Study Guide

Tropic of Cancer Quotes

  • Sex

    After midnight she stands there in her black rig rooted to the spot. Back of her is a little alleyway that blazes like an inferno. Passing her now with a light heart she reminds me somehow of a goose tied to a stake, a goose with a diseased liver […] Must be strange taking that wooden stump to be with you.

    Henry assesses a prostitute with a wooden stump for a leg. His image of her is a little freakish—like her goose is, er, cooked. It's pretty clear that Henry seems women as a sum of their parts, not any greater whole. And to him, those parts are all inevitably tied to sex.

    I am fucking you, Tania, so that you'll stay fucked. And if you are afraid of being fucked publicly I will fuck you privately […] I will bite your clitoris and spit out two francs. (1.19)

    First, ouch. Second, is this Henry's idea of a romantic evening together? It's no wonder Tania is with crusty old Sylvester. Remember, this is the woman to whom he dedicates the whole book, the woman whom he possibly even loves. If he can't think of her for anything but sex, we're pretty sure the same will go for all other women, too.

    Llona, now she had a cunt. I know because she sent us some from down below. (1.21)

    Ugh. Here's a good ol' nasty example of how our charming narrator has a tendency to be a bit reductive. You'll notice he doesn't exactly wax poetic about a woman's beautiful eyes or luscious lips.

    I'm dancing with every slut in the place. But we're telling them we're leaving in the morning. That's what I tell every cunt I grab hold of—leaving in the morning! (1.50)

    Henry just gets more and more infuriating, doesn't he? He's making it super clear that these aren't relationships that will last. He's going to get these women in the sack and then leave. Although we're not told that the women want any attachment either.

    How a man can wander about all day on an empty stomach, and even get an erection once in a while, is one of those mysteries which are all too easily explained (3.9)

    This sentence pretty much sums up Henry's concerns: getting food and having sex. He's obviously grateful that not getting one doesn't mean not getting the other.

    When [Germaine] lay there with her legs apart and moaning, even if she didn't moan that way for any and everybody, it was a good, it was proper show of feeling (3.13).

    Deny it as he might, even Henry knows that prostitutes are performing. But he doesn't even care if she's faking it as long as it makes him feel good.

    You don't know how palatable is a polluted woman, how a change of semen can make a woman bloom! (5.5)

    This goes into the "don't do me any favors" category. Henry is commenting that having sex with a woman can really perk her up. Is he being ironic?

    I find myself wondering what it feels like, during intercourse, to be a woman—whether the pleasure is keener, etc. Try to imagine something penetrating my groin, but have only a vague sensation of pain (6.18).

    Whoa, what? Is Henry seeing himself in someone else's shoes? Mark the calendars! But, of course, rather than thinking about how prostitutes are degraded and put down, he thinks about what it's physically like to have sex as a woman.

    His mind is now fixed on the "fucking business" (7.18).

    This sentence refers to Kepi, the Hindu man whose job it is to hook up clients with prostitutes. Of course, Henry doesn't mind taking a temporary job as a pimp, too. Does being involved with the process change the way he views it?

  • Writing

    This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult. (1.6)

    We have to give Henry Miller some credit. After all, when was the last time someone opened a story like that? This is what we like to call a "red flag" moment. If the narrator says something that shocking, it's worth paying attention to whether or not he follows through on his promise. What's the verdict?

    Today more than ever a book should be sought after even if it only has one great page in it: we must search for fragments, splinters, toenails, anything that has ore in it, anything that is capable of resuscitating the body and soul.

    Although Miller cites literally dozens of authors he respects, he doesn't think it's looking good for writing—or civilization, for that matter. So take what you can get, he says. Even the smallest shred of meaning may be enough to change the collision course of civilization. Books are a good starting place.

    The only writers about me for whom I have any respect, at present are Carl and Boris. They are possessed. They glow inwardly with a white flame (1.15).

    With the exceptions of Carl and Boris, Henry thinks that just about all of his friends are bad writers. So what's his idea of good writing? Something that comes straight from your soul and your gut—you know, something you just have to get out of you. We're kind of surprised he didn't make the bodily function comparison here.

