Breakfast at Tiffany's

by Truman Capote

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Breakfast at Tiffany's Analysis

  • Holly's cat symbolizes freedom and Holly's resistance to captivity. Holly takes the stray in, but never gives it a name, refusing to accept the responsibility of ownership or the status of being an owner.
  • Holly easily accepts the narrator's sexual orientation, reflecting both Capote's own homosexuality and the changing social attitude towards sexuality in general.
  • The novel is narrated from the first-person perspective as a writer reminisces about his friendship with Holly Golightly. This perspective allows the reader to see Holly as the enigmatic and eccentric individual the narrator saw her as, but it also more subtly characterizes the narrator himself.

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Analysis

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Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a frame narrative. That is, it is a tale told as a recollection years after the narrative’s central events. Inevitably in such narratives, the ostensible subject of the memory—in this case the eccentric, charismatic socialite Holly Golightly—remains an impenetrable mystery, while the character of the narrator—in this case, a struggling writer mesmerized by the dazzling Holly—clearly emerges and becomes the central focus of the narrative.

Perhaps because the narrator is himself so taken by the mesmerizing character of Holly Golightly, many readers initially focus on Holly Golightly as the clear narrative center of the work. This reaction may be heightened by the tremendous impact the novel’s 1961 film adaptation had on popular culture—the film was squarely centered on the elegant flightiness of Audrey Hepburn as Holly. As her allegorical name suggests, Holly embodies the reckless free spirit. Although the free spirit had been celebrated in American literature since Huck Finn, Truman Capote’s creation shattered conventional assumptions. Holly is a woman who is frank about her sexual appetites, who freely uses men to maintain her lifestyle, and who resists the traditional fulfillment of marriage and child-rearing.

A paradox, at once narcissistic and compassionate, willful and vulnerable, Holly Golightly defies imprisonment within social convention and the dreary responsibilities of family and marriage. Her relationship with her nameless pet cat, as well as her cavalier attitude toward her numerous escorts, suggests that loose sense of responsibility. The gifts Holly and the narrator exchange over their only Christmas together underscore this thematic tension: He gives her a medal of St. Christopher, the patron saint of safe traveling; she gives him an ornate bird cage on the condition that he never put anything living inside it.

Indeed, Holly is associated throughout the narrative with wild animals, most notably horses and birds. She disdains zoos. Capote is careful to avoid simplification: If Holly is a free spirit, she is also attracted by the capitalist enterprise. She relishes high living, she entertains men in exchange for money, she plots to marry money, and she is at home in Tiffany’s, the epitome of lavish living. In the end, Holly Golightly’s is a tragic narrative of a free spirit who both hungers for and resists a home, too wild for the humdrum of domestic living, too captivated by the lavish commodities of success for life in the margins.

What made Capote’s novella a pioneering work was less the character of Holly Golightly and more the implications of her relationship with the narrator. At a time when American narratives did not forthrightly treat gay characters or investigate the nuances of gender roles, Capote created a narrative in which the construction of both gender and sexual identity served as thematic interest. Neither Holly nor the narrator is simply gay or simply straight. With her boyish hair and slender physique, her relationship with numerous women friends, and her provocative sexual comments, Holly, even as she pursues marriage, hints at several moments that she may be a lesbian. The narrator, a bachelor who is noticeably content to maintain an entirely platonic relationship with Holly and never pursues any other women and whose prose (like that of the early Capote) is delicate, atmospheric, and evocative, may or may not be gay.

Other characters—most notably Rusty Trawler, a millionaire Holly momentarily considers pursuing; Mag Wildwood, a loud, hard-drinking model who is Holly’s roommate; and Joe Bell, the bartender who helps Holly escape New York—also exist suspended between clear gay and straight identities. Indeed, the rejection of such an either/or sense of sexual identity and gender roles marks the novella’s achievement. Breakfast...

(This entire section contains 1016 words.)

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at Tiffany’s has been cited as a pioneering work in gay studies, as it suggests, well ahead of its time, that sexual identity and gender roles are themselves fluid constructions. They are conventional and fashioned, rather than predetermined, biological, or inevitable. Hence, the narrative uses several symbols of fluid or constructed identity, including acting (Holly is a former Hollywood starlet who still changes her hair color and hides behind garish sunglasses); fiction writing and the work of creating characters; masks (Holly and the narrator shoplift masks during the Halloween season); and, supremely, the logic of deception and the necessity of lying.

