Breakfast at Tiffanys
How Truman Capote Captures the Zeitgeist of America in the 1950s and 1960s
Yoko Ono once described the 1960’s as an era of release from the conventional bonds of society. To understand fully the rejection of society in the 1960’s, one must also evaluate society of the 1950’s. Truman Capote not only captures the essence of the 1960’s rejection of society in his novels Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood; he highlights the positive and negative aspects of 50’s and 60’s culture. In doing so, he provides readers of today with a valuable insight into an era of change that encompassed politics, popular culture, and presumed “high” art such as Capote’s novels.
In an era that recalls the post World War I economic boom of the 1920’s, America enjoyed an unexpected period of prosperity after the Second World War in the 1950’. The gross national product increased by $100 million in just 10 years; as a result people below 40 on average tended to spend more and save less. A de facto pent up consumer demand stimulated capital in big businesses, and high wages along with low unemployment rates allowed for a large middle class to grow. This thriving capitalist economy lent itself well to the average family, as William Levitt’s suburban neighborhoods grew, and families moved into homes with low mortgages and job opportunities only a train ride away . Veterans benefitted from the G.I. bill, which built 11 of the 13 million houses built in the 50’s, and employed thousands of veterans. The suburban family became standard, as one in five families moved to a suburban neighborhood. and many pursued a materialistic buying fervor. American author Vance Packard wrote in his bestseller, The Hidden Persuaders, “The cosmetic manufacturers are not selling lanolin, they are selling homes..we no longer buy oranges, we buy vitality. We no longer buy an auto, we buy prestige.” Americans believed that through purchasing goods, they might become more attractive, well rounded, intelligent, and so forth. Manufacturers simply marketed goods to an internal market. Americans could not get enough of American produced cars, televisions,food, beauty products, and other goods that they believed would benefit them. Along with growing materialism, this type of advertising also created an era of conservative ideals. The amount of families with television sets grew from 20% to 90% during the 1950’s, and television shows such as the Dick Van Dyke Show portrayed idealized versions of society that created a uniform culture throughout America. Popular television shows depicted “ideal” suburban families; mothers were housewives and children were obedient and respectful. Women were urged to stop working and become an ideal housewife;Women’s rights advocate described the suburbs as “burying women alive” in her book The Feminine Mystique. Dissatisfaction in women’s roles in families and suburban conformity in general led to the rebellious nature of individuals in the 1960’s.
Truman Capote’s Holiday Golightly epitomizes the 1950s consumer, who chased fulfilment through unconventional means. While Holly doesn’t strive to acquire material wealth, she reflects the materialism of the 1950s in the sense that she attempted to fill fleeting relationships and voids in her life with idealistic dreams. “The average personality reshapes frequently, every few years even our bodies undergo a complete overhaul…here were two people who never would. That is what Mildred Grossman had in common with Holly Golightly. They would never change because they’d been given their character too soon…the one had splurged herself into a top-heavy realist, the other a lopsided romantic. I imagined them in a restaurant of the future, Mildred still studying the menu for its nutritional values, Holy still gluttonous for everything on it” (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, 46). Holly replaces her deceased parents by marrying the man who took care of her, Doc Golightly: “You never saw a more pitiful something,” Doc describes “Ribs sticking out everywhere…Story was: their mother died of the TB, and their papa done the same…She didn’t have to lift a finger, ‘cept to eat a piece of pie” (Tiffany’s, 55). After her parents died, she ran off and found Doc, who gave her the care she lacked. Old enough to be her father, Doc acts as a parental figure in cooking and caring for her. Holly also asks the narrator if he minded that she called him Fred- the name of her brother who is away serving in the army (Tiffany’s,15). Rather than creating new relationships with Doc or the narrator, she simply fills old roles in her life. Holly advised “never love a wild thing…If you let yourself love a wild thing. You’ll end up looking at the sky (Tiffany’s, 59). It is evident that she fearful of losing loved ones, so instead she boxes people in her life into a role. When asked if she really loved Rusty, she responded “you can make yourself love anybody” (Tiffany’s, 33). Her unsatisfiable appetite for fulfillment through alternate methods reflects the 1950s tendency reach happiness through unconventional means. Furthermore, In Cold Blood embodies the benefits of a seemingly ideal conservative family. Although Alvin Dewey’s wife, Marie, holds a menial job as a secretary, she makes sure every day to have coffee and dinner ready when her tired husband returns from work. When the reader hears Marie talk, it’s either to ask how Alvin is, or tell him how she is feeling scared after the Murders. She maintains freedom through a job, but Alvin Dewey returns home knowing his wife’s first priority caring for her family, as dinner is always ready to go.
