Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, is set in early 1940s uptown, East Side Manhattan, primarily on Lexington Avenue. In his novella, Capote is able to capture many ideas about New York City that draw so many people there. The story is centered on Miss Holiday Golightly who ran away to New York. In the old life she left behind, she was a Texas child-wife, then a Hollywood actress on the verge of discovery, under the supervision of O.J Berman. In New York, she found she had no responsibilities, no restrictions, and no expectations of her. She found she was able to make her own decisions and be true to herself, which was something quite incredible considering the era. During this time period it was typical for women to get married and be or play housewife for the rest of their lives. She is also able to avoid starting a career. Either way, she is able to avoid settling down. The theme of the liberty of escape reverberates throughout Capote’s story both consciously and subliminally. Holly is an escapee of her childhood, of being trapped in marriage and a meaningless career. She escapes small-town, rural normality. Holly spends the majority of her time outrunning boredom. The idea of escape is kept in our consciousness by the frequent use of New York fire escapes that connect apartments externally. On a metaphorical level, the fire escapes may serve to tell us that New York is a land of escape: many people come to New York to escape persecution, restrictions, their old hum-drum lives, and even reality.
Holly is able to rebel against the acceptable social roles of women because New York is a city of freedom and independence. New York is also all about having a good time. Holly tells the reader that she went to New York because “I’ve never been to New York,” which indicates that spontaneity is woven deeply into her personality and fits well with the city because anything and everything happens in NYC. Holly is described as being “forever on her way out.” This concept of the partying New Yorker is global and even commercial. While waiting for the bus, I saw an advertisement for an airline that read. ‘We go out every night. Just like a New Yorker.’
In her poem “Recuerdo,” Edna St. Vincent Millay describes a memorable night riding the Staten Island ferry to and fro, a night of pointless adolescent fun in the city (Millay 418). Holly represents this aspect of the city through many of her actions. When Holly spends time with the Narrator, they often act on impulse. Occasionally they steal trivial items such as cheap Halloween masks from Woolworth’s and joss sticks from Chinatown. Holly admitted, “I’d rob a grave, I’d steal two-bits off a dead man’s eyes if I thought it would contribute to the day’s enjoyment,” in a playful, not at all malicious, tone. In celebration of the Narrator’s first published work, “We had Manhattans at Joe Bell’s… champagne cocktails on the house… wandered toward Fifth Avenue… there was a parade… a fanfare [ seemingly ] arranged in my personal honor.” All their follies have a dream-like quality; their youthful behavior is without consequence, which is again a minor escape from reality, a shedding of responsibility. Holly’s husband believes the reason she ran away is because she was “reading dreams” in magazines about the big city.
Youth plays a large role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and many other works centered on life in New York City. New York is portrayed as a perfect city to come-of-age in, but not a place to remain in. It is portrayed mainly as a limbo between childhood and adulthood, a party or a carnival ride that never stops, but one must know when to get off the carousel. This theme is echoed in Joan Didion’s essay, “Goodbye To All That,” in which she calls New York a “perishable dream,” and states “one does not “live” at Xanadu” (Didion 890). Right away, we see that Holly recognizes this when we read her mailbox title: “Miss Holiday Golightly, Traveling.” She explains this by saying, “Home is where you feel at home, and I’m still looking.” Her apartment attests to this mentality: suitcases and crates are the only furniture; it creates a perpetual “camping-out atmosphere,” a sort of “fly-by-night look.”
New York City is rarely, if ever, portrayed as a place to grow old in. The older characters, such as Joe Bell who is in his late fifties, appear to be more a part of the scenery than they are of the action. The older men that Holly dates are nameless, faceless people who mill about in disappointment and pointless worry. This starkly contrasts the carefree attitude of the younger characters. Though Joe Bell is more active than these men, he still is portrayed as a stationary character, someone who will always be there when you return, as exemplified in the opening scene: Joe is still working the same job at the same location and still thinking about Holly, meanwhile the Narrator has moved on. The only older character who is given any substantial personality is fifty-year-old Doc Golightly, Holly’s childhood husband, who is only a visitor passing through to rescue Holly from herself. Holly insists that she is no longer a child, and that she has made her decision not to return. When Doc leaves she admits she is still a child, if not more of a child than she ever was. She may be coming to terms with the idea that she might be the “phony” O.J. Berman has accused her of being for so long.