    I have been looking over my manuscripts, pages scrawled with revisions. Pages of literature. This frightens me a little. (1.32)

    Henry is kind of skeptical about the whole label "literature." In fact, he's not so sure about books in general—he knows he wants to be a writer, but he doesn't want to be a writer with literary pretentions. Remember: he wants to produce a "prolonged insult," not a book. What do you think: has he succeeded?

    Perhaps it is because this book has started to grow inside me. I am carrying it around with me everywhere […] I am pregnant (2.11)

    He make be taking this metaphor a bit far, but the point is that Henry has almost a physical attachment to his own writerly creations. But is it fair of him to employ this feminine metaphor after all the woman-hating he's done?

    We have evolved a new cosmogony of literature, Boris and I. It is to be a new Bible—The Last Book. All those who have anything to say will say it here—anonymously. We will exhaust the age. After us not another book—not for a generation, at least. (2.12)

    You may want to slow down on the ego here, Hank. A new Bible is pretty ambitious. But Henry seems to believe that The Last Book will truly be the last book. The book to capture his generation. The book to end all books. For now, at least.

    What need have I for money? I am a writing machine (2.14)

    This comment is sort of a strange one coming out of Henry's mouth. First, it's not true. He doesn't seem to write that much—or he's too busy describing venereal diseases and hunger to do. Also, he hates machines, so why he would describe himself that way is a mystery. A little irony, perhaps?

    One can sleep almost anywhere, but one must have a place to work. Even if it's not a masterpiece you are doing. Even a bad novel requires a chair to sit on and a bit of privacy (2.29)

    This philosophy is much more Henry. He cares way more about writing and ideas than having a nice pad. And hey, we can respect that.

    For five days I have not touched the typewriter nor looked at a book; nor have I a single idea in my head except to go to the American Express. (4.1)

    American Express is where Henry's wife wires him money. So though he's not likely to admit it, money does matter. Gasp!

    Sylvester: "Really, you write quite well. Let's see, you're a surrealist, aren't you?" (4.2)

    We already know that Henry thinks Tania's boyfriend, Sylvester, is a moron. But his belief that Henry is a surrealist is really his way of jabbing at Henry and saying that he doesn't really give a hoot about the work Henry does.

  • Time

    The cancer of time is eating us away. Our heroes have killed themselves, or are killing themselves. The hero, then, is not Time but Timelessness. (1.3)

    Right off the bat, Henry makes it clear that things are a changing. It seems like he's trying to escape the responsibilities of time and progress. But, um, is that possible?

    We stand of five minutes and devour centuries. (1.36)

    Wait, what? Modernists aren't always the easiest to decode in terms of their musings on time, and here, Miller seems to be manipulating time in some strange way. He is always in the past even as he is writing in the present. Not exactly logical, but it's what he believes.

    Nothing is proposed that can last more than twenty-four hours. We are living a million lives in the space of a generation. (1.39)

    Time seems to have sort of collapsed or folded or done something science fictiony. According to Miller, everything is changing so quickly that you never stand in one place. By not putting any faith in tradition, Miller is again getting all Modernist on us.

    For a hundred years or more the world, our world, has been dying. And not one man, in these last hundred years or so, has been crazy enough to put a bomb up the asshole of creation and set it off. (2.13)

    Henry thinks that most men are basically sissies. No one has the courage to call things what they are. Well, except him, of course.

    How the hell can a man write when he doesn't even know where he's going to sit the next half hour? (2.29)

    Henry definitely lives moment to moment. His life is spontaneous and unpredictable, so all that matters is having the time and space to write. But wait? Does he have the time and space to write? How come we never see it happening?

    How long this lasts I have no idea; I have lost all sense of time and place. And what seems like an eternity there follows an interval of semiconsciousness. (6.16)

    Henry pretty much functions in a daze, and it makes us seriously question his reliability as a narrator. It also makes it hard for us, as readers, not to feel a little dazed ourselves.

    India's enemy is the time spirit, the hand which cannot be turned back. (7.41).

    Okay, this one is a little mysterious, but Miller had a real beef with how the West had destroyed India. You may not get that information here, but it's useful to know that he thought India, which had once been a center of spiritual enlightenment, had become morally and spiritually bankrupt. Thanks a lot, West.

