Tropic of Cancer Summary
Miller announces from the beginning of the novel that he is not writing a book "in the ordinary sense of the word" (1.6), and we would advise you to take him seriously. He's definitely not about to present a clear, chronological novel. He calls it a "song," which it pretty much is—a song straight from his twisted psyche that hasn't quite been through the production phase.
The novel—or song—tells the story of roughly one year of Miller's life in Paris (and, briefly, Dijon) as he struggles to come to terms with himself as a writer. A plot summary of this novel is no simple task, but here's our stab at it:
Tropic of Cancer opens with Henry living at the Villa Borghese with Boris, his louse-ridden but generous friend. It's Miller's second Fall in Paris. Besides finding a roof to put over his head, he's basically just interested in writing and having sex with prostitutes, which is weird because he's broke. He has sex with all manner of women, most of whom remain nameless and pretty much faceless.
He recalls Mona, who sounds like she's the only woman he has ever loved, although he clearly has a thing for Tania as well. But because Mona was his wife, he saves a little place for her in his heart. We learn that Mona hasn't been around for a long time, but that it was love at first sight for those two. Aw. (We have to "aw" here because there aren't that many opportunities.)
Henry proceeds to recall a bounty of other prostitutes he's had sex with and provides the reader with some amusing anecdotes about his friends who are "cunt-struck" (1.14) and can't write to save their lives. But they loan him money, so yeah, it's all good.
Between anecdotes, there are long philosophical reflections about death, disease, the future, and what a capitalist pig-worshipping disaster America is. Germaine stands out as a fine example among prostitutes—a crowded playing field if there ever was one. She was worth spending the money Henry's wife had sent him. Lucky girl.
The good news is, now Henry has all sorts of material to write about. Everything would be beautiful and perfect if his buddy Carl would stop complaining about Paris and everything else under the sun. Henry also visits Tania, but she's with some crusty dramatist named Sylvester. You get to hear a lot about what an over-talker this guy is and how he has really bad dandruff. Ah, the details.
Things start looking sweet when our now-homeless narrator meets Serge, an enthusiastic Russian who puts Henry up in his bug-ridden apartment outside of Paris and provides him a few paltry crusts of bread in exchange for English lessons. The bed bugs and tapeworm soon become too much for even him, though, and he bails at the first chance he has.
Next up, Henry relates his high jinx with a man named Peckover, yet another sucker who loans him money. He also recalls some high adventure with a Hindu he had met back in his Brooklyn days. A rich pearl merchant, Nanantatee, had put him up in New York but got really bossy and manipulative. He basically turned Henry into his own personal houseboy.
Again, Miller can't stand the deal and leaves. His way out is Nanantatee's friend Kepi, whose sole mission is to set up clients with prostitutes. He enlists Henry to do some of that work, which turns into a comedy of manners involving one of Gandhi's men taking a dump in a bidet. None of these events presents any real obstacles to Henry's happiness, though, because he's a guy who decides to just live in the present.
Henry gets odd jobs along the way, like being a lowly proofreader for a newspaper, a job he enjoys for all of its tediousness—but then he gets fired, as he reports, for being smarter than his envious boss. As part of his constant quest to survive without doing anything too taxing, he takes a job in Dijon teaching kids at a shoddy school in the middle of nowhere. Surprisingly, these obligations become too much for him and he leaves without as much as an "up yours."
Back in the arms of Paris, Henry relaxes again, but he has to resume his search for someone to sponsor his wayward lifestyle. He indulges in food, women, and alcohol at every chance he gets. Oh, and he writes a little.
He consoles himself that Paris is far superior to America, which he sees as the land of lawn mowers and selfish rabbis and priests. Offering musings on the existential circumstances of his existence takes up a lot of the book—what with all of the homelessness, disease, and poverty all around him.
One of his final accomplishments is getting his pathetic friend Fillmore out of the clutches of his abusive and demanding pregnant girlfriend. When he packs Fillmore off to America, Henry gets a heap of cash and lives temporarily like a prince. Though he spends two seconds considering going back to America himself, he quickly turns to poetic reflections on the Seine River.
This guy's not going anywhere.
- The novel opens with our narrator living at the Villa Borghese with his friend Boris. The place is shockingly clean, but that doesn't prevent Boris from getting lice.
- Boris is pretty much a downer and believes that the world is heading toward destruction anyway—so what's a little scratching when one is facing an apocalypse?
- It is the fall of the narrator's second year in Paris, though he cannot for the life of him recall what brought him there in the first place. Though he hasn't a penny to his name, he is "the happiest man alive" (1.5).
- He introduces his book by writing: "This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character" (1.6). He actually calls the novel a "song," explaining: "It is to you, Tania, that I am singing" (1.7).
- He has lost track of time, which doesn't seem to concern him much—nor does his observation that "the world is dying" (1.8).
