Breakfast at Tiffany's

Breakfast at Tiffany's Themes

Stability vs. Freedom

The psychological struggle between the need for stability and the desire for freedom is perhaps the central concern of Breakfast at Tiffany's. The conflict structures the relationship between the narrator and Holly, who are opposing forces. While the narrator is happy to have his first home, Holly is consumed by her need to constantly escape from places, people and things. Even Holly's identity is in a constant state of flux. Holly assumes the name "Holiday Golightly", which encapsulates her strategy of avoiding stability by making a holiday out of life, and abandoning relationships and responsibilities when they threaten to jeopardize her freedom. For Holly, the distinction between stability and freedom is articulated by two of the novella's major symbols: animals (including Holly's cat) and Tiffany's (in which Holly feels properly "at home"). Holly despises the caging of animals, and refuses to name her cat. As a "wild thing", she feels he doesn't "belong" to her. Her fantasy that one day she will have, "breakfast at Tiffany's," an absurdity since Tiffany's does not serve food, indicates her choice to avoid stability by casting it in the unattainable ideals of fantasy.

By casting the two main characters on opposite sides of the stability/freedom divide, Capote suggests that each has something to learn from the other. The mutual influence of the two friends is demonstrated by their Christmas gift exchange, in which Holly gives the narrator a bird cage and the narrator gives her a medal of St. Christopher. Each gift illustrates a median between stability and freedom: Holly's gift is a cage, but it will never imprison a bird, and the narrator's gift is a medal of the patron saint of travel, but it comes from Tiffany's, Holly's personal symbol of home. By the conclusion of Breakfast at Tiffany's, it is clear that this influence has, at least in part, been realized: Holly confesses her sense of "belonging" with her cat, and the narrator reveals that, since the conclusion of their friendship, he has enjoyed lengthy trips around the world.

While Holly and the narrator represent different psychological impulses toward stability and freedom, Breakfast at Tiffany's suggests that both characters' pathologies stem from the sense of social exclusion common to people whose lifestyles do not conform to American convention. Indeed, both characters are consumed with a sense that they do not belong or are not "at home" in the larger world. The narrator feels a constant outsider, his nose pressed against a glass, and Holly is convinced that she is a "wild thing", unsuited to a proper place in society. Thus, Holly and the narrator are similar insofar as for both of them, "home" has become a charged object of fantasy and longing.

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.


Many of the important events in Breakfast at Tiffany's occur on or around Christmas Day. The discovery of the African carving that resembles Holly and provokes the narrator to relate his story occurs on Christmas Day, 1956. On Christmas Eve, 1943, Holly and the narrator exchange gifts that confirm the strength of their friendship and symbolically articulate each character's desire for both stability and freedom - he gives her a St. Christopher's medal, and she gives him a birdcage. Finally, Sally Tomato dies in Sing Sing on Christmas Day, 1944, thus releasing Holly from her last pressing ties to New York City.

The motif of Christmas appears to be most linked to Holly, as her two pseudonyms - Holiday and Holly - are references to the "holy day" and the traditional plant of Christmas, respectively. Within the Christian tradition, Christmas is a symbol of rebirth, as the birth of the Messiah enabled His followers to be "born again" through His teachings and the ritual of baptism. Moreover, Christmas heralds the beginning of the Western New Year, a time which many feel holds the possibility of new beginnings. Holly's narrative presents her as "re-born" into different personae and attitudes at several key points that correspond to Christmas. The gift exchange (1943) confirms her presence in the narrator's life, Sally's death (1944) severs her connection to New York and thus the narrator, and the discovery of the carving (1956) marks Holly's final transformation into an art object that inspires the narrator's own art: the written narrative that is Breakfast at Tiffany's.

The Diversity of Love

At the heart of Breakfast at Tiffany's is an exploration of the diverse kinds of love that define, enrich, and at times destroy adult relationships. In contrast to dominant social and literary representations of love, Capote's novella explores the validity and power of asexual relationships, often depicting such arrangements as more fulfilling than their romantic counterparts. What makes this distinction particularly interesting is that Capote suggests non-romantic relationships are not superior because they lack sex, but because they are not based on need or desire. Breakfast at Tiffany's juxtaposes love and desire, drawing a sharp contrast between Holly's relationships governed by desire, and her relationships free from it. Her arrangements with Rusty Trawler, Jose, Mag, and Berman appear quite different, but all are based on need. Jose desires Holly sexually, Rusty needs Holly to fulfill his quasi-sexual infantile complex, Mag desires to share Holly's social contacts and apartment, and Berman seeks to profit from Holly's potential as an actress. Conversely, Holly desires what these people can offer her in return, be it money, professional contacts, or merely help around her apartment. While such relationships appear solid, all crumble, more or less, when Holly is incarcerated and no longer able to fulfill her companions' desires.

In contrast to Rusty, Jose, Mag, and Berman, the narrator and Joe Bell, both implied homosexuals, do not desire Holly sexually. Moreover, both are poor and unconnected to the New York elite. Consequently, Holly has nothing to gain from her association with them. Their friendships are based on sincere mutual affection, which Capote suggests is stronger than sexual or social desire. Accordingly, Joe and the narrator are Holly's only two friends to offer her unqualified support during her arrest, and even help her escape, endangering their own reputations and safety. Demonstrating the sincerity of the bond between a straight woman and two gay men, Breakfast at Tiffany's implicitly questions the narrow definition of love as heterosexual romance that is as dominant now as it was in 1950s America.

Nature vs. Culture

Through the character of Holly Golightly, Breakfast at Tiffany's explores one of the major themes of Western literature: the opposition of nature and culture. Holly identifies with nature - wild, untamed, and unknowable - over the structured, convention-bound world of human culture. Animals, both wild and domestic, symbolize Holly's rejection of social convention. As the child bride of Doc Golightly, her freedom from marriage is paralleled by her releasing her tamed pet crow. As a New York socialite, her self-sufficiency is embodied in her unnamed cat, a stray who Holly calls "an independent". The cage, a symbol of the human imprisonment of nature, remains an object of anxiety for Holly throughout the novel, and she refuses to even look at animals in the zoo.

While Holly considers herself a "wild thing", inherently unsuited to the rules that govern human culture, it appears that this is, at least in part, a facade. Holly is more than willing to be domesticated when she is offered the right price, and settles down more or less happily with the wealthy Jose. Her reliance on fine things and entertainment, and her worship of Tiffany's, a near-universal symbol of New York capitalist excess, indicates that Holly's appetites are not those of an animal, but a woman remarkably invested in the products of American culture. This ambivalence is suggested by another recurring animal motif: horses.

The horse is a long-established figure for human control over nature and animal instinct; for Holly, horses appear to represent her control over men. Her first boyfriend after running away from Doc is a horse jockey, she keeps volumes of books about horses on her bookshelf as "research" for her involvements with male suitors, and she fantasizes about running off to Mexico, where she plans to train horses with her brother Fred. She marks the end of her friendship with the narrator with a horseback ride, in which she demonstrates her skill as a rider. In each case, Holly has emotional or sexual control over the male character in the episode. When the narrator's bolts and runs away wildly, it prefigures Holly's loss of Jose when she is arrested later that day. While Holly associates herself with nature and the "wild things" she identifies with, the novella presents Holly in a more complex relationship with the natural world. In her relationships with men, she acts the part of both wild animal and trainer, achieving emotional and sexual control over her male admirers while evading responsibility and commitment.

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.