The Dewey family, much like the wholesome Clutter family held a strong morally pure standard through religion; “A belief in God and the rituals surrounding that belief-Church every sunday, grace before meals, prayers before bed-were an important part of the Deweys’ existence. ‘I don’t see how anyone can sit down to table without wanting to bless it,’ Mrs Dewey once said” (In Cold Blood, 105). However, unlike the Deweys, Bonnie Clutter is sickly, and fails as her duty as a housewife, leaving her feeling useless and depressed. “Yet to this day she regretted not having completed the course and received her diploma—’just to prove’—as she had told a friend, ‘that I once succeeded at something.’ Instead, she had met and married Herb’” (In Cold Blood, 29). Bonnie is unable to feel pride in herself because she is unable to achieve on her own. Insead, she fulfills her female destiny and becomes a wife. However, Bonnie isn’t able to cook or care for Herb, a “defect” that makes her feel useless. Bonnie hides in the shadow of her husband, a “‘joiner,’ a ‘born leader’ (In Cold Blood, 27). “On the advice of a doctor, who had thought the experience would aid her to regain ‘a sense of adequacy and usefulness,’ [Bonnie] had taken a job as a file clerk at the Y.W.C.A. Her husband, entirely sympathetic, had encouraged the adventure, but she liked it too well, so much that it seemed to her unchristian, and the sense of guilt she in consequence developed ultimately outweighed the experiment’s therapeutic value” (In Cold Blood, 28). Striving to achieve self-fulfilment has the opposite effects on Bonnie, as she is unable to feel content because she has no role. She is neither a self-sufficient woman, nor a successful housewife. Bonnie avoids attempting to be the housewife she isn’t able to be in fear of “made a mistake…What if Herb should be displeased?” (In Cold Blood, 28). She lacks confidence and is often depressed because she knows she will never be happy, but more importantly, she can’t be the perfect housewife to make her husband happy.
While Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood reflect qualities of the 1950’s, they more prominently reject conformist society, a trait that is popular in the 1960’s. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, published in 1958, and In Cold Blood, published in 1965, captured the zeitgeist of the 1960’s more than the 1950’s. While on the surface, both main characters, and both books as a whole spoke to the materialism of the 1950’s, the true essence of the books are the rejection of society a la 1960’s America. Postwar births flourished, creating a generation of people, appropriately called “ baby boomers”. This group of 76 million individuals were teenagers during the 1960’s, and after growing up in such a prosperous era, they grew up to be a generally idealistic group. As trust in the establishment- government, money, adults, and authority- declined, youths focused on rejecting, rather than merely abandoning the status quo of society. This rebellion against moral tradition was called counter culture, and spontaneity, along with a lack of inhibitions became important virtues to counter culture. Popular mottos such as “If it feels good, do it” and songs lyrics like “Do It ’Til You’re Satisfied (Whatever it Is)” sung by BT Express asserted the notion that individuals should act upon instinctual desires first, and think through consequences second. Freedom in the 1960’s exploded, as individuals were encouraged to shed their psychological restraints. With this freedom came the deterioration of society’s regard for both social norms and laws. The drugs that were so popular with counter culture baby boomers, such as LSD and marijuana, were psychedelics that allowed one to escape the binds of the world. Counter culture baby boomers believed that by using drugs, they were altering society by blurring the moral line between right and wrong. Adults targeted drugs as the gateway to social and moral deterioration of the United States, but drugs were just a means of expressing counter culture, the true source of this “deterioration.” LSD was just one of many illegal routes to counter culture in the 60’s. These individuals who felt distrust in the government harbored no guilt in breaking the law, and crime rates increased by over 450,000 cases. Although hippie culture was founded on the virtues of peace and love, Counter culture encouraged a disregard for rules. Pop culture glamorized violence, which led into an indulgence of crime. The Who famously destroyed their instruments on stage at the end of every concert, which would seem innocent, if it weren’t for the drummer Keith Moon, who also destroyed hotel rooms, and guitarist Pete Townshend, who beat up his wife, girlfriend, and daughter, and threatened to do the same to the keyboardist of the Faces for dating his ex-wife. This single example doesn’t explain why crime so drastically increased, but it certainly sheds light on how violent behavior in pop culture can quickly transition to violent crime. Pete Townshend eventually hit his body guard with his car, killing him, before overdosing on drugs. Because of the financially secure status of a large amount of Americans, television sets, radios, and concert tickets were easily obtained, and this toxic behavior was seen by many.The Grateful Dead, a rock band known for their use of hallucinogens on stage, gained fame for their support of counter culture in drug use and rejection of materialism through song lyrics. However, this drug use led to their demise, as 4 band members died, 3 of which as a result of substance abuse; the lead singer, Jerry Garcia overdosed and slipped into a coma in 1986 after leaving rehabilitation only a year earlier, then dying in 1995 after numerous overdoses. While the 1960’s counterculture was a response to the ills of the 1950’s, both had their obvious drawbacks.