- The narrator begins to introduce the reader to his other friends and companions in Paris. Borowski is a Jew who wears corduroy and plays the accordion. Most of his friends are Jewish, actually.
- The narrator enjoys living at the Villa Borghese, but he regrets that there's not much to eat. He's too poor to go out for food.
- Many of his friends want to be writers, but only Carl and Boris have talent. Just one problem: they're mad. Also, his friend Van Norden is "cunt-struck" (1.15) and Moldorf is just a drunk.
- Our guy faces a mirror as he types long letters to Tania. He longs for her. Apparently, staring at Boris's face night after night is just not doing it for him. She seems to have run off with a chap named Sylvester, who does not do all sorts of nasty erotic things to her—unlike the narrator.
- Irene is one of many women who expects fat letters from him. She sounds like a real piece of work.
- Walking around Paris, he reflects on another woman, Llona, whose body he describes in explicit detail. You might want to check it out for yourself.
- Let's take a closer look at Moldorf, a person of very mixed qualities. To the narrator, Moldorf "is God."
- The narrator now launches into an inventory of Jewish qualities, such as suffering and neurosis, concluding that "For the Jew the world is a cage filled with wild beasts" (1.34).
- The narrator has decided that he will not revise what he writes. He is only interested in writing. Note to Shmoopers: not a great strategy.
- Anyway, it's time for him to move out, but he welcomes any disasters that will come his way.
- Most of his friends live in Montparnasse among many other American expatriates.
- He recalls a year ago, when he had first arrived in the city. He would wander around with a woman named Mona, a friend of Borowski, thinking about the crazy disorder of his life.
- Yeah, there are a lot of women going on here.
- Clearly this guy is a crazy party animal with a seriously foul mouth. He briefly recounts a night out with Mona and Borowski when he had some pretty wild sex in the vestibule of a dance hall. It all ended in failure, though, as he reports: "No matter how we try it it won't work" (1.51).
- Mona has been away "a long time," but now she's returning to Paris. He goes to meet her at the Gare St. Lazare.
- She is beautiful. He is in love. He is now willing to die. Sigh.
- He sleeps with her that night in a cheap hotel. After a night of serious action, he wakes up in a bed swarming with bedbugs. How romantic.
- Life with Boris is good, but the poor guy is desperately afraid that his wife is going to show up and give him a hard time.
- The cleaning lady, Elsa, likes to lecture the narrator about prostitutes and syphilis. This one's a real bummer. The narrator tells us: "Everywhere a man, and then she has to leave, and then there's an abortion and then a new job and then another man and nobody gives a fuck about her except to use her" (2.9). Hmmm.
- The narrator is really fed up with all of the Germans in his neighborhood.
- He's excited about his book, though, even though he's convinced that the world is dying.
- He lapses into some memories of Tania and Sylvester, and other memories continue to float by as the narrator makes way for potential tenants to the apartment. One beautiful hot mess drops by, but she just reminds him of all of the other "Rich American cunts […]" (2.27). Miller really isn't a fan of political correctness, it seems.
- The narrator remembers the day Moldorf made a pass at Tania. Never mind that he's married to Fanny.
- He started flapping his gums about how smart and perfect Fanny is and how she's a Zionist and can make miracles with a hat and a ribbon, la de dah.
- The narrator imagines the absurdity of Moldorf's reunion with his wife, with her "Breasts like ripe red cabbage" (2.38). It's not a pretty picture.
- The narrator drops by to visit his friends the Cronstadts. They offer him lunch but he has too much pride to accept. The smells of food are torturing him.
- He walks through Eglise St. Germain, past Notre Dame. Wait: what was the title of that book? A Man Cut in Slices! He wonders why he didn't come up with that title.
- If you're feeling lost, don't worry. That's kind of the point.
- Starving but still managing to get an erection, Miller remembers Germaine, a former lover and prostitute. He met her as he was strolling along the Boulevard Beaumarchais with some cash in his pocket—sent by his wife, who was back in the States. That's right: wife.
- He takes her to a windowless room (romantic, right?), and becomes enthralled immediately by the way she touches herself. She's no ordinary trollop: "There was something about her eloquence at that moment and the way she thrust that rosebush under my nose which remains unforgettable" (3.13). He admires he for being "a whore all the way through, even down to her good heart" (3.16).
- He compares Germaine to another prostitute named Claude. This one really got on his wick because she put on airs. "Who wants a delicate whore!" (3.16) he says.
- Miller describes walking down the Champs-Elysees with Carl, "ideas pouring from [him] like sweat." His optimism is really annoying to his friend, whose nerves are jangled. "'I hate Paris!' Carl whines.
- Carl just can't make up his mind about whether to stay in Paris or move to Arizona. The narrator thinks Carl is "an aristocratic little prick" (4.8). Tell us how you really feel.
