The Critical Evolution of Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”

DISCLAIMER: The following is a Masters-level annotated discursive bibliography which I wrote in April 2006 entitled “The Critical Evolution of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” I am publishing it here because it is the culmination of months of research and many hours of reading and, as such, it should be of use to anyone researching the critical response to the novella within Capote’s lifetime. I am giving permission for it to be used for educational purposes, however, please refrain from any attempts to pass it off as your own work. Presumptuous, I know, but one should never underestimate the laziness of others. Finally, friendly corrections are welcome, I am blind to my own mistakes. Then again, who isn’t?

The Critical Evolution of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s

In 1958 Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s was published, signaling the beginning of a dramatic shift in Capote’s writing style. Initially regarded as a Southern gothic writer dealing primarily in grotesques, the light, city-bound world of Holly Golightly indicated that Capote was capable of a wider range. Only slightly less than a year after the novella’s publication Capote would learn of the murders that would become the focus of In Cold Blood and, with its publication in 1966, his place in the canon would be undeniable. In 1961 Breakfast at Tiffany’s was remade into the movie of the same name starring Audrey Hepburn in one of her defining roles. The presence of the novella’s film version, albeit a severe alteration of the original work, has colored much of the criticism since, and treatment of the film is just as common as that of the text. Examining only at the critical works on the novella published within Capote’s lifetime gives a poignant sense of the evolution of his literary career, as well as the way in which Breakfast at Tiffany’s came to symbolize the culmination of his most optimistic style.

Paul Levine’s “Truman Capote: The Revelation of the Broken Image” was published in the same year as Breakfast at Tiffany’s and had a lasting impact on the criticism of the novella that followed. Levine opens his essay with the now dated assertion that the “inclusion of Truman Capote in any discussion that pretends to be … at least literary is usually frowned upon” by critics (81). Aiming to alter the then-popular critical view of Capote as a minor literary figure, Levine examines the dichotomies that exist within Capote’s works using the thematic labels “daylight” and “nighttime” (81). The daylight and nighttime metaphor that Levine discusses was in critical use for years to come, with Breakfast at Tiffany’s eventually considered one of Capote’s quintessential daylight works (Garson 79). The characteristics of a daylight story, Levine writes, are that it is “realistic, colloquial, [and] often humorous,” while a nighttime story is more “dreamlike, detached, and inverted” (82). One way to distinguish which style one is reading is to look at the position of the protagonist; in daylight stories the “movement is out towards the world,” while in nighttime stories there is a turning inward (82).

Appearing slightly less than two years after Levine’s essay, Ihab Hassan’s “Birth of a Heroine” applies Levine’s daylight/nighttime metaphor (Hassan refers to the latter as “nocturnal”) to a discussion of Capote’s published works. Hassan’s focus is on Breakfast at Tiffany’s with an emphasis on Holly Golightly, the novella’s heroine, as the character that literary critics have been searching for to embody the new hero of American fiction with “its absurdities and crazy yearnings” (109). Holly, while a gifted liar, shows “no revulsion against [her] identity,” and is “very much attached to this world, and therefore … herself” (111). She possesses a “loyalty to her own feelings for which she is willing to risk all” which allows her to “implicate herself in a wider range of experience than her predecessors encompass” (111). Yet Holly is not a one-sided character, the painful “price of unorthodoxy” is paid in full by a character still late in her teens (111). While Holly’s story is “lovingly told,” Hassan also points out the “gentle criticism” inherent in the narrative (112). Holly’s breakdown at the end of the novella, however momentary, reveals her humanity and allows the reader to see the cost of living by one’s own rules: that one never knows when they will find the “grace of knowledge and repose” (112). This search for a place that feels like home (not merely the place that one lives, but the place wherein an inner quietness can be obtained) is a driving theme throughout Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Stylistically, Hassan claims that the novella “approaches perfection” and that Capote is able to treat his topic with “marvelous selectivity” (112). While not technically innovative, all of the elements blend together in such a way that the subject springs to life and the interplay between the outer world of Holly and the inner world of the narrator balance each other perfectly (112-13). That Holly is both “innocent and experienced” makes her an “American hero,” insisting on freedom of experience because that type of freedom “is no longer tolerated;” she is outside of acceptable society, moving ahead of it (114).