Capote explores these pros and cons of counter culture ideas in his novels. Holly Golightly became a heroine for readers of the 1960’s; although she would be regarded conventionally as immoral, she displays positive qualities. To readers, Holly is the epitome of liberal mindset toward women in the 1960’s, in regards to both sexuality and their role in society. Truman Capote revealed to Playboy Magazine that Holly was a symbol of America’s modern female; she was idolized, despite her flaws, because she was multi-dimensional. A seemingly shallow party girl, Holly has men literally breaking down her door. Her main means of income are less than moral: she survives on “trips to the powder room,” or prostitution (“‘The next time a girl wants a little powder-room change…take my advice, darling: don’t giver her twenty cents’” (Tiffany’s, 12)), and visits to her admirer Sally Tomato in jail. Holly plans to marry Rusty for his money, and she steals Mag’s fiancée, José. However, these flaws only reinstates the idea that a modern woman is entitled to this immoral behavior just as much as a man. She tells the narrator “I don’t mean I’d mind being rich and famous. That’s very much on my schedule…but if it happens, I’d like to have my ego tagging along. I still want to be me when I wake up” (Tiffany’s, 31). This self-sufficient liberation that Holly enjoys reflects the counterculture ideal of reflection from life as a housewife, but also encourages the reader to think like a counter culture individual himself. Endearing statements such as this one, and heartwarming stories of how Holly loses her brother in the war bring dimension to Holly’s character, which allows the reader to avoid judging Holly for her flaws.
Similarly, readers sympathize with murderer Perry especially, through detailed description of his background and psyche, which brings a personal connections with one of the men who committed heinous murderers. Perry was exposed to hunger, racism, violence between his parents, and adultery growing up. Growing up, he often got in trouble, blaming this on having “no rule or discipline, or anyone to show me right from wrong” (In Cold Blood, 274). Perry regards himself as an intellectual, “You think I like myself? Oh, the man I could have been! But that bastard never gave me a chance. [My father] wouldn’t let me go to school. O.K. O.K. I was a bad kid. But the time came I begged to go to school. I happen to have a brilliant mind. In case you don’t know. A brilliant mind and talent plus. But no education, because he didn’t want me to learn anything, only how to tote and carry for him. Dumb. Ignorant. That’s the way he wanted me to be… Every damn one of you got an education. Everybody but me. And I hate you, all of you—Dad and everybody” (In Cold Blood, 185) he harbors resentment towards his upbringing, and the reader sees how his lashing out and tendencies towards violence are the product of neglect. Still, Perry brutally murdered four people, and considered killing more; after learning the truck driver he plans to kill has five kids he simply thinks to himself “ too bad”. Perry’s sister doesn’t fall for the facade, claiming “He can seem so warmhearted and sympathetic. Gentle. He cries so easily. Sometimes music sets him off, and when he was a little boy he used to cry because he thought the sunset was so beautiful. Or the moon. Oh, he can fool you. He can make you feel so sorry for him (In Cold Blood,182)” Yes, he has extremely violent tendencies, but Perry is psychologically damaged. In some aspects, he is not to blame for his actions, and the reader feels sympathy for the misunderstood murder.
