Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a novella, published in 1958 on the brink of the sexual revolution and it perches on the edge of this to present its central protagonist, Holly Golightly, in an overtly sexual light, despite being set in the 1940s. It is set in New York – a place full of beautiful men and women, late night social scenes, culture and sex: it is the perfect backdrop to a story focused on the dynamics between men and women. In this case, the story follows the developing relationship between Golightly and the unnamed male narrator, a writer. As with all relationships, she begins to reveal more about herself and the narrator becomes increasingly captivated by her. However, Golightly’s independence is undercut by her insecurity, as characterised by the reality of the sexual revolution: “The new sexual freedom of the 1960s did not man men and women more secure about what it meant to be masculine or feminine.” (Davidson & Lytle 453) Its focus on its characters’ sexuality marked a time in history where sex was becoming more publically acknowledged which echoes Capote’s transition between his more ostentatious earlier works and his future non-fiction work, In Cold Blood. In that sense, this novella is a celebrated work focusing on transition in history (the end of World War II, to be specific), the shift in sexual politics that took place in the next decade or so, and the author’s writing style too. The purpose of this essay is to discuss the presentation of sexuality in Breakfast at Tiffany’s with an emphasis placed on the character of Holly Golightly and her symbolic representation of how sexuality became increasingly socially relevant.
Our first encounter with Holly is a sexual one: she is being escorted home by an ugly-sounding man, Sid Arbuck. He is described as being “short and vast, sunlamped and pomaded, a man in a buttressed pin-stripe suit with a red carnation withering in the lapel.” (Capote 8). As readers, we are instantly drawn into wondering why this woman, who has so easily attracted the narrator’s attention, would be interested in such a hideous-sounding man. The narrator elaborates their situation by describing how Sid’s “plump hands” were “clutched at her hips”, and how his “thick lips were nuzzling at the nape of her neck” (Capote 8). However, Holly is distinctly disinterested and is more focused on finding her keys; her disinterest is compounded by her incorrectly calling him ‘Harry’ whilst closing the door in his face. The suggestion here is that Holly has led Sid on to think that she may be sexually interested in him, allowing him to pay for her and her friends’ lunch. After Sid realises he’s been played by her, she leaves him with the parting shot: “The next time a girl wants a little powder room change… take my advice, darling: don’t give her twenty-cents.” (Capote 9). This exchange, as witnessed by the Narrator, instantly presents the reader with the image of a woman who is utilising her feminine wiles and sexuality to gain the best of life without having to pay for it. This is further confirmed by the Narrator’s added comment that he once saw her in a bar, at a “superior table, surrounded by men, none of them Mr Arbuck” looking distinctly bored: this is a woman who views men solely as resources.
As the Narrator begins to acquaint himself with Holly, the reader learns that she is from Texas and has left to escape the love of Doc Golightly whom she loves in return but “cannot stay with because she cannot compromise her independence and individuality” (Kristovic & Romarito 3). This serves to further confirm the reader’s belief that she views men as tools to be used, rather than as her equal – regardless of her feelings for them. This presents Holly Golightly in an extremely selfish light; she and her needs come first over everything, even her own love for another man. Arguably, Holly could also be viewed as being quite immature in this sense; she has run away from a man with whom she shares a mutual love because she cannot stand to be dependent and yet, her entire existence is dependent upon her sexuality and the influence she holds over men - her independence is something of a contradiction in terms, in this sense. This is, ultimately, characterised by her eventual loneliness and confusion about the world and her role within it. Arguably, if you play a character for too long, you will lose sight of who you really are: Holly Golightly is a young woman who was born in Texas, a country and farm-driven place, and has moved to the sprawling, cosmopolitan metropolis of New York: she is a fish out of water, attempting to walk but ultimately she is left gasping for breath on the side walk.