In 1960, shortly after the publication of “Birth of a Heroine,” Ihab Hassan’s “Truman Capote: The Vanishing Image of Narcissus” appeared in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature. Based on the daylight/nocturnal dyad he treated previously, the theme of “Narcissus” is blended into the discussion and Hassan’s critical views are refined. The image of Narcissus comes in to play, Hassan writes, when one understands that the daylight and nocturnal styles are both “developments of a central, unifying, and self-regarding impulse … traditionally embodied” by Narcissus (231). While Breakfast at Tiffany’s in some ways eludes either category, it “confirms the emergent pattern of Capote’s work” by carrying both themes a step further, specifically, “the movement toward light which retains the knowledge of darkness” (231). Hassan discusses many of Capote’s works throughout the essay and expands on the daylight/nocturnal distinction. While the “supernatural defines the nocturnal mode of Capote, humor defines his daylight style,” where the narrative “assumes the chatty, first-personal informality of anecdotes” (233). The nocturnal stories of Capote deal with the supernatural as a metaphor for the unconscious, yet this is also “the source of our uniqueness, our insight and creativity” (238). The unconscious that makes the “nocturnal” stories so dark are, in essence, the wellspring of what makes the “daylight” stories so bright. Section V of Hassan’s essay is, quite literally, the essay published as “Birth of a Heroine,” but the insights in the surrounding sections shed light on this previously published section. He writes that there is a “peculiar image of freedom [Holly] invokes” that separates her from the main characters of Capote’s other daylight works (235). Specifically, it is Holly’s self-awareness as the novella ends, illustrated through her confession of a “fear of perpetual homelessness” that sets her apart; she moves outside of the narrative and confesses this fear “to a real listener” (256). Because of this, Holly shatters the “pure self-reflectiveness” of Narcissus and achieves freedom (256).

While Hassan’s articles discuss Holly Golightly as the new American hero, Nona Balakian’s 1962 “The Prophetic Vogue of the Anti-heroine” explores her character in an entirely different context. In her article, Balakian discusses “the radical change that heroines in … serious novels and plays have suffered in the past two decades” (134). Traditionally, women in literature have been “subsidiary figures, treated uncritically and seen more often as prototypes than as individuals,” yet there has been a recent shift within fiction towards with “de-romanticization of women” (135). Balakian’s criticism differs drastically from that of the critics all ready discussed in that there is little affection in the way that she treats the character, initially labeling Holly an “asexual clown,” and proceeding from there (135). Holly Golightly, Balakian writes, is one of Capote’s virtual children, “so injured in the ways of the world that freedom consists in departing” from it (137). Yet she does discuss Holly’s virtues, such as her ability for “spontaneous companionship,” her equal distribution of loyalty, and her ability to inspire “non-erotic, tender affection” in some of the work’s other characters (137). The latter is the quality which Balakian seems to find the most admirable, as it inspires in others the recognition that “what is different and unique in another person and ends up strengthening the capacity to love” in those who are inspired (137). Capote’s “essentially humanitarian” view of Holly allows him to escape some of the criticism that Balakian levels against other authors and allows for the hope that “the heroine’s spiritual liberation, now long overdue” may come about at last (141).

In the essay collection, Violence in Recent Southern Fiction, published in 1965, Louise Gossett briefly treats Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The themes of the grotesque, the Southern genre, and violence seem especially forced in “Violence in a Private World: Truman Capote” wherein Capote’s works are discussed. While Gossett does state that Capote’s characters “have an intensity and reality” there is also the contention that they “stay entirely within his created worlds” (145). Holly Golightly is almost certainly in mind when Gossett states that there are “positive relationships which affirm the ability to love, but these are limited to children or to childlike adults” (146). Holly’s breakdown near the end of the novella, which for Hassan solidifies her humanity and takes her outside the scope of the work, is dismissed by Gosset: “Whatever [Holly] might have learned … is lost in her flightiness, which is childish rather than childlike” (155).

William Nance devotes an entire chapter of The Worlds of Truman Capote to a discussion of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and analyzes its “dreamer heroine” in relation to Capote himself (107). Nance states that Holly “belongs to a later generation of Capote heroines who have leaned to preserve their integrity by safeguarding their uniqueness” from a society who “admires her and considers her crazy at the same time” (112). However, unlike the “society” of the novella, personified by the wavering attitudes of the work’s supporting characters, “Capote and his narrator have only admiration” for Holly (112). Nance’s discussion of Holly differs drastically from previous criticism in that he explores Holly as “a new avatar for [Capote’s] constantly unfolding self” (115). There is an agreement with Balakian’s view that one of Holly’s greatest strengths is her ability to develop an “ideal relationship” with the narrator, however, it is one that is “tender but distant, and consisting largely of admiration for her brilliance and strength” (119). Exploring Holly as Capote’s alter ego, Nance claims that Holly’s faith to her own internal moral compass is a vehicle through which Capote expresses an acceptance of himself, which is a “dominant impulse in most of [his] writing” (119). Holly’s arrest plays into this as Capote illustrates the way in which “the innocent dreamer becomes a prisoner; as always, she is at odds with the literalistic, moralistic society” (120). It is an awareness of death that keeps Holly “from feeling at home anywhere,” as she is constantly fighting against a collapse into fear, which she describes as “the mean reds” (123). While multiple critics have dismissed the scene wherein Holly breaks down over the loss of her unnamed tomcat as sentimental, Nance claims that it is far from that. Rather than “sentimental excess,” the scene is “an intensely serious expression of a profound fear of relinquishment” (123). However Holly might fear the looming threat of fate (death), which finds a constant presence in Capote’s works, it “is held at bay by friendship” (121). Additionally, the novella represents a pivotal place in Capote’s transition into nonfiction writing and a movement away from the “private dream world” towards that of reality (124).