Capote became very close friends with Perry in particular, and after both Dick and Perry’s deaths, he claimed “If [Dick] had been given $10,000, perhaps he might have settled into some small business. But I don’t think so. He had a very natural criminal instinct towards everything. He was oriented towards stealing from the beginning. On the other hand, I think Perry could have been an entirely different person. I really do. His life had been so incredibly abysmal that I don’t see what chance he had as a little child except to steal and run wild. Of course, you could say that his brother, with exactly the same background, went ahead and became the head of his class. What does it matter that he later killed himself. No, it’s there–it’s the fact that the brother did kill himself, in spite of his success, that shows how really awry the background of the Smiths’ lives were. Terrifying. Perry had extraordinary qualities, but they just weren’t channeled properly to put it mildly. He was a really a talented boy in a limited way–he had genuine sensitivity–and, as I’ve said, when he talked about himself as an artist, he wasn’t really joking at all” (Plimpton). The liberated mindset of readers allowed for Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood’s success; despite moral character flaws in main characters Holly and Perry, readers find themselves looking past the taboo actions of a prostitute and murderers. Capote revealed again to George Plimpton from The New York Times “I’ve been staggered by the letters I’ve received…The letters are not fan letters. They’re from people deeply concerned about what it is I’ve written about…It has struck them because there is something so awfully inevitable about what is going to happen: the people in the book are completely beyond their own control. For example, Perry wasn’t an evil person. If he’d had any chance in life, things would have been different. But every illusion he’d ever had, well, they all evaporated, so that on that night he was so full of self-hatred and self-pity that I think he would have killed somebody.” Despite the conventional negative traits and actions they exhibit, Capote’s characters are regarded with sympathy by readers. William Goyen praises in a New York Times book review of Breakfast at Tiffany’s “the notable Capote talent for catching the off-beat nature of people,” (Goyen), revealing how the realistic highs and lows in his characters create a bond with readers.
Truman Capote’s work in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood are completely different styles of writing; one a novel, the other a journalistic “nonfiction novel,” according to Capote. However, the two share a mutual critical and complimentary analyzation of both conservatism in the 50’s and counterculture in the 60’s. Breakfast at Tiffany’s and In Cold Blood capture the essence of the 1960’s in the sense that they both create a paradox of 1950’s and 1960’s culture, a trait that in itself captures the freed nature of the 1960’s.
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Breakfast at Tiffany’s: A Revolutionary Romantic Comedy
“I’ll tell you one thing, Fred, darling. I’d marry you for your money in a minute. Would you marry me for my money?” Holly Golightly (played by the delightful Audrey Hepburn) drawls to Paul Varjack (George Peppard) as they banter in the tiny kitchen of her minuscule brownstone in downtown New York City. Given Varjack’s affirmative answer, she jokes back, saying, “I guess it’s pretty lucky neither of us is rich, huh?” From this and a multitude of other exchanges throughout the film, it is easy to see that one activity consumes and controls the lives of both of these lower class main characters: the pursuit of wealth. Golightly and Varjack each earn their money through similar means: Golightly is a call girl who caters specifically to wealthy, upper-class men and Varjack is “kept” by an affluent, upper-class woman. By creating charming and likable characters who are forced to literally turn their bodies into commodities in order to gain capital, the film highlights the negative effects of capitalism on the lower classes. Additionally, the women featured in the film are arguably far more empowered than the majority of their contemporaries. Thus, while disguised as a harmless, playful romantic comedy, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is actually a quite revolutionary film from both Marxist and feminist perspectives.
The film, originally released in 1961, may come across as dated today—especially given the extremely misguided and racist portrayal of Golightly and Varjack’s landlord, Mr. I. Y. Yunioshi, by none other than Mickey Rooney. However, it is essential to understand how subversive the content was at the time of the film’s initial release. In Sam Wasson’s novel Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman, he notes that, during pre-production, “censors…rail[ed] against the script” (Wasson xvii). The screenwriter, George Axelrod, managed to evade censorship by only subtly suggesting that Golightly is a sex worker. For example, after confronting Varjack about his “patron” leaving $300 on his writing desk, Golightly empathetically says that she “understands completely” his situation. Still, many viewers perceived the film in a negative light. In a letter to the Hollywood Citizen-News, concerned citizen Irving A. Mandell declared that Breakfast at Tiffany’s was “the worst [film] of the year from a moral standpoint” for showing “a prostitute throwing herself at a kept man,” among other objections (Wasson 185).
Aside from chronicling the lives of sex workers in New York City, the film features several other potentially contentious scenarios. The mixing of social classes depicted in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is in some ways unprecedented. Not only do Golightly and Varjack interact with individuals who rank far above them on the social scale on a purely transactional basis, but on an interpersonal level, as well. The party scene that occurs relatively early in the film is an excellent example of this. Golightly invites Varjack over for a drink, but when he knocks on her door, he is greeted by the charismatic O. J. Berman, a Hollywood agent who credits himself with Golightly’s transformation from a “hillbilly” into an exceedingly stylish young woman. Berman is markedly upper-class; he is pictured later in the film at his home in LA with his newfangled “executive phone” and remote-controlled bed. “Can you believe this place?” he flippantly remarks to Varjack about Golightly’s apartment. “What a dump.” Nevertheless, he is still one of Golightly’s numerous well-to-do friends and acquaintances. Other notable upper-class characters at the party include Jose de Silva Pereira, a Brazilian millionaire, and Rutherford “Rusty” Trawler, who is the “ninth richest man in America under 50,” according to Golightly.