- They run into their friend Marlowe at the Restaurant Le Dôme. Like almost everyone else in this novel, Marlowe is on a bender and talking serious smack. Marlowe gets pleasure out of the fact that Carl is worse off than he is.
- Marlowe is returning to San Francisco and offers to throw some work Carl's way. Carl wants to take the job and screw Marlowe over.
- The narrator recalls his last dinner at Sylvester's ("the dramatist") home.
- The narrator has worked out a sweet deal for himself where he has dinner at a different friend's house every day of the week, just rotating on through and getting what he can.
- Sylvester talks way too much, blabbing on about food, wine, literature, weather—he is starting to drive Tania nuts. Tania has told the narrator that Sylvester's talking is like "a steady stream of warm piss, as though his bladder had been punctured" (5.3).
- The narrator is jealous that this blowhard has the woman he loves, but they are going to Russia soon anyway.
- We have a real motley crew here—"crazy Russians, a drunken Dutchman, and a big Bulgarian woman named Olga" (5.6). The narrator's Russian friends are Eugene and Anatole.
- Paris brings out strange feelings in the narrator: "I can feel the city palpitating, as if it were a heart just removed from a warm body" (5.16).
- He visits his boorish friend Papini—who had read a crazy long list of books from Homer to Huxley by the age of 18. This guy likes to talk, too, and offers a big monologue on freedom.
- Ah, pretention.
- The narrator meets a Russian man named Serge, who lives outside of Paris in "a little colony of émigrés and run-down artists" (6.3).
- Serge puts him up in exchange for English lessons, but the bed bugs in his mattress, the smell of germicide, the food, and the tapeworm are too much. He does a "bail without notice." See ya!
- Back in Paris ("I'm free—that's the main thing…" [6.11]), Miller convinces an acquaintance named Peckover to loan him some francs.
- He finds a concert ticket in the bathroom (lavabo), so decides to go enjoy a show.
- While listening to the music, he muses on everything from his groin (no surprise there) to the legend of Leda.
- The narrator recalls an old acquaintance he had met in America: a wealthy Hindu pearl merchant named Nanantatee, who let the narrator live with him and provided food, but then basically slaved him around with endless daily household chores. "Now I'm a prisoner," the narrator says, "a man without caste, an untouchable" (7.4).
- Nanantatee is always on his case about cleaning, about coming home late, the whole shebang; and once again, the narrator wants to make an escape.
- Because of his religion, Nanantatee has to perform all sorts of cleansing rituals that the narrator thinks is a bunch of mumbo jumbo.
- Nanantatee's arm is all jacked up from a taxi accident. For some reason, the narrator is really fixated on this arm, describing it as a "broken compass" and adding that "it's not an arm any more, but a knucklebone with a shank attached" (7.8).
- Enter Nanantatee's friend Kepi, "a human tick" who "has the address of every whorehouse in Paris, and the rates" (7.14). Kepi's job is to take visitors from India out on the town and get them hooked up with ladies of the night.
- Oh, and by the way, we finally find out what the narrator's name is when Nanantatee calls him "Endree," which is his accented way of saying Henry.
- One night, Kepi asks Henry to take one of his clients to a whorehouse. After getting some action, Henry hears screaming coming from the other room.
- Turns out the young Indian visitor defecated in a bidet, thinking it was a toilet (FYI: A bidet is a kind of low sink used for cleaning your lower, er, parts.)
- Henry thinks that disaster may have been the Indian man's finest moment.
- From now on, Henry decides to "make not the least resistance to fate" (7.46)—to move forward and to live fully in the present, never looking back: "As far as history goes I am dead. If there is something beyond I shall have to bounce back. I have found God, but he is insufficient. I am only spiritually dead. Physically I am alive. Morally I am free" (7.46).
- Henry visits his friend Van Norden, a fellow expatriate and, like all of Henry's other friends, he's obsessed with sex.
- Van Norden is a tough man to get out of bed, but Henry manages.
- Van Norden goes on a rant about how his teeth are rotting out of his head and how he thinks some woman he is interested in is a lesbian. He's also sick of married women and admits that he can't fall in love because he's too much of an egoist. (FYI: Van Norden and Henry do this cute little thing where they call each other "Joe," so don't get confused).
- Van Norden takes Henry to a bar where he proceeds to point out and describe all the prostitutes he has slept with and what they like in bed. Helpful information. Then he starts to talk trash about their mutual friend Carl—calling him a selfish "little prick" (8.19).
- Carl has been carrying on a six-month correspondence with a rich woman (he uses a different name for her) named Irene. When it's finally time to meet her, he freaks out: "It's one thing to write to a lady you don't know; it's another thing entirely to call on her and make love to her" (8.21).