One evening, the Narrator is with Holly in her apartment, accompanied by another man known as Rusty and a number of other men, when a friend of Holly’s “entered like a wind-rush” and promptly declares Holly to be a “miserable h-h-hoarder” for “Hogging all these simply r-r-riveting m-m-men!” (Capote 28-29) The immediate implication of this is that this woman is well aware of what Holly is doing: entertaining these men whilst they are running around, completing odd-job tasks for her. The Narrator seems to maintain an air of detachment whilst observing such scenes – he attempts to present himself as being disinterested by Holly as anything other than a friend, and makes comments about the reactions of other characters whilst the subtext suggests that he is unconsciously reacting too: “She was well over six feet, taller than most men there. They straightened their spines, sucked in their stomachs; there was a general contest to match her swaying height.” (Capote 30) This simple observation highlights the effect of Holly and her friend on these men: they are presented as simple creatures that think only with their genitalia and are easily manipulated by women. The character of Holly Golightly can be viewed in one of two ways: as a prostitute or as an early feminist idol – either way, she is a master manipulator who prefers to use men instead of being used by them.
However, regardless of individual perceptions of the character, Holly Golightly introduced women to the idea of questioning what is acceptable feminine behaviour: “[she] questioned the Lacanian idea that ‘woman is a symptom of man’” (McPhee) and as a result, she helped to redefine ‘womanhood’ for a whole generation of women through her extraverted sexuality. Holly is presented as being a multi-faceted young woman with layer upon layer of added complications to her personality. She represents womanhood in its fullest sense: women must learn to be all things to all people. This message is even more pertinent today when women are expected to juggle a career and a family whilst maintaining her independence. Peter Krämer comments, “In this long drawn-out process of making and re-making Holly Golightly, there are many points at which a struggle over her personality takes place” (Krämer 60) and this greatly reflects the sexual identity of many young women and it is an on-going conflict theme which runs throughout the feminine identity.
Many people perceive Holly’s behaviour as being immoral. In fact, upon completing the novel, its intended publisher, Harper’s Bazaar, refused to print it due to its “explicit sexual references” and the “heroine’s immorality.” (Krämer 61). Upon its initial publication in 1958, the majority of the public would have held this perception of her behaviour, and its feminist readings would come a bit later. However, as a modern day reader, it is difficult not to admire Holly’s ability to use her sexuality at will to induce an influx of gifts, lunches and adventures in return for her company. We are not led to believe that she is paid for sex, but rather that she is paid for her company: for many men, the perception of being with such a woman is enough to create the illusion of their own self-importance and power; Holly Golightly merely exploits the vanity of certain men. This is demonstrated through the initial description of Sid Arbuck: a ridiculous man who is full of himself and gives the impression of being well to-do, but is easily subjugated by Holly and her sexuality. Whereas the Narrator although clearly infatuated with Holly, doesn’t allow her to manipulate him and instead fosters a genuine friendship.
The character of Holly Golightly is presented to the reader as being a clever, independent young woman who sacrifices true love to maintain her principles. However, upon closer examination, it is obvious that she uses her sexuality to create an identity for herself which allows her to keep people at arm’s length. The Narrator, not swayed by her sexual aura, begins to strip away the layers of her personality and upon creating his own literary presentation of her, demonstrates her to be as scared and vulnerable as most young women. This is proven by her reaction to the return of her estranged husband, Doc Golightly: “Holly touched his face, testing the reality of his chin, his beard stubble… ‘Hello Doc’, she repeated happily” (Capote 52). Her evident relief and joy at their reunion suggests that she is as uncertain of what she wants as any other young woman. The presentation of Holly’s sexuality is clear: it is a tool which she uses to survive and maintain her anonymity and mystique. The sexual, man-luring Holly we are initially presented with is not the real woman and the Narrator gradually presents us with a comprehensive portrait of a young woman who is simply trying to survive.
Capote, Truman. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. New York: Random House, 1958.
Davidson, James West and Lytle, Mark H. After the fact: the art of historical detection, Volume 1. Michigan: McGraw-Hill, 2004.
Krämer, Peter. “The Many Faces of Holly Golightly: Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Hollywood.” Film Studies. Winter.5 (2004): 58-65. Web.
Krstovic, Jelena and Romarito, Jessica. Short Story Criticism: Excerpts from Criticism of the Works of Short Fiction Writers. California: Cengage Learning, 2006.
The Bombshell [Jenny McPhee]. “Re: Holly Golightly Needs A New Dress.” Bookslut. Bookslut. January 2011. Web. 14 May 2011.