As the party progresses and its guests become more and more inebriated, it is harder to differentiate who belongs to which class. The guests become raucous and uncouth, instantly disproving the stereotype that only members of the lower class behave in such an uncivilized manner. A well-dressed couple argues with each other loudly, an older woman laughs and then cries hysterically at her reflection in the mirror, an intoxicated woman jumps on men’s backs shouting “Yippee!,” and men in expensive suits clamor in the kitchen to guzzle hard liquor straight from the bottle. Even the alcohol delivery man, who is clearly a member of the working class, is invited to join in the festivities and freely dances with several women whose elaborate, jewel-toned silk dresses presumably cost far more than his monthly earnings. Later, as the police arrive due to Mr. Yunioshi’s inevitable noise complaint, Varjack and the worried de Silva Pereira manage to escape through the bathroom window together—one man a millionaire and presidential hopeful, the other a broke writer, now united by their mutual friendship with Golightly and the sudden need to flee the party.
One could simply write off this scene as a fantasy; the film is a work of fiction, after all. Or, one might mention the well-known quote from Queen Victoria: “Beware of artists, they mix with all classes of society and are therefore the most dangerous.” But while Varjack is indeed an artist and does seem to fraternize with those both above and below him in social class, he is not the only one in this scene who does so. Thus, the more analytical eye views this segment of the film as a subversion of the commonly held societal values that effectively separate people of different classes and enforce the idea that wealthy people are somehow better than those with lower incomes. The message contained within this lively and humorous party scene is this: people possessing vastly different levels of wealth can, in fact, relate to each other and quite often do.
Another key element in a Marxist interpretation of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is the alienation experienced by both of the main characters, Golightly and Varjack. Marx’s complex theory of alienation can be simply understood as people’s estrangement from their “species-essence” (in other words, human nature and the world around them) as a result of their wage-labor and the separations caused by class distinctions. While class differences are somewhat blurred in the film, as described in the example above, there is no doubt that they still exist. And while Golightly and Varjack’s form of employment may not explicitly classify as wage labor, it is quite similar—if not worse, because it involves the commodification of their own bodies, rather than just their labor power. Perhaps, too, there is some sort of set wage involved; according to Golightly, “any gentleman with the slightest chic gives a girl $50 for the powder room.” Either way, the sense of alienation that surrounds each character can be viewed as direct result of their labor practice.
Golightly’s alienation is overwhelmingly apparent: near the end of the film, she audibly admits to this feeling, exclaiming, “I’m not Holly. I’m not Lula Mae, either. I don’t know who I am! I’m like cat here, a couple of no-name slobs. We belong to nobody and nobody belongs to us. We don’t even belong to each other.” Here, her sense of isolation from humanity is so great that she must relate to an animal rather to Varjack, or to any other human being. The alienation that Varjack experiences is somewhat less blatant. While Golightly seems to lack the capacity to experience love for another individual, Varjack boldly admits to his love for her on more than one occasion throughout the film. One could assume that he simply does not experience the same levels of alienation as Golightly does due to the fact that she has been in the “business” for longer than him, but the film itself provides no evidence to support that claim. Instead, Varjack’s alienation is manifested in other, perhaps less discernable ways—for example, through his disconnect from writing, which was once his passion. The first time Golightly visits his apartment, she notices his typewriter and inquires if he writes every day. He answers that yes, he does, but Golightly slickly points out that though “it’s a beautiful typewriter…there’s no ribbon in it.”
The film strikes a chord of hope, and of anti-capitalism, by allowing both Golightly and Varjack to dispose of some or all of their alienation. The only way of doing so, of course, is to remove oneself from wage labor, which Varjack essentially does when he tells his Mrs. Failenson—his wealthy lover, played by Patricia Neal—to “find a new writer to help.” He then begins to earn his income by selling the short stories that he writes. This means of acquiring wealth is obviously far less dehumanizing than his previous method. It is also critical to note that it is only after quitting his (for all intents and purposes) wage job that Varjack tells Golightly he loves her. This chronology suggests that he is only able to connect with his true emotions after the once-enveloping sense of alienation has finally lifted. From this perspective, it makes sense why Golightly is initially so unresponsive to his declaration of love for her—she is unable to return these feelings because she is still embroiled in the hellish capitalist nightmare from which he has already escaped.