In 1980, ten years after the publication of Nance’s work, Helen Garson published Truman Capote in the Modern Literature Series, which included the essay “Never Love a Wild Thing: Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Having the benefit of reading nearly everything that Capote would publish in his lifetime gives Garson the advantage of being able to look back on nearly all of Capote’s cannon. Writing that Breakfast of Tiffany’s was, by that time, widely regarded as the culmination of Capote’s daylight works, Garson confirms what previous critics could have only hypothesized (79). Holly’s personality is similar to that of Capote’s other “most admired” figures in that she is “young and childlike, slight but attractive, friendly yet remote, her personality a … mixture of innocence and sophistication” (79). The ability of Holly to inspire “deep affection and loyalty” does not escape note, and discussion of her “childlike” qualities are not in a negative light (81). The childlike nature of Holly attracts admiration from those around her, but her self-awareness also causes her to feel a sense of “pity for those who are unattached,” like herself, because there is no feeling of security (85). It is apparent from the beginning of the story, wherein the narrator’s memories of Holly are triggered by unexpected, vague news of her, that she “has never found her place” of profound, spiritual comfort (86). The narrative style, wherein events described have long past, gives the novella an air of “sweet sadness,” that is “an identifying element of Capote’s style” (88). The abrupt awareness of how deeply Holly is affected by a fear of homelessness is positioned in the narrative at the furthest point from the reader’s knowledge that she has never settled down. Yet at the same that the story “pleases and delights” the reader, it conveys a “melancholy for the days that are no more” on the part of the narrator (89).

Breakfast at Tiffany’s came to occupy a unique place in Capote’s cannon, representing his daylight form at its best, and existing as a way station between his early and later styles. The evolution of the critical regard for the novella within Capote’s lifetime reflects more than the critical treatment of Capote the author; it reflects the cultural and critical trends of the two decades wherein they took place.

Works Cited

Balakian, Nona. “The Prophetic Vogue of the Anti-heroine.” Southwest Review 47 (1962): 134-141.

Garson, Helen S. “Never Love a Wild Thing: Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Truman Capote. Modern Literature Series. New York: Ungar, 1980. 79-89.

Gossett, Louise Y. “Violence in a Private World: Truman Capote.” Violence in Recent Southern Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 1965. 145-58.

Hassan, Ihab. “Birth of a Heroine.” Prairie Schooner 34 (1960): 78-83. Rpt. in Waldmeir and Waldmeir 109-114.

—. “Truman Capote: The Vanishing Image of Narcissus.” Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 1 (1960): 78-83. Rpt. in Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1961. 230-58.

Levine, Paul. “Truman Capote: The Revelation of the Broken Image.” Virginia Quarterly Review 34 (1958): 600-17. Rpt. in Waldmeir and Waldmeir 81-93.

Nance, William L. The Worlds of Truman Capote. New York: Stein, 1970.

Waldmeir, Joseph J., and John C. Waldmeir, eds. The Critical Response to Truman Capote. Critical Responses in Arts and Letters. Westport: Greenwood P, 1999.

7 thoughts on “The Critical Evolution of Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”

  1. lauren taylor

    Great article, very informative. I am attempting to write a very brief expository essay on the bohemian and the bourgeois and I think Holly Golightly and many other Capote heroines seem to lead lives that possess the romantic qualities of both these ideas of class. Any thoughts, any sources you might think of?

  2. Brigitte Post author

    Thank you! I absolutely do think that Holly Golightly would fit into your essay, though I think that Existentialism and her bourgeoisie values go hand in hand for Capote. I’d start with Gosset’s work (mentioned above) because, quite simply, it’s the least flattering toward Holly. Largely, however, there’s very little criticism on the novella, so it’s an argument you will need to build largely alone, but I think it’s very possible. Let me know if I can be of any other help!

  3. Nan

    That was a good article and I was wondering whether it would be alright to quote you in a book review I’m doing for school? I need five o six critiques of the book and I liked the way you ended your article, but if you don’t mind I would love if you could give me a new critique?

  4. Vivi

    hi, I am Vivi from China.
    I am interested in Truman Capote.
    i am wondering about the daylight stories of Truman Capote.
    can you be kind enough to tell me more detail? such as what is the definition of the “daylight stories”?
    and then which works of Truman Capote’s are divided into daylight styles?

    thanks very much.

  5. Jay

    I’m supposed to be doing AL coursework but here I am getting triggered that this was posted in 2007, 12 years ago.


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