Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (1958)

Like most people, okay let’s face it, like most women I was introduced to Holly Golightly by watching the 1961 Audrey Hepburn film when I was 16 years old. Having recently read Capote’s original novella, I appreciate her more. That is not to say I like her more, rather that I find her to be a character with intention, depth and an intriguing outlook. There is much to be abhorred about Holly’s behavior but what I think we all find so charming about her is that she is an unapologetic independent.

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“Suitcases and unpacked crates were the only furniture. The crates served as tables. One supported the mixings of a martini; another a lamp, a Libertyphone, Holly’s red cat and a bowl of yellow roses” (29).

A couple of things about Holly have stayed with me over the years:

She admits to needing a safe place when waves of seemingly unfounded fear and melancholy overwhelm her (what she calls the mean reds).

“The blues are because you’re getting fat or maybe it’s been raining too long. You’re sad, that’s all. But the mean reds are horrible. You’re afraid and you sweat like hell, but you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Except something bad is going to happen, only you don’t know what it is” (40).

She stubbornly detaches herself from people who love her, thinking that caring about people and people caring about her somehow puts checks on her freedom.

Never love a wild thing…That was Doc’s mistake. He was always lugging home wild things. A hawk with a hurt wing. One time it was a full-grown bobcat with a broken leg. But you can’t give your heart to a wild thing: the more you do, the stronger they get. Until they’re strong enough to run into the woods. Or fly into a tree. Then a taller tree. Then the sky. That’s how you’ll end up…If you let yourself love a wild thing. You’ll end up looking at the sky” (74)

Cutting ties with her past allowed her to drift in New York City, where it was possible to have both anonymity and notoriety. She didn’t have to live up or down to anyone’s expectations of her based on that past and she could take advantage of a patriarchal system by substituting presumptions of love for practicality.

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“We don’t belong to each other: he’s an independent, and so am I”

The deepest relationship she has is with her cat. Not sure what that says about her but I think it is actually the only bond through which she evolves in the novella. After she abandons the cat on the street, she realizes that he meant something to her. She says, “I’m very scared…Because it could go on forever. Not knowing what’s yours until you’ve thrown it away” (109).

Belonging seemed to be something she really wanted but pushed fiercely away. It came with restrictions on freedom and she might have been addicted to the idea of potential. Caring came with defenselessness against tragedy, and she was determined to get away scot-free, with no more pain than she’d already had.

The biggest discrepancy between the book and the movie is naturally the ending. In the movie, after realizing that she does need love and people and cats, Holly lets herself really fall for Paul. She changes. But in the book she avoids her problems by fleeing to Argentina to marry a rich Brazilian guy, not really thinking twice about the cat, the narrator (Paul in the movie) or anything else. In short, she doesn’t change.

Holly is in some ways admittedly selfish and insensitive, but she is also quirky, doggedly loyal, prescient and poignant. She cultivated a character that was both naïve and worldly, optimistic and cynical; a character of contradiction. Escaping the mean reds, a troubled childhood and a dead brother is enough to understand her views on freedom and love being nonessential, but it doesn’t excuse her outright gold-digging. She deludes herself in many ways in order to feel free. Who doesn’t?

 

What I underlined:

You’ve got to be sensitive to appreciate her: a streak of the poet (30)

Anyone who ever gave you confidence, you owe them a lot (73)

Ask me, that’s what done it. Looking at show-off pictures. Reading dreams. That’s what started her walking down the road (69)

They would never change because they’d been given their character too soon; which, like sudden riches, leads to a lack of proportion (58)

I love New York, even though it isn’t mine, the way something has to be, a tree or a street or a house, something, anyway, that belongs to me because I belong to it (84)

 

Edition: Vintage International 2008

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