Breakfast at Tiffanys
Truman Capote
Contributed by Pearl Vahle
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Chapter 1

The narrator reminisces about his first apartment in New York, a single room in a brownstone in the East Seventies. Though it was dark and "crowded with attic furniture", he remembers the apartment fondly, as it was his own space, containing everything he needed to "become the kind of writer [he] wanted to be".

The narrator reveals that his memory was triggered by a telephone call the previous Tuesday from Joe Bell, the proprietor of a bar located around the corner from the old brownstone. While the two men haven’t seen each other in years, and while Joe doesn’t give a reason for his sudden call, the narrator assumes that Joe has information about Holly Golightly, a woman who lived in the apartment beneath his and with whom he frequented Joe’s bar. Despite a downpour of rain, the narrator takes a taxi to the bar, where he finds Joe alone on the premises.

After mixing him a "White Angel" (half vodka, half gin), Joe asks the narrator if he remembers a Japanese man named I.Y. Yunioshi. The narrator recalls that he was a magazine photographer who occupied the studio apartment on the top floor of the old brownstone and who, according to the gossip columns, had spent the last two years in Africa. Satisfied with his answer, Joe passes the narrator an envelope containing three photographs, all of an African man in traditional dress displaying an elaborate wood carving of a young woman’s head, complete with short hair, large uptilted eyes, and a wide, full mouth. The narrator recognizes the sculpture as an exact image of Holly Golightly.

Joe relates the story of the wood carving to the narrator as Yunioshi told it to him the previous night. Traveling through Tococul, an obscure village in East Anglia on Christmas day, Yunioshi was impressed by a local man squatting in a doorway, carving monkeys on a walking stick. When asked to see more of his work, the African produced the sculpture of the head. Yunioshi, struck by the resemblance to his former neighbor, offered to buy the carving, but found the artist strangely reluctant to part with his work. Bartering salt and his watch, Yunioshi convinced the African to tell him the story behind the carving.

In broken English and improvised sign-language, the African revealed that the carving is a representation of a young white woman who, along with two white men, had rode into Tococul unexpectedly in the Spring of that year. The men were sick with fever and were forced to stay in the village for several weeks in an isolated hut while they recovered, while the woman developed an affection for the carver and slept with him on his mat. Then, as suddenly as she had arrived, the woman disappeared, riding off on her horse through the African brush.

Joe and the narrator speculate as to the truth of the African’s story, and wonder about Holly’s current whereabouts. The narrator surmises that the story is false, and that Holly is likely still in New York, either dead, in an asylum, or "married and quieted down." Joe disagrees, reasoning that he’s been walking all over the city for the past ten to twelve years, and, given his fixation on Holly, he would have noticed her if she were around.

Joe having inadvertently revealed his affection for Holly, the two men share an awkward moment. The narrator returns the photos to Joe and rises to leave, but Joe grabs his wrist. He confesses that while he loved Holly, his feelings were not sexual: "[It] wasn’t that I wanted to touch her." While, in his advancing age, he finds he has sexual thoughts "more and more", he insists that his love for Holly was that for "a stranger, a stranger who’s a friend."

The narrator exits the bar to find that it has stopped raining. He walks around the neighborhood to the brownstone he used to live in, which, he discovers, has been "sleeked up", renovated with a new door and elegant shutters. Looking at the mailboxes, the narrator realizes that only one of his former neighbors, Madame Sapphia Spanella, is still a tenant, and recalls that he first became aware of Holly Golightly because of her mailbox.


While Breakfast at Tiffany’s is primarily the story of Holly Golightly, the novella’s opening section places Holly at a conspicuous distance from the narrative action. The reader is told Holly’s story after the fact, through the recollection of an unnamed narrator approximately ten years after he last saw her. This structural technique is called a "frame narrative": a story that encloses, or "frames" the central story, which then appears as a "tale within a tale". While the story of the narrator’s meeting with Joe Bell is an explicit frame for Holly’s tale, we notice this tale is also communicated to the narrator himself through a series of intermediary narratives: the African carver tells his story to Yunioshi, who relates it to Joe Bell, who conveys it to the narrator, who finally passes it along to the reader.

