In this novel, as in most of Capote's novels, symbols play a significant role. The first of these is the African statue in the photograph taken by I. Y. Yunioshi, Holly's former neighbor. This wood sculpture, which combines the elongated head of the primitive style with Holly's facial characteristics, suggests her role as the feminine ideal, not only for civilized men like Joe Bell and the American photographer, but also for primitive artists like the African woodcarver. Holly's power to inspire art is further seen in this novel which, for the narrator, constitutes an attempt to understand Holly's personality and her appeal to almost all types of men.
A second symbol is the ornate birdcage which the narrator admires and Holly buys for him. The narrator considers this cage another work of art, but for Holly it represents a loss of freedom. Thus, she cannot appreciate the inherent beauty of the object, and when the narrator angrily returns it to her, she shows her disregard for both its artistic and its monetary value as she simply tosses it on the trash heap. The narrator, whose values differ radically from hers, retrieves it, however.
The impermanence of Holly's life is seen in the way her apartment is furnished; she seems to be literally in transit— traveling. Suitcases and unpacked crates are the only furniture. The crates serve as tables to hold drinks, a lamp, a bowl of flowers, and the cat. Holly refuses to buy actual chairs and tables...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Modern readers are likely to consider Breakfast at Tiffany's dated. The outlaws resemble the cast of the musical Guys and Dolls more than any contemporary Mafia figures. Likewise, the attitude of Holly Golightly seems to reflect those of the 1950's beat writers and the 1960's flower children. The 1950's greater reticence in dealing with sexual topics is also very much in evidence. In general, then, readers may choose to treat the novel as a mirror of its cultural milieu.
1. One of the most ambiguous elements in the novel is the narrator's relationship with Holly. Initially she treats him as a surrogate brother, and in some ways that relationship is maintained throughout the novel, but Joe Bell suggests that the narrator too must have harbored sexual fantasies about her, and the narrator himself suggests that he has written the novel in order to sort out his feelings. How does he actually feel about her? How does his point of view affect the reader's perception of Holly?
2. Capote was very unhappy with the motion picture treatment of Breakfast at Tiffany's. In what ways does the novel differ from the movie? Why were these changes made in the movie version?
3. Although much of the action in the novel takes place during World War II, actually the war seems to impinge upon the action very little. How do wartime conditions affect the novel? Why has Capote chosen not to emphasize the war?
4. This novel is...
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Written in 1958, Breakfast at Tiffany's reflects the emerging concerns of postwar America and looks forward to the turbulent 1960's. In the late 1950's, Congress had turned its attention from subversives to the Mafia, and hearings revealed both the Mafia's role in the distribution of drugs and its infiltration of cafe society. Truman Capote's Holly Golightly eventually is caught up in this scandal. Her benefactor, "Sally" Tomato, is a Mafia kingpin imprisoned at Sing Sing. Asked to make an old man happy by visiting him each Thursday morning, Holly agrees, not realizing that Sally and his henchman Oliver O'shaughnessy are using her to deliver messages concerning the drug trade. At the novel's climax, she is arrested, and the ensuing scandal not only makes her a social pariah, but literally costs her everything.
Holly's attitude toward conventional morality also reflects the sexual revolution that was in its early stages in 1958; she discusses prostitution and homosexuality in a matter-of-fact way, suggesting both provide advantages to everyone concerned. While Holly is certainly not the first prostitute to be portrayed sympathetically, both the author and his narrator seem to accept and even admire the way she has used men financially in order to create her identity and maintain her life style. Those characters who condemn her are seen as despicable, self-righteous, and hypocritical. In contrast, Capote emphasizes Holly's innocence and her...
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Holly Golightly seems to belong to the literary tradition of the picaro or appealing nonconformist who considers society's rules simply not applicable. Her inherent innocence links her to characters like Huckleberry Finn who are not precisely truthful but also not really dishonest. On the other hand, her forthrightness about sexuality parallels that of Tom Jones (Henry Fielding, 1749).
The treatment of police and outlaws resembles that of the popular 1950's musical Guys and Dolls. Because Capote presents Sally Tomato and Father O'shaughnessy almost exclusively from Holly's point of view, they appear to be characters out of Damon Runyon or even the legendary tales of Robin Hood and Friar Tuck.
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In technique and tone, Breakfast at Tiffany's resembles several of Capote's other retrospective, nostalgic fiction such as A Christmas Memory (1966), The Thanksgiving Visitor (1968), and The Grass Harp (1951; see separate entry), in which a young boy's progress toward adulthood is strongly influenced by an eccentric female character. The same "coming of age" motif and memoir technique recur frequently in Capote's work, from his first novel Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948; see separate entry) through various segments of the posthumously published Answered Prayers (1987).
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In 1961 Paramount Pictures released a well-received motion picture loosely based upon Breakfast at Tiffany's. Although Capote reportedly envisioned Marilyn Monroe as Holly, the role was played by Audrey Hepburn; the narrator (given the name of Paul Varjak in the film) was played by George Peppard. Among the other distinguished actors in the movie were Patricia Neal (as the downstairs neighbor), Buddy Ebsen (as Doc Golightly), Martin Balsam (as O. J. Berman), Alan Reed (as Sally Tomato), and Mickey Rooney (as the Japanese photographer I. Y. Yunioshi). (Additional information can be found at the following URL: http://us.imdb.com/.)
Capote later expressed extreme displeasure with this casting, especially with the choices of Audrey Hepburn and Mickey Rooney for their roles, and the author was even less pleased with the director, Blake Edwards. A few years before his death, Capote remarked that he hoped for a remake starring Jody Foster as Holly. Nevertheless, although probably best remembered for its musical theme "Moon River," by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, the movie remains popular enough to be the subject of a web site (Elizabeth's Breakfast at Tiffany's Website).
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. Truman Capote. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2003.
Brinnin, John Malcolm. Truman Capote: Dear Heart, Old Buddy. Rev. ed. New York: Delacorte Press, 1986.
Clarke, Gerald. Capote: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988.
Dunphy, Jack.“Dear Genius”: A Memoir of My Life with Truman Capote. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989.
Garson, Helen S. Truman Capote: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1992.
Plimpton, George. Truman Capote: In Which Various Friends, Enemies, Acquaintances, and Detractors Recall His Turbulent Career. New York: Doubleday, 1997.
Rudisill, Marie. The Southern Haunting of Truman Capote. Nashville, Tenn.: Cumberland House, 2000.
Windham, Donald. Lost Friendships: A Memoir of Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, and Others. New York: William Morrow, 1987.
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