Tropic of Cancer
by Henry Miller
Boris is the first Henry-friend we meet. How do we know they're friends? Well, Henry is willing to pick lice out of his armpits. 'Nuff said. The two gents are sharing a room at the Villa Borghese and working on an anthology together called The Last Book. Boris loans Henry a lot of money—surprise, surprise—and Henry thinks that Boris is one of the only decent writers around.
You wouldn't know it from his behavior, but Boris has a wife. In fact, almost all of these guys do. But the wives are in America working and sending their sad sack husbands dough, unknowingly (sort of) supporting their sex addictions.
And, like many of Henry's friends, Boris lives in fear of his wife, who, to be fair, seems to be quite a handful. But Boris can't think of anything more appealing than ditching his wife: "She can have everything, that cow, if only she leaves me alone" (2.5). Sounds like a great relationship. But really, are you surprised? This is Tropic of Cancer, after all.
And here's yet another guy who's not happy in his relationship. Fillmore, a young man in the diplomatic service, gets engaged to a French woman named Ginette and then confides to Miller that he's completely miserable. Again, we're not surprised.
Despite the hilarity that Fillmore provides when he and Henry get kicked out of Mass, this guy becomes a very sad case toward the conclusion of the novel. He goes kind of mad and then gets trapped into a marriage agreement involving his possibly lying baby mama and some pushy future in-laws. In the end, Miller helps a very desperate Fillmore escape Paris via London back to the United States. Looks like Henry does know how to commit an unselfish act, after all.
Here's another one of Henry's friends who lives in squalor and loves to complain about Paris, writing, and anyone with a good attitude. This one's a real whiner.
Carl is a fellow expatriate and writer who claims that the world already has too many books. "What's the use of putting words together?" he asks (4.8). He's torn between staying in Paris and moving home to Arizona "where," he says "they look you square in the eye" (4.5). Henry describes him as "a snob, [and] an aristocratic little prick who lives in a dementia praecox kingdom all his own" (4.8). Okay, so maybe they're not best friends.
Carl's most memorable happening? He gets into a heap of trouble for having sex with a minor, but manages to weasel out of the situation because her father likes his choice in books.
Henry's long-lost wife ("Mona has been away a long time" [1.50]), Mona is based on real-life June Mansfield Miller. He seems to truly love her, and though he'd like to think of himself as free from the past, he can't let go of the memories of his relationship with her. And he seems pretty genuine:
I hear not a word because she is beautiful and I love her and now I am happy and willing to die. (1.51)
That's some intense love.
And you know? Mona is the only woman whom Henry does not degrade. In fact, he remembers her mostly on romantic, not sexual, terms—their strolls, chats, and trips to cafes. Henry even has a rare moment of romantic tenderness when he admits that he still wears his wedding ring on his pinkie (5.1). What gives?
Tania is the first of the many, many women Henry mentions in Tropic of Cancer. Many critics believe this character is based on Anaïs Nin, the French-Cuban diarest and writer of erotic literature with whom Miller had an affair from 1931 to 1934. Miller opens the book by "singing" a love song to her, and then he continues to long for her throughout the novel: "O Tania, where now is that soft warm cunt of yours, those fat, heavy garters, those soft, bulging thighs?" (1.19).
Just the kind of description we all hope for, right? Or not so much.
Tania's name comes up many times, but we never quite get a sense of who she is. At this point, Tania is more of a feeling and a memory to Henry than an actual person. And that, Shmoopers, makes her the perfect muse. How's this for poetry?
burnt sienna breast, heavy garters, what time is it, golden pheasats stuffed
with chestnuts, taffeta fingers, vaporish twilights turning to ilex, acromegaly,
cancer and delirium, warm veils, poker chips, carpets of blood and soft thighs (1.18).
Borowski is a Jewish expatriate who "wears corduroy suits and plays accordion" (1.11). Sounds like our kind of guy—except that he's kind of a pain.
This guy is a sailor who Fillmore and Miller visit in Le Havre one drunken weekend. Here's what we know about him:
- He confesses his love for a boy.
- He gets mixed up in a big mess with Jimmie's wife, Yvette, who falls in love with him and becomes madly jealous.
- He talks of returning to his ranch in Idaho.
- When Miller gets really sick, Collins is the one who comes to his rescue.
Cronstandt is one of Henry's friends who's on regular rotation for a free weekly meal. Henry particularly likes him because he adds up the cost of the meals—champagne and apple pie, mmm—even though he knows he'll never see a dime.
Germaine is a prostitute with "gold teeth [and a] geranium hat" (3.13) whom Miller meets one day while strolling down a boulevard. Although there's "nothing to distinguish her from the other trollops who met every afternoon and evening at the Café l'Eléphant" (3.13), Henry remembers her for how forthcoming she was sexually and how generous she was when he was down and out. Plus, like Henry, Germaine is kind of a hustler.
Ginette is the woman whom Fillmore impregnates. It's unclear if she's lying about the pregnancy, but to Henry, she's definitely a giant pain in the neck.
Irene is a wealthy woman in her forties to whom Carl and Miller write letters. As always, Henry has some interesting words to describe her, saying she has "a valise instead of a cunt. She wants fat letters to shove into her valise" (1.21). Great.
This guy, just like pretty much everyone else in Tropic of Cancer, is obsessed with sex. According to Henry, "he has absolutely no ambition except to get a fuck every night" (6.15). His actual job it is to show other Hindu visitors around, and he often takes his clients to the nearest brothel. One night, he gets Henry to take one of his clients—"one of Gandhi's men"—to a whorehouse, where he defecates in a bidet.
This woman is a Russian "princess" who takes up with Miller and Fillmore.
Moldorf is another guys who's married, but you'd never know it. He does have a few nice things to say about his wife, though. He describes her as "the most intelligent woman in the world." He continues: "I have been searching and searching to find a flaw in her—but there's not one" (2.34).
Nanantatee is a wealthy pearl merchant who puts Miller up in New York. He takes good care of Henry (or "Endree," as he calls him), but he also gets pretty controlling and requires that Henry do endless household chores. He sort of toys with Henry, too, urging him to go find his own place, knowing full well that Henry doesn't have a penny to his name.
Sylvester is Tania's beau, a playwright who is jealous of Miller—and vice versa. We'll just let Henry take this one:
- "Yes, he knows how to build a fire, but I know how to inflame a cunt" (1.19).
- "It feels exactly as if he had taken out that circumcised dick of his and was peeing on us" (5.4).
- "When I think of Tania crawling into bed with this busted bladder I get enraged" (5.4)
Yvette is Ginette's friend, who works for the police department and tells Miller that Ginette is a liar and is scamming Fillmore.