Unfortunately for Golightly, stepping out of the labor force is not quite as simple for her as it is for Varjack. Her brother, Fred, whom she describes as “sweet and vague and terribly slow” is in the US Army, and she is forever trying to save up enough money so that he can come live with her. Even after Fred’s death renders this struggle obsolete, Golightly still lacks the skills and education to successfully establish herself in any field other than the one she is already involved in. Only at the film’s grand finale does it seem that she is finally leaving wage labor, or at least sex work, behind, as she chooses Varjack’s love over the wealth of all her previous suitors.
Some feminist analyses argue that this ultimate pairing somehow renders the film antithetical to feminist ideals. In an essay entitled “We Belong to Nobody: Representations of the Feminine in Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Margaret Fox argues that, although throughout the film Golightly “appears to be a proto-feminist character in her [progressive] lifestyle,” the ending makes her less so because she has “submit[ted] to Paul’s ownership” (Fox 13). However, this argument reads more as fallacy than fact. By choosing to enter into a romantic partnership with Varjack, who is not moneyed and therefore cannot provide for her financially, Golightly renounces the nature of her past relationships with callous, wealthy men like de Silva Pereira and Trawler. Because she relied on them for pecuniary support, they owned her more than Varjack ever could. If anything, her elopement with Varjack further contributes to Golightly’s status as a feminist icon by depicting her as a woman who stays true to her feelings and does as she pleases, rather than allowing herself to continue to be controlled by men and their money.
Feminist critics have cited Golightly’s independence, sexual freedom, and her running away from her husband in the Midwest as reasons that she is, indeed, a feminist role model. While these assertions all ring true, it seems that most of these critics chose to either ignore Golightly’s union with Varjack or condemn it, as Fox does. No one appears to be able to fathom that their coupling could, in fact, be beneficial, let alone aid in undermining the patriarchal system Golightly once found herself trapped in.
Renowned French feminist Luce Irigaray’s “Women on the Market” states that the three social roles imposed upon women in patriarchal societies are that of the “mother, virgin, [and] prostitute” (Irigaray 808). Golightly is obviously not a mother, nor is she a virgin, but for most of the film she is a sex worker. Once she pairs up with Varjack, though, the viewer can assume that she will no longer be engaging in this line of work. Hence, Golightly is neither a mother, virgin, nor a sex worker; she is a woman who constantly succeeds in subverting traditional and patriarchal ideas of femininity.
Another note of feminism in Breakfast at Tiffany’s that tends to go unnoticed is the sexual empowerment of Mrs. Failenson, Varjack’s older lover. Though Neal’s artful performance creates a cringe-worthy, snobbish character, it is important for the viewer to recognize her as more than just a villain. She is a sexually unsatisfied, married woman who consciously makes her own pleasure a priority. Though the way in which she does this may be objectionable to some, there is no denying that she is at once brave and intelligent for managing to hide this affair from her husband. And perhaps the viewer can even sympathize with her, especially during the artful scene in which she is secretly speaking to Varjack on the phone while her husband’s weathered, menacing-looking hands shakily pour a drink in the foreground.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s, widely known as a light-hearted romantic comedy and a classic film, has much more to offer than a few laughs and a happy ending. Upon closer analysis, the film possesses an inherently anti-capitalistic quality, along with two strong, independent female characters. When comparing the first and last scene of the film, the criticism of capitalism is plain to see. In the opening scene, Golightly stands alone outside of the massive Tiffany’s jewelry store on 5th Avenue in the early hours of the morning. Here, as she sips her coffee and eats her croissant, she is clearly fascinated with the capitalistic pursuit of wealth; there is no better symbol for this than the gold, diamonds, and excessive grandeur of Tiffany’s. In stark contrast to this initial scene, the final scene finds Golightly and Varjack alone in an alleyway, full of “garbage cans” and “rats galore.” However, this is the one moment in the film that they are both truly happy. Thus, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, it is only through the denial of material wealth that the two main characters finally achieve happiness—a very anti-capitalistic message, indeed.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Perf. Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard, Patricia Neal, Buddy Ebsen. Paramount Pictures, 1961. DVD.
Fox, Margaret. “We Belong to Nobody: Representations of the Feminine in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Valley Humanities Review (Spring 2011). Lebanon Valley College English Department. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.