By introducing Holly in such an indirect manner, Capote calls our attention to Holly’s essentially mysterious and enigmatic nature. Throughout the novella, Holly is characterized as an unknowable person: she operates under an alias, lies, and refuses to divulge the details of her life to her friends. The use of a frame narrative exaggerates Holly’s mystery, turning her into a literal rumor that can be neither verified nor dismissed. Moreover, the interest of the narrator, Joe Bell, Yunioshi and the African in Holly’s fate indicates the continuing power of her charisma. The African refuses to part with his carving, Yunioshi is willing to pay a seemingly unlimited amount of money and goods for it, and the narrator travels across the city in the rain at the mere suggestion of news of Holly. While Holly has faded into rumor, she maintains a potent hold on the imagination of the men whose lives, however briefly, intersected with her own.

The opening section of Breakfast At Tiffany’s introduces another central concern of Capote’s writing: the ambiguity of sexual identity and orientation. Capote’s novella was published in 1958, a time when homosexuality was a taboo subject that few writers addressed directly. Rather, artists often "coded" characters as gay or lesbian by implying they had an eccentric, or "inverted" sexual identity. While neither Joe Bell nor Holly are explicitly characterized as homosexuals, both are described in androgynous terms. The narrator lists Joe’s interests as "ice hockey, Weimaraner dogs, Our Gal Sunday {a soap serial)...and Gilbert and Sullivan". Moreover, Joe is found in his bar arranging a bowl of fresh flowers "with matronly care" in a niche adorned with photos of hockey stars. This juxtaposition of the stereotypically masculine (hockey) with the stereotypically feminine (flowers, soap operas, musical theatre) suggests that Joe, like his interests, is similarly gender conflicted. In his conversation with the narrator, Joe, a sixty-six year old bachelor, insists he didn’t "want to touch Holly", a confession that distinguishes his affection for her from the patently sexual infatuation of the majority of the men in the novel. Similarly, Holly is described as having hair "sleek and short as a young man’s", and a "flat little bottom", stereotypically masculine characteristics that, along with her willingness to explore Africa on horseback, indicates Holly’s rejection of mid-century gender roles, which, as the narrator suggests, would require her to be "married and quieted down."

At the time of the publication of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, America was fraught with racial tension. In the wake of WWII and the dawn of the Korean War, Asian-American relations were particularly negative, and the increasing pressure for civil rights placed African-Americans under intense public scrutiny. It is notable that the opening section of Capote’s novella features two important non-white characters: the photographer, Yunioshi, and the African carver, whose name we aren’t told. Joe Bell, presumably white, refers to the carver as a "negro", an acceptable term for people of African descent in the 1950s, and to Yunioshi as a "Jap", a derogatory slur for Japanese people. The narrator’s description of the sculpture as a "primitive carving" indicates the superior attitude of white America towards non-white cultures: the object is described as a "carving" and its maker as a "carver" (not, respectively, as "sculpture" and "artist"), and the adjective "primitive" exemplifies the common pejorative association of Africans with "savages" or cave-men. Despite the racist terms in which Yunioshi and the African are described, both characters are important in conveying information about Holly to the narrator, a centrality that foreshadows the eclectic and often progressive political atmosphere of the novella. The fact that Holly is rumored to have "shared the woodcarver’s mat" (a detail Joe Bell is reluctant to believe) is particularly indicative of her liberal sexual and racial politics, explored more fully in the remainder of the novella.

With the exception of Joe Bell, all of the characters in the first section of Breakfast at Tiffany’s are artists: the narrator is a writer, Yunioshi is a photographer, and the African is a sculptor. Even Madame Sapphia Spanella, the name the narrator recognizes on the mailbox, is a coloratura, a soprano opera singer. Holly, absent in person, is present in the carving: she is both the inspiration for, and the subject of, a work of art. A recurring concern of the novella is the role of art as a way to preserve, interpret, and even transform our personal experiences. It is the sculpture of Holly, as documented by the photograph, that inspires the narrator to write Holly’s story and, thus, to explore his relationship to her and to himself.

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