    In that moment I lost completely the illusion of time and space: the world unfurled its drama simultaneously along a meridian which had no axis (7.44).

    By now, we know that Miller isn't exactly "with us" in the psychological sense. He believes that time is just a construct we impose on things to make sense of the order of our lives. Of course, he has transcended such suffocating beliefs.

    They look so absolutely peaceful and contented, as if they had been dozing there for years, that suddenly it seems to me as if we had been standing in this room, in exactly this position, for an incalculably long time, that it was a pose we had struck in a dream from which we never emerged, a dream which the least gesture, the wink of an eye even, will shatter. (7.86)

    Walking into Van Norden's new hotel room is like walking into a time capsule. Miller feels that he has no sense of time, nothing to anchor him to the present.

    The trouble is I can hardly remember what [Mona] looks like, nor even how it feels to have my arms around her. Everything that belongs to the past seems to have fallen into the sea (1.135)

    This is depressing, don't you think? That said, maybe his problem is that he has been with so many women that it's all become one big blur. We don't know exactly how much time has passed since he saw his wife, but he seems to have no connection to her—or to the past—at all.

  • Poverty

    [Boris] eats in the restaurant out of consideration for me. He says it hurts to eat a big meal and have me watch him. (1.14)

    Miller believes his dear friend Boris is too sympathetic to eat in front of him. But did he ever consider that he just makes the guy lose his appetite?

    With that bottle between my legs and the sun splashing through the window I experience once again the splendor of those miserable days when I first arrived in Paris, a bewildered, poverty-stricken individual who haunted the streets like a ghost at a banquet (1.49).

    Here's a perfect example of Henry romanticizing poverty. Having no money basically strips away everything he doesn't care about and leaves him with the beauty of pure existence. What do you think: deep or pretentious?

    What need have I for money? I am a writing machine. (1.14)

    Henry loves a good provoking sentence here and there. He knows very well what he needs money for, but he'd rather write than work.

    I have a terrific hunger though we've only had breakfast a few minutes ago—it's the lunch that I'll have to skip. It's only Wednesdays that I eat lunch. (2.25)

    Henry has poverty down to a system. Since he doesn't have enough dough for three meals a day, he has to pace himself. And in case you were wondering—yes, prostitutes cost money.

    This, apparently, is all that Marlowe has been waiting to hear. At last he has found someone worse off than himself. (4.14)

    Misery loves company, right? And in Tropic of Cancer, we're absolutely dealing with a group where one is poorer than the next. Where does Henry fall in this chain of poverty?

    And God knows, when spring comes to Paris the humblest mortal alive must feel that he dwells in paradise […] A man does not need to be rich, nor even a citizen, to feel this way about Paris. Paris is filled with poor people—the proudest and filthiest lot of beggars that ever walked the earth, it seems to me. (5.28)

    Henry loves him some poverty—but only in Paris. How would you rewrite this passage if he was writing about America instead? And what is it about Paris that makes poverty seem so romantic?

    But I don't ask to go back to America, to be put in double harness again, to work the treadmill. No, I prefer to be a poor man in Europe. God knows I am poor enough; it only remains to be a man. (6.1)

    According to Miller, America is a corrupt nation of overworked sacks. In Paris, he can be a man even if he is poor, while in the States, masculinity is measured by wealth.

    They have an easy conscience, the rich. If a poor man dozes off, even for a few seconds, he feels mortified; he imagines that he has committed a crime against the composer. (6.17)

    In case you hadn't gotten the memo, Henry doesn't like rich people. This time, he's calling them out because they have the privilege of being rude. When you're poor, on the other hand, you have to be careful not to stick out.

    My pockets were sagging with the weight of [the 2,500 francs]. I hauled it out and counted it carefully. (15.104)

    What's this? A rich Henry? Yep, at least for now. We're pretty sure, though, that the money that was supposed to go to Fillmore's fiancée, Ginette, isn't going to last long in his pocket. Does having this money change Henry at all?

