Henry Miller, the narrator, who tells about his life in mixed order, including long descriptions of events in his childhood. The narration is stream of consciousness and includes philosophical asides. Even as a child, Miller wanted to die. He recalls his childhood and reflects that he has not gained from enlargement of his world as an adult. He sees no sense in struggling against inevitable failure. He has no ambitions, nothing he wishes to do that he could just as well not do. He has no desire to become a useful member of society. He does not believe in doing things just to earn a living; it is better to starve to death or kill someone else. He thinks people work only because they do not know any better. He takes menial jobs, rather than learning a profession, because they keep his mind free. He claims his whole aim in life is to get near to God and that music is the “can opener of the soul.” He links music to sex and is obsessed with women, even though he seems indifferent (at best) to his wife. He lets his wife support him for a while right after getting married. He has had many jobs; he was fired from them because he inspires distrust. He finally needs a job and applies as a messenger for the Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company of North America. He is rejected but reapplies and is given a job as a manager, responsible for hiring and firing messengers. Miller is berated for having too big a heart; he gives things away, using company funds as well as his own possessions. He goes into debt to be able to give things away, and he constantly looks for sources of loans to him that he never intends to repay. He works hard at his job, trying to give jobs to all the people who need them. The vice president of Cosmodemonic suggests that Miller write a Horatio Alger type of book about the messengers. Miller realizes that the book he writes is bad, and everyone says it is, but he is in love with it. He recognizes that he attempted to do too much, to make it a terrific book even though he is not yet capable of such a thing. He sometimes feels compelled to either write or run away; those are the only choices. In the coda, he admits to walking out on his wife and child at the age of thirty. This begins his new life.
Gottlieb Leberecht Müller
Gottlieb Leberecht Müller, who has lost his identity. He is an alter ego of Miller and narrates the interlude near the end of the book. Things he does under this name are regarded as crazy. He plays the piano madly, improvising incredible music.
Lola Niessen, Müller’s piano teacher, a woman in her late twenties with a sallow complexion, bilious-looking eyes, warts, and a mustache. She is very hairy, which excites Müller. He loses his virginity to her when he is fifteen years old.
Mara, a woman whom Miller visits in the dance hall in the coda to the book....
(The entire section is 1195 words.)