This sense of fluid reality is perhaps the novella’s most sophisticated achievement. Although Capote himself disdained the emerging generation of postmodern writers intent on reexamining narrative form at the expense of exploring character and telling stories, Breakfast at Tiffany’s shares the postmodern anxiety over the nature of reality itself. Capote carefully constructs a tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale: Holly herself stays stubbornly mysterious, as her story is pieced out in recollections from other characters, and readers are ultimately in the hands of an unreliable narrator whose psychological profile affects the story he tells. Thus, Breakfast at Tiffany’s ultimately tests the difference between reality and fiction, illustrating how people tend to impose readings on events and call them reality. This theme anticipates Capote’s 1966 groundbreaking nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood.

As Holly’s own agent surmises about her, she is a “real phony,” and that paradox shapes a great deal of Capote’s argument about reality. What one perceives to be true becomes what one believes to be real. In engaging a narrative voiceover that appears to be straightforward and even journalistic in its hard-boiled precision, careful readers must realize that every recollection is an angle of perception, that they are dealing with fallible memory and its construction of reality. When readers finish Breakfast at Tiffany’s, they are no nearer to understanding Holly’s complex emotional interior or her relationships with her brother, her husband, her lover, and the baby she loses. She is at once distant and near; like the photo of the African carving that bears a resemblance to her, the narrative necessarily remains thrice removed from its ostensible subject. That is the achievement of the novella—the more readers know, the less they understand; the closer they get to the truth, the farther away they are.

Literary Techniques

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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 until she has found a place where she believes she belongs. Likewise, the cat has no name because Holly is unwilling to accept the responsibility of even that degree of commitment to another living creature.

As in most Capote novels, color symbolism is markedly present. Holly is repeatedly associated with color, from the bowl of yellow roses in her apartment to her red cat and her white-satin bed. Primarily, though, she is linked to the emotion that she calls "the mean reds," her term for deep depression, a feeling that can be dispelled only by breakfast at Tiffany's. Her most intense experiences with "the mean reds" occur when she receives the news of her brother's death and again when she suffers a miscarriage. She tells the narrator that on the latter occasion she came very near death, or as she says, "the fat lady nearly got her."

Tiffany's itself is an important symbol in the novel. For Holly this store represents the stability, status, and taste that she wants in her life. She has spent hours outside the store, looking in, and while she tells the narrator she has bought calling cards there because she feels a kind of debt to Tiffany's, the cards are an expression of hope, as is the symbolically appropriate St. Christopher medal the narrator later buys for her there.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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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 told essentially as a retrospective narrative, framed by the narrator's more recent contacts with Holly and her friends. What effects does Capote achieve by using this type of narrative structure?

5. Breakfast at Tiffany's does not appear to be a typical Capote novel. In what ways does this novel differ from his earlier novels? How can these differences be explained? In what ways is it similar to other Capote novels?

6. Reportedly one of Capote's literary rivals accused him of adopting elements from other writers and from the popular culture of the era. What are some elements that have parallels in other fiction? Are Holly and the narrator examples of the antiheroes, or at least unlikely heroes, that were emerging in the 1950's?

7. What does Tiffany's mean to the various characters—especially Holly and the narrator? What does Tiffany's represent in today's popular culture? How has that meaning changed since the 1950's?

8. What is Holly's attitude toward money, possessions, and any type of permanence? Does the narrator continue to agree with her? Why is it significant that near the end of the novel the narrator reveals that the cat has finally found a home? Has the narrator also found a home? Does he believe Holly has? Is he likely to be correct?

9. Although sexuality tends to be minimized and even treated somewhat ambiguously in this novel, obviously Holly makes an indelible impression upon every man she meets. Why? What does the narrator suggest about those men who are not in some way attracted to Holly? On the other hand, why do most of the women seem to dislike her? Does their attitude reflect the 1950's stereotypes of women and their roles?

10. The novelist James Michener once wrote that Holly Golightly was patterned after a young woman with whom both he and Capote were well acquainted. Without such testimony, would Holly be a believable character? In what ways is her behavior credible? What characteristics seem exaggerated?

Social Concerns

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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 integrity. She explains to the narrator that she always manages to "like" the men in her life; even when they are "rats," she tells herself that she actually likes rats. Not surprisingly, then, when she finds out that Sally Tomato has taken advantage of her naivete, she remains loyal to him, insisting that he has always been kind to her, and refusing to cooperate with the police against him.

Literary Precedents

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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.

Adaptations

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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).

Bibliography

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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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