- Carl gets the nerve up to go see her, and then he calls Henry to let him know what happened. (Here, we finally see him called "Henry Miller." So our narrator is our author—fancy.)
- Henry goes to Carl's the next day to get the low-down, but Carl's holding out. Finally, he unfolds the story in bits and pieces.
- Turns out Irene wants to leave her husband and run away with Carl "to Borneo." But he's not having it. She has gray hair and skinny arms she is in her forties—too old for his taste.
- Henry thinks Carl should just milk her for money, but Carl's too scared of the idea of having to make love to her on demand.
- So Carl does the hard sell, trying to convince Henry to give her a try. But then he thinks he may be better off marrying her and then getting cholera or yellow fever. At least he'd be rich and could spend his days writing what he wants.
- The next day Miller visits Van Norden, who's all bent out of shape that Carl has this new rich lady. Apparently Carl tormented him with the erotic details: "It's just like that guy," Van Norden says, "to tell me he put it to her six or seven times. I know that's a lot of shit and I don't mind that so much, but when he tells me that she hired a carriage and drove him out to the Bois and that they used the husband's fur coat for a blanket, that's too much" (8.71). We concur. TMI.
- After his rant, the maid comes to pack up his stuff. He's being kicked out of his hotel room, and they put all of his things on the sidewalk.
- He has to move to a new hotel, and this one's an even bigger dump than the last. Van Norden calls it "a bughouse" (8.86), but he is still able to see the romance in it: "In America […] you wouldn't dream of living in a joint like this. Even when I was a bum I slept in better rooms than this. But here it seems natural—it's like the books you read" (8.89).
- Apparently Van Norden sees himself as a writer, But Henry is quick to point out that he doesn't really write anything and that he's all big talk about some book he's planning to write.
- Van Norden thinks the book will be "absolutely original, absolutely perfect" (8.94)—which is precisely why he is incapable of writing it. It's just some grand idea he has.
- Henry starts thinking about Van Norden's relationship to women. There's one woman he has a decent relationship with—they "understand each other" (8.94). Right. She also liked to watch him have sex while she hid in the closet. So yeah.
- But she just refused to be another fling for Van Norden. That drove him nuts.
- The two guys decide to go out for the evening, and they find themselves at the Coupole.
- They run into a drunk who works at the same newspaper as Van Norden. This guy tells them that Peckover—another newspaper employee—fell down an elevator shaft and it's not looking good for the guy. All that's a bummer to the guy because apparently Peckover just got new false teeth. What a waste. He then relays the grisly details of the accident.
- When the guy walks away, Henry and Van Norden start laughing hysterically. Peckover (what a name!) wasn't such a good proofreader and was basically a pathetic guy. The editors used to ride him over every mistake he made: "They made his life miserable with their fucking semicolons and the fractions which he always got wrong … He was just a nobody" (8.106).
- Henry and Van Norden spend the evening out and watch the sun rise at the Dôme cafe. Van Norden is still thinking about sex and goes on a tirade about his "Georgia cunt," who he thinks is just too skinny—and he doesn't like that she shaves all of her hair off down "there."
- They pick up a prostitute, who starts to haggle with them over money. She's hungry too, which makes Van Norden even angrier: "How the hell can you get up any passion when you've got a starving cunt on your hands?" (8.115). Whoa there.
- Henry watches Van Norden have sex with her. There's no passion—they just look like a pair of goats and Van Norden looks like a machine. The whole scene is just pathetic: "[Van Norden's] like a hero come back from the war, a poor maimed bastard living out the reality of his dreams" (8.132).
- Miller—not one to mourn—gets Peckover's job as proofreader at the newspaper.
- The work is meaningless, but Miller likes it anyway—actually, precisely because it's meaninglessness. It's like being in a lunatic asylum "with permission to masturbate for the rest of your life" (8.125). The writing stinks, too, but Miller doesn't care—he's immune to everything.
- No one understands why he is so content with the job, but the only worry he has is losing it.
- Our guy embraces the degradation of the work. In America, everyone dreams of becoming president. In France, people just accept being losers. It's "A world without hope, but no despair" (8.133).
- Henry's mind turns to Mona. He gets a letter from her every now and then. She always says she's coming to Paris soon, but she never does.
- Memories of Mona begin to haunt him. He hasn't seen her for a long time and can't even remember what she looks like.
- He eats a lot of meals at a bistro called Monsieur Paul's. Newsmen get meals on credit there—which is perfect for him since he has no money.
- Some weird couple is always there, too, showing some serious displays of affection. And fighting in public. It's a real spectacle. Miller thinks the guy is a really pathetic old sack who probably just wants to bail on his girlfriend (Luciene) and go pick up some prostitutes at Rue du Faubourg Montmartre. This street sounds like a real den of appetites and desires: "A man who can walk through the Faubourg Montmartre at night without panting or sweating, without a prayer or curse on his lips, a man like that has no balls, and if he has, he ought to be castrated" (8.145).