Irigaray, Luce. “Women on the Market.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. 799-811. Print.
Wasson, Sam. Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman. New York: HarperCollins, 2010. Print.
Truman Capote: A Child’s True Nature in “Miriam”
Two people, one name: an inconspicuous, plain woman versus a poised young girl. A line is drawn between imagination and reality, but that line is blurred. In “Miriam” by Truman Capote, symbolism is incorporated to show that Mrs. Miller is living through the past in the present. A mere child is used to represent the haunting, distorted forces of human nature, and the exposure of one’s true instinct is brought out through realization and confrontation. In multiple aspects, Miriam’s distinctive character symbolizes the rising of a mental illness, schizophrenia, that leads to the destruction of Mrs. Miller’s subconscious mind.
To start, Miriam’s appearance separates her from the typical children. She has silver-white hair and dresses in a “tailored plum-velvet coat”, complementing the elegance in how she is positioned (Capote 3). Her eyes are “hazel, steady, lacking any childlike quality whatsoever”, presenting a confident, strong-willed character (Capote 7). At the same time, this demeanor also suggests a loss of purity and innocence, because experience may have withdrawn the bright gleaming that was once in her eyes. She demonstrates a large vocabulary and speaks as though she possesses the mind of an adult; this points out the unrealistic qualities of Miriam. From another standpoint, Miriam can also be a trace of the old Mrs. Miller, back when she was not alone. In the process of maturity, Mrs. Miller has to cope with withdrawal from the real world, where she is actually just punishing herself. This aspect of the story represents a “kid’s imagined revenge upon maturity” (Fielder 61). The young figure of Mrs. Miller is getting back at the past because it has been overwhelming her all this time, yet she still refrains from hallucinating. Presented here are the real signs of her schizophrenia, as related to the trouble of Miriam.
In this story, the figure of a child symbolizes the irresistible forces of evil and distortedness, as Mrs. Miller is not able to escape the grasp of the little girl. At first, Miriam arrives at Mrs. Miller’s doorstep in the middle of the night in a white silk dress (Capote 9). The timing creates a mysterious, eerie atmosphere, and her visit serves as a parallel to the arrival of darkness. Gradually, Mrs. Miller’s schizophrenic nature comes alive and she imagines that Miriam is taking over her life. The young apparition serves as a “primal alter ego to Mrs. Miller: an extension of her destructive, unconscious instinct” (Whissen 56). Although the illness has not surfaced, the woman can be seen as falling for the trap that Miriam set. Not being able to avoid Miriam or even confront her, Mrs. Miller is letting the force take over. If Mr. Miller were still around, Miriam would not have been conjured up; his absence is the main downfall to Mrs. Miller’s life. Therefore, the replacement by Miriam stands as a reminder that Mrs. Miller cannot live without human interactions.
Another unrealistic aspect of the little girl, Miriam, is her background. She makes a trip to the movie theatre alone and asks Mrs. Miller to purchase a ticket for her instead of having a parent do it. In addition, she wanders around at midnight and even makes a trip to Mrs. Miller’s house, which is not found in the address book. When she is asked, “Your mother knows where you are, right?” she does not respond (Capote 7). This statement indicates that Miriam is just an image for Mrs. Miller, and only for Mrs. Miller, to see. She is the part of her that is unknown, yet lurking around and slowly taking over her mind. Miriam “has no last name and is not seen by others”, but her presence is acknowledged by the old lady because of her hallucinations (Larsen 79). Slowly, Mrs. Miller’s house and life are apparently being taken over by Miriam, but in reality, the schizophrenia is setting in.
Only enhancing her mature and mysterious character, Miriam has the ability to manipulate Mrs. Miller’s temper and constantly make demands. For instance, she sees a brooch that was a gift from Mr. Miller and says, “But it’s beautiful and I want it. Give it to me” (Capote 10). This makes Mrs. Miller uncomfortable, and it takes some time to persuade Miriam to leave the memento alone. Upon the second visit, Miriam decides to move into the house, which complements her moving into the woman’s life and impacting the flow of things. Her “intrusion into Mrs. Miller’s life begins gently”, until she is driven to insanity (Nance 31). For a period of time, the widow had been disconnecting herself from the world, but now Mrs. Miller has to make adjustments to Miriam’s presence, such as unconsciously buying food and dealing with her demanding attitude. Without realizing until the very end, Mrs. Miller is being dominated by the true nature of her mental illness.
