is not as much a character as a narrator. Sure, he interacts with and talks to other people, but he's also absent in a lot of ways—he has lost his wife, his national identity, and his job—and seems to observe more than act. In fact, we don't actually get his full name until chapter eight, when Carl's friend Irene calls him (8.24).
Halfway through the novel, he admits that he doesn't even really understand who he is
I'm not an American any more, nor a New Yorker, and even less a European, or a Parisian. I haven't any allegiances, any responsibilities, any hatreds, any worries, any prejudices, any passion. I'm neither for nor against. I'm neutral. (8.135)
At moments like these, it's a good idea to question if we trust this guy. Are we in unreliable narrator territory? Has he really behaved this way, or is he trying to convince us he's someone he's not? And while we're at it, how much do we care who he is? After all, we're deep inside this guy's philosophical mess of a mind, like it or not.
The World According to "Endree"
As a philosopher, Henry is a semi-nihilist. That's a fancy (slash pretentious) way of describing someone who believes in an extreme form of skepticism that denies all existence. You know—dark stuff. But despite the pessimism—and the fact that he scrounges and connives for meals and relies on friends for money and a bed—this guy never really loses his love of life.
In fact, Miller is able to combine pleasure and horror in one big philosophical mash up:
Behind my words are all those grinning, leering, skulking skulls, some dead and grinning a long time, some grinning as if they had lockjaw, some grinning with the grimace of a grin […] Clearer than all I see my own grinning skull, see the skeleton dancing in the wind, serpents issuing from the rotted tongue and the bloated pages of ecstasy slimed with excrement. (13.19)
This is a guy who doesn't see things as clearly good or bad, but seems to enjoy the sinisterness of life, jumbling it all into one big experience.
Miller's contempt for "the machine," the industrial age, and consumer excess (down with the capitalist pigs!) is central to his M.O. And of course, for him, America embodies all of this bad badness:
[I]f you want bread you've got to get in harness, get in lock step.[…] More nuts and bolts, more barbed wire, more dog biscuits, more lawn mowers, more ball bearings, more high explosives, more tanks, more poison gas, more soap, more toothpaste, more newspapers, more education, more churches, more museums. Forward! (14.15)
Of course, all of this disdain does not mean he's not greedy in his own way. And that's where the hypocritical side of things comes in. Remember, at the end, he keeps for himself the 2,800 francs that were meant to go to Fillmore's mistress. So even though he doesn't want to work regularly—and you could even argue that he thinks he's above "real work"—he does like to have some money in his pockets. His description of his Indian friend Kepi as "a scrounger, a sort of human tick who fastens himself to the hide of even the poorest compatriot" could even describe himself.
We're pretty sure that if other people weren't in "lock step," character/narrator Miller would either starve or have to get his act together. Instead, he chooses to be a hypocrite, despising those who support him and condemning the very people he relies on (including "the grocer, the baker, the shoemaker, the butcher, etc.—all imbecilic-looking clodhoppers"). Sorry, Hank, we're not going to let this one slide.
Anaïs Nin, Miller's long-term lover and the author of the Tropic of Cancer preface, has said that Miller moves between extremes—he "is beyond optimism or pessimism" (preface, xxxii). No matter how degraded or hungry or beaten down he is, this guy still craves more life. Yep. That's a red flag for complexity.
Henry and His Feelings (and Ours)
So how does Henry feel about others? Here's our untrained psychological analysis, since you asked:
Deeply ironic and bordering on unsympathetic, Miller looks at human emotion as an amusing object. Examples? Sure. When a friend says, "A boy can break your heart . . . He's so damned beautiful! And so cruel!" Miller writes, "We had to laugh at this. It sounded preposterous. But Collins was in earnest." And when an acquaintance who he owes money dies, he writes, "At any rate, he was killed in an automobile accident shortly after my arrival, a circumstance which left me twenty-three francs to the good." See what we mean?
And if you don't believe us, consider Henry's own words: "I am inhuman! I say it with a mad, hallucinated grin, and I will keep on saying it though it rain crocodiles" (13.19). When these confessions of a dark attitude appear—often rambling on for pages—It's hard not to find yourself yearning for a return to his insipid stories about prostitutes, disease, friends, and hunger.
So are we the bad guys now?
Let's start with a disclaimer: a depressing, angry, feminist dissertation could be written on the subject of Henry Miller's women. Easily.
Miller is a skirt-chaser, plain and simple. Henry and his circle seem to spend nearly every free moment picking up women—and diseases. What's going on here? Are these women lovers, sex objects, or something else altogether? Well, from the way Henry and others talk about it in Tropic of Cancer, women are barely human. Instead, they're invariably portrayed as stupid, drunken, nutty, loose, deceptive, and primarily there to serve the sexual pleasures of men.
Now that that's established, let's look a little closer at "Henry's Angels":
(1) The novel is dedicated to Tania, and Henry returns to moments of longing for this woman throughout the novel. Wait, what? He cares about a woman? Yep. In some of the opening sentences he declares, "You, Tania, are my chaos. It is why I sing" (1.1). But she is with Sylvester, and we never quite know why.
(2) How about the prostitutes? Iréne and Llona are some of the first women Henry mentions. Iréne would rather get "big letters" than have sex and Llona is too selfish. Among all of the prostitutes, it seems like Germaine is Henry's favorite. All the other women just want too much money for the job or keep falling asleep right before the action. But Germaine is "whore all the way through" (3.16), and knows how to please her man. She does smell like coffee and cognac, but he can let that one go.
(3) Then there's Mona. Ah, Mona: Henry's American wife and must enduring muse. (Her real name was June Mansfield, by the way). He often thinks tenderly about her and has some sad, nostalgic moments when he reflects on their time together walking through the streets of Paris or waking up in each other's arms, but… yeah. He also sleeps with prostitutes. So there's that.
Last But Not Least
Have we mentioned that this guy is a writer? Why are we not surprised?
Because he's a writer—the writer, in fact—we can't really trust him (hey, we're not the first ones to say it). After all, he writers have a way with words, and he could just be messing with us. It's pretty clear from the get-go that Miller likes to shock and disgust his readers. Lice, syphilis, stench, guts, blood: any bodily function will do. So if it's all about the shock factor, what are we supposed to believe?