- Miller thinks about the shift between night and day, which he calls "an electric dawn." It's a moment when everything crawls back into its shell, "slowly dribbling back to the sewer. For about an hour there is a deathlike calm during which the vomit is mopped up […] The day is sneaking in like a leper…" (8.148). (If you have ever stayed up all night, you gotta love this description.)
- He's rolling around Paris and stops into Café de l'Avenue, where he meets a pregnant woman. It's the first time he has ever been hit on by a pregnant woman.
- While he's on the subject, he thinks Paris is an exceptional place for its weird sexual appetites: "As soon as a woman loses a front tooth or an eye she goes on the loose. In America she'd starve to death if she had nothing to recommend her but a mutilation" (8.151).
- That afternoon, he finds himself at a Matisse exhibit, which draws him "back to the proper precincts of the human world" (8.153). To him, Matisse defies death and "expresses the miracle of breathing" (8.154).
- Otherwise, all is death. A new ice age is coming "and the sun bleeds like a broken rectum" (8.155). This is some really apocalyptic stuff, so get yourself on a downer alert.
- Out of the blue, Miller receives a letter from Boris. It's a real rambling mess, with no context or date or address. Boris tells Miller he is dying and all sorts of "nutty" stuff.
- Miller starts to think about Boris's strange habits and ways: his frock coat, his favorite authors. Boris tells Miller that he wanted him to commit suicide so he wouldn't die by surprise and leave Boris "high and dry." Boris adds: "You must be life for me to the very end" (10.4). The letter makes no request to see Miller or any inquiry about how he is doing.
- Miller starts to question his choice of friends: "I sometimes ask myself how it happens that I attract nothing but crackbrained individuals, neurasthenics, neurotics, psychopaths—and Jews especially" (9.6).
- His mind turns back to Tania, who is also a Jew (a "Jewess," as he calls her). She visited recently and tried to get Miller to go back with her to the Crimea.
- Carl thinks they should get married. But Miller doesn't want to leave Paris, and he explains why: "Paris takes hold of you, grabs you by the balls, you might say, like some lovesick bitch who'd rather die than let you get out of her hands" (9.7).
- Miller thinks about how things are going well for him. Tania's around, he has a steady job, it's summer. Things are good. He has a few sentimental moments with her, but mostly they just drink to excess.
- More than once, he has to stick his finger down his throat so he can get his head together to proofread.
- His job isn't as easy as it sounds: "It requires more concentration to detect a missing comma than to epitomize Nietzsche's philosophy" (9.10). He admits he's made his share of blunders at work. And his boss is clearly threatened by his intelligence, so he has to kiss his butt every once in a while.
- Every so often, he thinks about his wife (Mona), but he tries to push his feelings about her to the back of his mind. He's already spent seven years thinking only about her: "Were there a Christian so faithful to his God as I were to her we would all be Jesus Christs today" (9.12). That's intense.
- He has spent many days longing for her, wondering if she would ever walk the streets of Paris by his side. She used to read a lot of Strindberg, so he goes to the library and picks up one of his books. Strindberg's writing brings him clarity: "I understood then that Paris attracts the tortured, the hallucinated, the great manics of love" (9.18).
- Henry calls the streets his "refuge" and has bizarre visions of blood and filth—which, by the way, are not sinister. He accepts the terms of this existence, even though he is alone: "My world of human beings had perished; I was utterly alone in the world and for friends I had the streets, and the streets spoke to me in that sad, bitter language compounded of human misery, yearning, regret, failure, wasted effort" (9.22). But it's still all good.
- He accepts that Mona is not coming to Paris. She will starve in America, and he will remain in Paris, walking the streets.
- For all his cheery irony, the chapter does end on a bit of a downer: "No matter where you go, no matter what you touch, there is cancer and syphilis. It is written in the sky; it flames and dances, like an evil portent. It has eaten our souls and we are nothing but a dead thing like the moon" (9.23). Bummer alert.
- He gets fired from his job as a proofreader on the Fourth of July (there's freedom for you!). That means he has to leave his hotel and head back to the streets, walk around, kill time, and sit on benches.
- Spending a lot of time on café terraces, he meets a lot of new people. But they're all drunks and bores who just want to gab in his ear.
- Carl and Van Norden start to torment him about the possibility of his wife arriving now that he doesn't have a job. (Who needs enemies, right?)
- He has to turn to his Jewish friends—they're the ones you can rely on.
- He gets a job writing pseudonymous articles for a fur merchant. He writes pamphlets for a newly opened brothel and writes a thesis for a "deaf and dumb psychologist" (10.7). He also consents to be photographed in the nude—"with his pants down, and in other ways" (10.8) for what he is assured will be "a strictly private collection" (10.8). He winds up spending a good amount of time with the photographer, who knows the Paris that tourists don't know.