  • Suffering and Disease

    The cancer of time is eating us away. (1.3)

    Well, this is pretty straightforward. And pretty grim, too. Right off the bat, we're introduced to Henry's cynical side. He just doesn't care for time and all of the control it involves. His rule of thumb? Stop paying attention to all that nonsense and just be.

    The world is a cancer eating itself away. (1.8)

    Looks like the world isn't faring so well either. Henry believes that's because people have just stopped caring about things like creativity and free expression. Instead, they've gotten all wrapped up in productivity and making moola.

    [Carl and Boris] are possessed. They glow inwardly with a white flame. They are mad and tone deaf. They are sufferers. (1.15)

    Henry definitely abides by the artist as sufferer motif. It's no surprise that he thinks the best sufferers are also the best writers.

    The dramatist is sick and from above his scalp looks more scabrous than ever. (2.12)

    This unappetizing description is of Tania's boyfriend, Sylvester. He just isn't looking so hot, which, in Henry Miller's world, is a reflection of his failures as a dramatist.

    It was ordained that the women must suffer, that off-stage there should be more terror and violence, more disasters, more suffering, more woe and misery. (2.19)

    It's not clear whether Miller's getting all Garden of Eden on us, but he does seem to believe that women are meant to suffer. What he doesn't do is reflect on how he perpetuates that suffering through his own behavior. Looking at the bigger picture might benefit this guy—and the women around him.

    You smile at me so confidently, so calculatingly. I'm flattering the ass off you, can't you tell? While I listen to your crap she's got her hand on me—but you don't see that. You think I like to suffer—that's my role. O.K. (5.4)

    While Henry gets felt up under the table, he glares at Sylvester. And you know what? He likes that Sylvester pities him—it's all part of Miller's smoke and mirrors. He likes that other people thinks he suffers when, really, he's kind of enjoying it all.

    Even before the music begins there is that bored look on people's faces. A polite form of self-torture, the concert. (6.16)

    Except for maybe you super-cultured Shmoopers out there, we can all relate to this one. Henry likes art, but going to a classical music concert is some form of punishment. It's one of those things that's good for you, yeah, but it feels like work. (Shmoop advice: give it a shot.)

    "No, the best thing to do would be to marry her and then get a disease right away. Only not syphilis. Cholera, let's say, or yellow fever." (8.67)

    Henry Miller's advice hour: marry a rich lady and then get sick so you don't have to have sex with her. Man, this guy is great at hatching plans to get his friends out of relationships. Dear Abby, watch out.

    Despite the fact that his legs were broken and his ribs busted, he had managed to rise to all fours and grope about for his false teeth (8.105)

    Poor Peckover the proofreader. The guy falls down an elevator shaft and, in a last bid for dignity, searches for his teeth. Well, at least Henry gets his job at the newspaper. And as you can imagine, that's all our narrator really cares about.

    Look at them on a rainy night, lying there stiff as mattresses—men, women, lice, all huddled together and protected by newspapers against spittle and the vermin that walks without legs (13.3).

    Henry at least has a shred of sympathy for the people who are even worse off than he is. He knows that, in the end, being a writer will always protect him from completely giving up.

  • Mortality and Death

    We must get in step, lock step, toward the prison of death. There is no escape. (1.3)

    Conforming with society, working like a dog, and never being creative—that's death to Miller. And once you get in that cycle, you're doomed.

    it is the world dying, shedding the skin of time (1.8)

    Sure, people are dying off because they have given themselves over to the machine. But guess what? The world is dying, too. Don't worry though—according to the always philosophical Henry Miller, "shedding the skin of time" is a good thing, because only then can there be a rebirth.

    I am crying for more and more disasters, for bigger calamities, for grander failures. I want the whole world to be out of whack, I want everyone to scratch himself to death (1.41).

    Destruction = good. That's what Henry believes, at least. When there's destruction, people will finally see what really matters and face the horror they have created through mind-numbing routines. (Is anyone else feeling really sci-fi-y right now?)

    The town was a shambles; corpses, mangled by butchers and stripped by plunderers, lay thick in the streets; wolves sneaked from the suburbs to eat them; the black death and other plagues crept in to keep them company. (3.11)

    Always the littérateur, Henry is quoting here from a book he read (The Stones of Paris in History and Letters, 1899). But, honestly, it may as well be any place he has visited or lived. We can't help but see a little literary inspiration here.

