I am still not sure what to think of Truman Capote’s 1958 novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I read it in a single day, more like two but the bulk of it on a single bus trip, and was left a little ambivalent. On the one hand, I really liked the narrative structure of the novella: it is told by an unnamed narrator who lives in the same building as Holly Golightly, the ambiguous female who yearns to eat breakfast at Tiffany’s (a New York diamond store). The narrator has a changing relationship to Holly and struggles to come to grips with her interruption of his life. Most of the novella is a recollection of his relationship to her framed by his meeting with Joe Bell, a bartender whom both the narrator and Tiffany knew quite well. Bell shows the narrator a photo of an African sculptor posing with what is clearly a sculpture of Holly and gives a similarly strange tale of how she came through this area. On the other hand, I did not like the way that Holly becomes a kind of sexual pariah in the novel. Capote called her an American geisha, but the male characters all treat her as some kind of property whom they wish to own.
The fact hat Holly cannot be owned is what drives the plot of the novel as she seems to get herself into one troubling position after another. The narrator follows her various changes of men with some jealousy as he hopes to get her for himself. Instead, he becomes a kind of brotherly figure for her (she even calls him Fred at one point after her own brother), listening to her problems, helping her when needed, and even offering her an escape from a drunken and angry man. As Capote begins to reveal more of Holly’s back story, she becomes a paradox of a person: a kind of self-made geisha from a rural southern background that becomes the black sheep of New York society’s gossip column. She then disappears from America for good after a naïve relationship with a Mafia boss attracts police attention.
What I think Capote wants readers to sense is the actual absence of Holly herself from the narrative. The character she performs is certainly there, but she herself seems absent in some way. At the very beginning of the narrative she is literally absent, but throughout the rest of the novella she felt missing to me as well. This is, perhaps, Capote’s point: she has been driven into the position of being a bird that various wealthy men would like to trap in a cage (an image that haunts the text). The fact that she doesn’t is, perhaps, meant to be seen as a triumph of the female protagonist. However, I felt like the fact that she had to use sex to get anywhere dislocates any kind of emancipatory power the novella might have. For in doing so, Holly seems to reinforce the sense that women are simply sexual objects to be possessed, rather than showing women as full and complete human beings. Perhaps, this is an anachronistic criticism, but I just had the sense that most feminist readers would not be happy with the book.
I would recommend the novella for fans of the movie, but I am not sure who else would enjoy it given my ambivalent reaction.
Capote, Truman. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. 1958. New York: Vintage, 1993. Print.