- Through that guy, Miller meets a new group of expatriate artists, including Kruger, a "spiritual-minded" sculptor and painter. The guy sucks as an artist but is always willing—almost eager—to loan Henry a few francs.
- He also meets Mark Swift, a "caustic" Irish painter. This one is torturing his mistress in the hope that she will leave him. He had used up her dowry and could no longer support her, so he had started to "antagonize" her so "that she would choose starvation rather than support his cruelties" (10.13). Wow, these people really are winners.
- Henry hooks up with Fillmore, a young man in the diplomatic service. Miller likes Fillmore because he's always up for a good time. The guy talks too much, but at least he reads good authors, like Anatole France, Joseph Conrad, Byron, and Victor Hugo. (You can forgive anyone who reads good books, apparently.)
- Henry, Fillmore, and his friend Collins start hanging out. Miller is really living it up.
- One day, Henry gets sick—really sick—and the painter Kruger has to take care of him, making him broths and making sure he doesn't croak. It gets sticky, though, because Henry is just this limp body in the middle of Kruger's study and Kruger wants to have an exhibition.
- Henry is just too sick to get out. Kruger is stressing that Henry's going to die and then he'll have a corpse in the middle of his exhibition. (Not good for business.)
- Kruger dresses him and basically kicks him out, telling Henry that it's "for his own good" (10.23). Collins helps him get a hotel room and then entertains him with some strange story about China and syphilis, famine and disease.
- Miller gets better, and, for the first time since his arrival in Paris, Miller takes an adventure beyond the boundaries of Paris.
- He and Fillmore go to Le Havre, a port town in Brittany, to see a sailor and friend of Fillmore named Collins. They all chat about a character from a Proust novel (Baron de Charlus) as they make their way to Jimmie's Bar. Jimmie is some beet-faced man married to a buxom woman with glittering eyes. These two are a real dynamic duo.
- Women are swarming around Henry and his friends. They all think Henry is a rich gentleman even though he doesn't have a "sou" (basically a cent) in his pocket.
- Yvette—that's Jimmie's wife—is a friendly one. She puts together a nice spread for Henry and company. Henry starts chatting up some "lascivious bitch" named Marcelles.
- Everyone is enjoying champagne and food. Marcelles and Henry are doing some dirty business under the table, and toasts are going all around.
- In the midst of all of this merriment, Fillmore realizes he has the clap. Great! Collins has the cure—something called "Vénétienne."
- They all take a stroll. Turns out Collins likes boys and begins to talk about some boy he had fallen in love with.
- They roll into a brothel for a good time. Sure are packing a lot of events into their 48 hours in Le Havre.
- Collins tells Miller and Fillmore that he dreams of returning to his old ranch in Idaho. He's gotta get out of Le Havre because Jimmie's wife has fallen in love with him and is having jealous fits. It's become too much.
- While Miller and Fillmore are sleeping, Yvette has a fit about Collins and busts up the place. She gets wasted and violent, and she and Jimmie have an ugly smack down. "It was high time we were leaving" (10.59).
- They become a little nostalgic about America, but Miller explains that it's best to just have America as an idea: "always in the background, a sort of picture post card which you look at in a weak moment" (10.59).
- Miller goes back to Paris with money that Collins has given him. He looks at a few "rat trap" hotels and then decides to just wait it out. He meets a freak show of a woman who asks him for money. He assumes she's a prostitute, but she gets really offended at the suggestion. He wants to get rid of her.
- He walks her to her hotel and gives her 50 francs, and she makes him feel like a saint.
- Next up, he hooks up with some Norwegian piece of work. They go to her place on the Boulevard de Clichy, but she's acting really dodgy. Something about how her mother is sick downstairs and she has to go check on her. Then she says her mother's going to die.
- Henry feels like something's up—maybe she's trying to rip him off. When she leaves again, he goes through her stuff. Out of self-preservation, he takes back the money he gave and gets out of there—fast.
- Fillmore invites Miller to stay with him. It's the rainy season, so Henry is grateful to have a roof over his head. Fillmore takes care of him, giving him money and showing interest in his book. There's always plenty of food and wine. And women.
- Henry likes looking out the window, staring at all of the activity, which looks to him like "something going on on another planet" (12.8).
- Miller gets some writing jobs here and there, but nothing huge.
- One day, he comes home and finds a Russian "princess" at the apartment. Fillmore is really worked up over this woman, talking about how she's a "movie star" who was jilted by some guy.
- Fillmore and the princess have a crazy night out dancing and drinking—and then she ditches him. He tracks her down, and she confesses that she had seen her lover, the movie director, and had to get out of there. Oh, and she doesn't want to have sex with Fillmore.