One of the most beautiful and compelling descriptions of the phoniness of Miss Golightly is one of the first times the Narrator notices her. Australian army officers are taking turns spinning Holly under the El as she “floated round in their arms light as a scarf.” It is important to notice she is described not as a feather, but as an accessory, a decoration; the description easily lends itself to the notion that Holly is not real, is not substantial. Holly represents one of several stereotypical people in the population of New York City: the con artist. Holly is able to survive without working a real job because she is able to get substantial amounts of money out of the men she dates. “Any gent with the slightest chic will give you fifty for the girl’s john, and I always ask for cab fare too, that’s another fifty.” O.J. Berman goes on to state “She isn’t a phony because she’s a real phony. She believes all this crap she believes. You can’t talk her out of it,” which goes to show that Holly doesn’t just act in this manner, she owns this personality. It is entirely her own. When Holly learns that the Narrator is a writer she asks if he is a real writer. When he asks her to define “real,” she replies “Does anyone buy what you write?” which tells us a great deal about her own character: one is only as real as their audience perceives them to be, one must be convincing. This conflicts with her declarations of independence, which makes it a great example of the sharp contrasts and contradictions of New York City because both statements are entirely, though paradoxically, true.
The major New York City stereotype represented in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is the struggling artist, which is played by the Narrator, an aspiring writer. The story opens with a description of the Narrator’s new NYC apartment. The description ends with his thought that he finally had “everything [ he ] needed, so [ he ] felt, to become the writer [ he ] wanted to be.” This stereotype is practically an archetype. If there is one kind of person that people imagine going to New York it is the person who is hoping to “make it” or become successful in some area of the arts. Sadly, the second-half of this stereotype is that they work as waiters for the rest of their lives claiming it’s only a “side job” until they “make it big.”
The waiter-waiting-on-success image is a prime example of the sharp contrasts that New York City offers. In New York you will find a homeless man begging nickels outside of Versace or a butcher shop next door to a vegan whole-foods store. Because New York is so immense, you can lose yourself in the crowd or get noticed and “discovered.” You can cloister yourself in an apartment or become engaged at any moment. New York is a city of extremes. Again, Holly exemplifies this aspect of New York perfectly. When she realizes she is pregnant she states that she wants to have at least nine children. She and the Narrator visit Joe Bell’s bar at least six or seven times per day. For Christmas, she bought the Narrator a $350 birdcage but made him promise never to keep a living creature in it. This also shows again that Holly clings quite closely to the concept of freedom that New York offers her. When the pair ate lunch in the park they avoided the zoo because “she couldn’t bear to see anything in a cage.”
Holly repeatedly stresses throughout Breakfast at Tiffany’s that she did not intend to stay in New York permanently. Her cat perhaps, best represents this. She never gives the cat a name even though she loves him because she claims not to own him, just as she proclaims, “I love New York, even though it isn’t mine.” She emphasizes that she and the cat (or metaphorically, New York) “made no promises.” As she is leaving the city, she releases the cat but then runs back for him saying “Oh, Jesus God. We did belong to each other.” She never finds the cat and she never returns to New York. It was finally time to get off the carousel.
The honesty, sometimes-brutal honesty, that New York is known for had a special appeal to Holly. “Good things only happen to you if you’re good. Good? Honest is more what I mean. Not law-type honest…but unto-thyself-type honest. Be anything but a coward, a pretender, an emotional crook, a whore: I’d rather have cancer than a dishonest heart. Which isn’t being pious. Just practical. Cancer may cool you, but the other’s sure to. Oh, screw it, cookie—hand me my guitar.” In the end, Holly makes the brazen, yet probably subconscious, declaration that you shouldn’t waste life being philosophical; sometimes you should just have a good time. If there’s one thing New York definitely is, it’s a hell of a good time.
Didion, Joan, “Goodbye to All That.” Writing New York. Ed. Phillip Lopate. New York: Washington Square Press, 1998, 886-895.
Millay, Edna St. Vincent, “Recuerdo.” Writing New York. Ed. Phillip Lopate. New York: Washington Square Press, 1998, 418.