    Looking into the Seine I see mud and desolation, street lamps drowning, men and women choking to death, the bridges covered with houses, slaughterhouses of love. (5.16)

    Okay, now compare this this description to the one from The Stones of Paris in 1899. Things haven't changed much, right? Or maybe he and the other author just share a dark vision.

    In the middle of the street is a wheel and in the hub of the wheel is a gallows fixed. People already dead are trying frantically to mount the gallows, but the wheel is turning too fast. (5.16)

    Another hallucination brought to you care of Henry Miller. Our guy sees dead people everywhere, and not The Sixth Sense style. It's because he thinks that people who are living uncreative lives are dead anyway. Not to be judgey or anything.

    But I can't sleep. It's like going to sleep in a morgue. The mattress is saturated with embalming fluid. It's a morgue for lice, bedbugs, cockroaches, tapeworms. (6.10)

    You know it has to be bad when even Henry can't handle it.

    It's like I'm two people, and one of them is watching me all the time. I get so god-damned mad at myself that I could kill myself [...] and in a way, that's what I do every time I have an orgasm. For one second like I obliterate myself. (8.90)

    That Van Norden is one dark character, huh? But what he says here clearly shows the equation between sex and death that Miller constantly alludes to.

    "The poor bastard," he says, "he's better off dead than alive. He just got false teeth the other day too" (8.104)

    It's hard to tell if they are really being sympathetic, but Peckover is a sad case—so mistreated at work and so wretched an individual that he is probably better off dead.

  • Friendship

    We might never have known each other so intimately, Boris and I, had it not been for the lice. (1.2)

    Well, there may be stranger ways to get in close with someone—actually, we're not so sure. But leave to Henry to look at the bright side of things. What's a little lice among friends? In fact, sharing the dirty with friends is really all Henry wants.

    [Boris] eats in the restaurant out of consideration for me. He says it hurts to eat a big meal and have me watch him. (1.14)

    Is Henry taking advantage of his friends? Or is this a true friendship that deserves this kind of one-sided generosity now and again?

    […] it really pains Boris to see me sitting there in the studio with an empty belly. Why he doesn't invite me to lunch with him I don't know (3.1).

    Why is Henry so suspicious of everyone's motives? Heck, Boris is putting him, feeding him, and pretty much keeping him alive. Can he really have true friends if he's so cynical?

    I try to quiet myself. After all, this is a home I've found, and there's a meal waiting for me every day. And Serge is a brick, there's no doubt about that. (6.9)

    Serge is one of the decent guys Henry knows, but he just can't deal with the consequences of the friendship.

    In America I had a number of Hindu friends, some good, some bad, some indifferent. Circumstances had placed me in a position where fortunately I could be of aid to them; I secured jobs for them, I harbored them, and I fed them when necessary. They were very grateful, I must say, so much so, in fact, that they made my life miserable with their attentions. (7.1)

    Gasp! Henry is helping people! But then, of course, he feels like he is being punished by their gratitude.

    [Collins] picked me up as if I were a doll and laid me out on the seat of the cab—gently too, which I appreciated (11.4)

    Here's a tender moment. Some critics even say the attraction is homoerotic. Thoughts?

    If it hadn't been for Fillmore, I don't know where I would be today—dead, most likely. (12.1)

    Aha, so Miller is totally aware how much he relies on his friends. But don't worry—the feeling is mutual. Miller always reciprocates by getting "homeless bitches" off of Fillmore's back.

    But as for a heart-to-heart talk, as for walking to the corner and having a drink together, nothing doing. It was simply unimaginable. (14.34)

    For all the smack he talks about his friends in Paris, Henry realizes that his fellow teachers in Dijon are just not his people. They are all caught in the rut and the grim fog of the city.

    When I left Van Noden I jumped a bus and went straight to the hospital. (15.24)

    When Henry hears that Fillmore has gone mad, he rushes to his side. But Henry quickly susses out that Fillmore isn't mad—he just doesn't want to get married. Henry to the rescue.