- Fillmore has had enough of her and calls her a bitch. He tells her, "I wouldn't fall for you if you were the last woman on earth" (12.44). Not the best comeback of the book, but we'll take it.
- Soon, Macha—"the princess"—is living with them. Fillmore is determined to get her in bed, but is met time and again with rejection. She's pretty much a slob and shoves all sorts of trash under the bed. Also, she always seems to be having her period—and she's getting fat. Yeah, Miller really has a way of describing women.
- Now she's claiming that she likes women and wants Henry and Fillmore to take her to a "bawdy house where they put on the dog and man act" (12.49).
- Fillmore decides to get it on with "the Negress," and now the princess is fuming mad. But eventually she mellows out and enjoys herself. He finally gets a chance to have sex with Macha, and she drops a bomb: she has the clap.
- He decides to use a condom. Smart move.
- The whole thing ends in a disaster. Henry and Fillmore decide they are going to try to cure her.
- She tells them a long-winded story about an inheritance, her gonorrhea, and an affair she had with a lesbian.
- Macha finally meets someone else and moves out.
- Henry and Fillmore pass the winter evenings comparing Paris and New York. They also discuss their shared love of Walt Whitman. Henry writes, "Whatever there is of value in America, Whitman has expressed, and there is nothing more to be said. The future belongs to the machine, to the robots" (13.2) (Boy, was he right.)
- They say that Goethe is "the nearest approach" to an equivalent writer in Europe, "but Goethe was a stuffed shirt, by comparison" (13.2). Go USA!
- Henry often goes for walks out in the deep freeze of Paris. He observes that Paris is a place where the "people protect themselves against the invasion of their privacy, by their high walls, their bolts and shutters, their growling, evil-tongued, slatternly concierges, so they have learned to protect themselves against the cold and heat of a bracing, vigorous climate" (13.3).
- Paris is a city that changes block to block. People are partying on one block, and on the next, they're living in tenements without warmth. Men and women sleep on the steps of cathedrals among lice and vermin.
- Henry is preoccupied with the differences between "ideas and living." Fillmore is obsessed with the idea of gold—how the French hoard their gold and store it under the city.
- Henry has been working on his writing, considering ideas of emotion and depicting human beings "in the grip of delirium" (13.5).
- He sits in cafes thinking about Western civilization and how Nietzsche believed in the evolution of man. Miller just sees men wilting behind prison walls. People may just be shadows. (This is getting deep.)
- He and Fillmore bring a few women back to their room. (Less deep.)
- A picture of Mona mounted on the wall overlooks the scene.
- Fillmore muses on vaginas as "an Arabian zero": "Into that crack I would like to penetrate up to the eyes make them waggle ferociously, dear, crazy, metallurgic eyes" (13.12). Huh?
- Henry sees the prostitute as symbolic of a crumbling world. He believes that men fear the truth and that there has been a steady decline in art. The world is a "yawning gulf of nothingness" (13.14).
- He turns his thoughts (again) to Mona, who once called him a "great human being," but she left him to perish. He questions why Mona thought he was so great. She seemed so miserable, "light like a corpse that floats on the Dead Sea" (13.16).
- He awakens with "curses of joy" on his lips, telling himself "Do anything, but let it produce joy" (13.17).
- He wonders where man's joy has gone. What is the purpose of the artist? He concludes that the artist "is not only sublime, but absurd" (13.18).
- Feeling lost? Don't worry, this is all pretty philosophical stuff.
- He used to aspire to be human, but now aspires to be inhuman. He goes through life intoxicated—but not from wine.
- Books should have a new purpose in this world: writers "must search for fragments, splinters, toenails, anything that has ore in it, anything that is capable of resuscitating the body and soul" (13.22).
- Henry embraces the disease and the madness. We thought he might.
- Fall passes, and the holidays come.
- Miller takes a position as an exchange professor of English in Dijon. Before he goes, Henry and Fillmore attend a Christmas mass.
- It's not long before they realize they are not welcome there. It's a bizarre scene with "unearthly noise" and mourners shuffling around. Now he knows why he has always avoided these places. All over the world people are participating in the same mumbo jumbo, he thinks.
- Suddenly a priest approaches them—because, you know, they stick out like sore thumbs. He throws the two men out of the church but they can't help but laugh at him with his "long skirts and skull cap on his cranium" (14.8)
- He heads to Dijon and starts thinking about some low moments he had in Florida (yes, there were others.)
- He had gone to a synagogue for help, only to be turned away for not being Jewish. The rabbi sent him to The Salvation Army. No go there, too.
- He ended up in trouble with the law and became disgusted at how uncharitable people were to him in America: "[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) Yep, that's America as he sees it.