The use of a Doppelganger such as Miriam is a common factor in many imaginative short stories. During their first meeting, Mrs. Miller makes note that she and Miriam have the same name: “Why, isn’t that funny— my name’s Miriam too” (Capote 5). There is a major distinction between the gentle, kind Mrs. Miller and the sensible, insistent Miriam, but Miriam is actually a representation of her a personality. This suppressed stage of the schizophrenia is a “terrifying encounter with a repressed and stunted self” that can no longer be controlled (Larsen 79). Its occurrence brings Mrs. Miller’s life to an end when she finally makes sense of her situation. Capote’s usage of double nature leads to the final scene, when the schizophrenia definitively strikes.
In “Miriam,” imaginative characters come to reality. In Mrs. Miller’s fight against her own nature, she is overpowered by hallucinations and mental outbreaks. Multiple symbols regarding Miriam’s character are used to hint to the reader that she is unreal: indeed, the differentiation between a typical child and Miriam creates great vastness that can only be brought to life in the stages of a schizophrenic person. Because Miriam is the last person Mrs. Miller interacts with, she brings with her the last stage of the illness. The last “Hello” welcomes Mrs. Miller to the realization of the depths of evil and distortion within herself. Unfortunately, at this point there is no turning back for her, only self-destruction.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s: A Window Into the 1950’s
Truman Capote’s masterpiece of American literature, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, is a wonderful story about misguided love. The novel is well deserving of a place within any compilation of literature and is epically deserving of a place within a collection of women’s literature, as it presents a snapshot of a very human woman from the 1950’s era United States. Holly is not a woman you might want to frame, or one that you might aspire to become, foremost because her flaws are exposed for all to see. However, she most definitely is defining of a cultured woman of the American 1950’s, a modern debutant, carefree and aloof. Her character is defining of the societal changes which took place during the post World War II 1950’s, when women gained independence they had not previously shared with men before the war, and the growing up period which was inevitable as they learned to walk on their own, free and spirited; women gained independence, but they had not yet gained the ability to support themselves: this was a fault of the society. The novel shows this change beautifully, from the perspective of a man who falls in love with one of these new wild and spirited creatures that he does not completely understand.The narrator, or “Fred” as he is called by Holly, is captivated by this curious and unique creature who resides in his apartment building. His first meeting, where she comes in through his fire escape to avoid a man who is biting her, seems to catch him off guard. She is brash, seeming not to care to climb into his bed to snuggle, confident in her sexuality. Throughout the novel this is a continuing theme. The women of the pre-WWII era would have been very much offended by this sort of behavior, but it seems to intrigue our narrator. As the story moves on, the narrator develops much more than a passing interest in his neighbor, falling deeply in love with her, but always knowing that she will not have him. Her story to Joe Bell in the bar is the most telling, as it seems to not be directed toward Joe Bell, but rather to “Fred,” although he never seems to connect that it is meant for him. Holly tells Joe “Never love a wild thing… you can’t give your heart to a wild thing: the more you do, the stronger they get.” (Capote 209) “Fred” never gets the message, already blinded by his love for her. She further warns him that she will fly away if he tries to get too close, a promise she eventually keeps. Holly is a fiercely independent woman, and this makes her attractive to every man she comes into contact with.Grave mischaracterizations of Holly are sometimes made, including the accusation that she is a whore or prostitute. Granted, her behavior is not something that will ever win her a medal. She uses most everyone she comes into contact with, either for money or simply as her playthings. She does not, however, pressure these people into her company. They rather desire to be around her. Her personality is magnetic throughout most of the novel. She is not a fantastic person, but she most definitely is a wonderful image of the type of woman people desired to be around in the 1950’s era. She also did not use these people out of sheer hatefulness, but out of necessity. She had to survive childhood as a runaway in one of the hardest times in the history of the United States, obviously having no true formal education which would provide a job for her to take care of herself. She was forced to marry at the age of fourteen, again out of necessity, to find a way to provide for both herself and her brother. She later leaves the situation, not because it is unbearable, but because she wants more and she wishes to explore and live her life. These are desires shared by most everyone growing up, and while considering the circumstances most people could not fault her for her actions, it was the fault of her nature. She was a fifteen year old girl, and she was not designed to be caged.This novel is a great story of human nature, overcoming adversity, and is a very human portrait of the post-WWII era American woman. Holly is not a perfect person, but because her flaws are bared for all to see, she is a much more identifiable and loveable character. Capote’s master work would be a grave omission from any collection of literature about women.Work CitedCapote, Truman. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. 1958. New York: Vintage, 1993.