Breakfast at Tiffanys
Truman Capote
Contributed by Pearl Vahle
Symbols
Symbols are objects or figures that artists use to represent an idea.
Naming as Identification

Throughout Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the act of naming is invested with special significance. The novella is populated with characters whose names or nicknames suggest their defining personality traits. For example, the "wild" socialite is Mag Wildwood, and the homosexual is Quaintance Smith, whose name references the gay artist George Quaintance. The abundance of meaningful names in Breakfast at Tiffany’s draws a parallel between naming and personal identity that provides the reader with particular insight into the novella’s main two characters. Notably, the narrator’s name is never revealed to the reader, an omission that heightens the reader’s sense of him as an "outsider" of both society and the narrative itself. Holly, also a mysterious character, changes her name to prevent others from knowing about her impoverished roots. Moreover, she refuses to name her pet cat, as she feels he doesn’t properly "belong" to her. This statement indicates how, within the world of the novella, proper names symbolize both personal and public identity. Like the cat, the narrator’s unnamed status in the novel suggests that he doesn’t "belong" to any person or thing. However, unlike the cat, the narrator willingly withholds his name to protect his personal identity. Holly’s use of a pseudonym and her reluctance to confer a name on her cat are thus symptoms of her general rejection of stability. She refuses to take or give a fixed identity until she feels at home in the world.

Art as Commodity

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is deeply concerned with the purpose of art and its shifting position in mid-century consumer culture. Holly is the novella’s major symbol for art. Her persona is entirely self-constructed. Even her signature appearance is, as the narrator discovers, the result of deliberate artifice. Her hair is dyed, she diets, and conceals her poor eyesight with stylish dark glasses. Aside from concealing her true identity, Holly’s self-fashioning implies that she sees herself an artificial object, an art work of her own creation. It is this artificial persona that the wealthy men in Holly’s life pay for, establishing Holly as not only an art object, but as one that is sold as a commodity in the sexual marketplace.

Holly’s willingness to sell her body and her image extends to her attitude towards art in general. She is particularly baffled by the narrator’s reluctance to write primarily for profit. In the narrator’s aesthetic ideology, art is a profound expression of personal and social truths and is thus unsuited to the often crass tastes of mass culture. Altering his writing to suit the demands of the masses would compromise the narrator’s artistic integrity, something he is unwilling to do. Holly and the narrator are both artists of sorts; their difference lies in their distinct attitudes towards art’s position on the popular market. Indeed, the characters’ major dispute centers on the question of whether or not art is a commodity.

As with other differences between Holly and the narrator, the characters’ attitudes towards art appear, by the end of the novella, to be less distinct. The narrator begins selling his fiction successfully. Holly, now symbolized by the African carving of her head, comes to represent a less commodified definition of art: the carver refuses to sell the carving to Yunioshi, even when he is offered a large amount of much needed goods and money. The carving is a personal expression of the artist’s affection for Holly. Despite a lifetime of selling herself to the highest bidder, Holly’s final image is not for sale.

Information and storytelling

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is less a story about Holly Golightly and more a novella about telling stories about Holly. Capote articulates this focus on both structural and thematic levels. Holly is introduced to the reader through four layered narratives: the African’s story, which he tells to Yunioshi, Yunioshi’s story, which he tells to Joe Bell, Joe’s story, which he tells to the narrator, and the narrator’s story, which he relates to the reader. The introduction foreshadows the emphasis on storytelling and information maintained throughout the novella.

Throughout Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the narrator’s information about Holly comes from three sources: his observations of Holly, the stories she tells him, and the stories that others tell him about her. Often, the stories about Holly are at odds with each other or with his own observations, as when Holly’s own tale of her happy childhood conflicts with Berman’s account of her as a teenage runaway. That no "official" narrative of Holly exists exemplifies how, within the world of the novella, story-telling is distinguished from true, or objective information. Berman, Doc, and Jose all have different investments in Holly, and their stories function to communicate their own attitudes towards Holly rather than identify truth. The lengthy quotes from newspaper reports on Holly’s arrest, which contain numerous exaggerations and errors, cast a similarly skeptical light on the seemingly objective information in the press. Perhaps, the novella suggests, there is no such thing as pure objectivity, and even information is a form of story-telling subject to distortion and personal bias.

In contrast to such narratives, the narrator writes stories that are largely descriptive: "not the kinds of stories you can tell". Aware that stories are inherently subjective, revealing more about the teller than the object of the tale, the intensely private narrator refrains from the kind of storytelling that the other characters appear to indulge in regularly. However, the narrative of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is presented as the narrator’s written recollections of his friendship with Holly. In light of the critical treatment of narrative throughout the novella, the reader is implicitly encouraged to treat the narrator’s own words with similar skepticism. Rather, the reader is compelled to read Breakfast at Tiffany’s not as a story about Holly, but as a story about the narrator and his investment in their friendship.

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