- He gets to Dijon and immediately realizes that he has made a mistake. The place is seriously jacked—gloomy, lifeless, hopeless, empty cafes.
- The Lycée (school) is a dump, too. His contact (M. le Proviseur) is not there, so a hunchback shows him around. He meets M. le Censeur—the second in charge. The guy is a laughable freak with a "mincing step." The hunchback shows him the room where he'll be living.
- The view is desolate. He knows he doesn't belong there. Heck, he's never even taught children. He feels like a worm and a louse all at once.
- All of the teachers salute each other in a creepy way. The teachers are a real cast of characters, too: some smart, some who fart all the time, and others who just love prostitutes.
- Since he's not being paid, he has no money even when he does have time off. At least the students love him.
- He starts to feel a little mad. The whole town looks "a little crazy" and everyone is involved in the mustard business. He can't really socialize with other teachers because "Most of them looked as though they had the shit scared out of them" (14.34).
- The nights are long and tedious, and time crawls by. Icy wind blows across the dismal town. He walks around like a ghost—"a white man terrorized by the cold sanity of this slaughter-house geometry. Who am I? What am I doing here?" (14.38).
- The school itself is a disaster, with turds in the hallway. The pipes freeze and a stench fills the place. The night watchman wanders the halls with his jangling keys.
- Basically, the place is giving him the major creeps.
- That spring, he manages to escape. Carl has telegrammed him to tell him there is a room available in his hotel. He leaves without as much as a goodbye.
- Upon his return to Paris, Henry learns that Carl has taken up with an underaged girl and is facing some legal threats from her parents.
- Van Norden has decided that women aren't worth it and that it's better just to masturbate. He shares his new method—but you can look that one up yourself.
- Fillmore is in the hospital and possibly crazy. Henry goes to see him, at which point Fillmore confesses that he has impregnated a French woman and wants to marry her. Miller visits the woman, Ginette, a nice "rawboned, healthy, peasant type with a front tooth half eaten away" (15.29).
- Ginette is pregnant, it seems, and hysterically worried that Fillmore won't marry her and that he may lose his job. Henry assures her that Fillmore will be all right and has promised to marry her. They hang out with her friend Yvette, who works in a police department.
- Now the women won't leave him alone.
- Henry can't bring himself to visit Fillmore again.
- Fillmore tells Ginette "that he had no intention of marrying her, and that if she was crazy enough to go and have the child then she could support it herself" (14.37). The doctors see this response as a sign that he is on the mend.
- Meanwhile, her parents get involved and are all too eager to have Fillmore marry their daughter.
- There's some speculation (fueled by Yvette) that Ginette isn't even pregnant—she's just an alcoholic. But at least her parents are rich. She just wants to marry Fillmore so he will take care of her.
- Soon Fillmore returns to Paris, but after getting engaged to Ginette, he confides to Miller that he is miserable. He has lost his job and all of his money is gone.
- Ginette is psychotically jealous and controls every move he makes.
- Miller hatches a plan to sneak Fillmore out of Paris and back to America. Fillmore is deeply paranoid about Ginette getting her hooks into him. He is positively terrorized. They fight (as in punching, scratching, and slapping) and make up.
- All the while, her parents are lurking about expecting him to pick up the slack. Henry is disgusted by the whole mess.
- One day, Henry and Fillmore are walking down the Rue de Rivoli on a day when Paris is at its best.
- Fillmore confesses that he is having a nervous breakdown about the situation. He doesn't have an ounce of courage left. The problem is that he loves France and can't bear the thought of returning to America. "When he said France it meant wine, women, money in the pocket, easy come, easy go. It meant being a bad boy, being on a holiday" (14.66).
- But things had turned grim. Henry convinces Fillmore to stop for a drink in a café—leisure that he can no longer afford as Ginette waits like a tiger for him to come home. Fillmore does it anyway.
- They begin talking about his mess of a life and Fillmore just lets the tears flow.
- Henry convinces him to return to America and just leave it all behind. Fillmore withdraws his money from the bank and without even collecting his clothes, jumps a train to get back to the US by way of London—so Ginette can't track him down. Before he goes, he gives Henry a bunch of money, some of which is for Ginette.
- Henry dreads running into Ginette, but soothes himself with the beauties of Paris.
- He takes a cab (a big luxury) around Paris, driving past the Arc de Triomphe and the Bois. Of course, Henry keeps the money for himself and lives like a prince for a while.
- It suddenly occurs to him that maybe he should return to America as well. He pictures Harlem and the Battery—the streets of New York. What ever became of his wife?
- He momentarily feels at peace. People aren't so bad he thinks, but close up they "appear ugly and malicious" (14. 112).
- The novel closes with his thoughts of the Seine River: "The sun is setting. I feel this river flowing through me—its past, its soil, the changing climate. The hills gently girdle it about: its course is fixed" (14.113).