CULTURE AND CIVILISATION: by John KellyNews Weekly
Breakfast at Tiffany's in the new millennium
, February 2, 2013
While not usually inclined to grant any concessions at all to radical ideologies with which I cannot agree, when it comes to being alerted critically to iconic portrayals of women in the genre that has become known as “chick lit”, I find myself having to acknowledge that the cultural wing of the feminist movement has done at least one favour to the public at large and parents, especially of teenage girls, in particular.
Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) in the film adaptation of
Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
For all its failings to appreciate the value and achievement of motherhood, and its abysmal record in rationalising the unjustifiable reality of abortion, the sisterhood — or at least some of its more astute representatives — has done well to condemn the degraded portrayal of woman in film and literature as sex object and “bimbo”.
A further perhaps improbable yet significant source deserving of recognition for his contribution to critique of undesirable female stereotyping in its wider social context is, I suggest, the American writer, Truman Capote, specifically his accomplishment in the satirical novella that became an instant best-seller.
The film version of Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s is perhaps better known than the written account which inspired it, partly because of its witty and light-hearted portrayal of the new urban “sophisticate” with the deftly giddy name, Holly Golightly, and the brilliant performance of Audrey Hepburn in the leading role.
The title Capote gives his work encapsulates its main character’s notion of heaven on earth. It is especially revealing because it identifies Holly’s idea of a spiritual oasis and fulfilment with high fashion, wealth and fame — in other words, with a materialistic celebrity life-style that has become almost completely dissociated from objective moral conviction and norms.
Holly says to the anonymous narrator: “I don’t mean I’d mind being rich and famous. That’s very much on my schedule…” (p.38); and, “I’m mad about Tiffany’s…. What I’ve found does the most good is to get into a taxi and go to Tiffany’s. It calms me down right away … that lovely smell of silver and alligator wallets (pp.40-41).
As an 18-year-old country girl living in chic East Side New York, Holly quickly adapts to her laissez-faire environment with its easy ways and fast money, and personifies her abandoned husband Doc’s description of her as a “wild thing” (p.69) who cannot be “caged”.
In this respect, the theme of the corrupting power of wealth and undiscerned dreams, Capote’s novella is similar to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which exposes what happens to people and a nation’s soul when the original American dream is distorted; that is, when shared moral values, “the fundamental decencies” that regulated the pursuit of material prosperity in the vision of America’s founding fathers and the Constitution they created — “the best of all possible dreams” — are disconnected from the getting of wealth.
Life becomes for the “players” a mere quest for survival, approached with a carpe diem outlook, seizing what fleeting pleasures can be had in a frantic race against time and death, and making choices that compromise, if not completely eradicate, personal integrity and a sense of hope and dignity. Most of the time, Holly lives a hand-to-mouth existence, at best a geisha-like figure, at worst an aspiringly up-market call-girl.
The sense of what she often calls “the mean reds” or “angst” (p.40) haunts Holly, and is exacerbated by the fact the wider world itself is at war — an “army of wrongness rampant” (p.70) as “Fred” describes it; in other words, the chaotic personal circumstances of her own orphaned background are an instance of radical dislocation on a global scale, the existential condition of life itself in the war-torn 1940s, the period when most of the story’s recollected action or extended flashback takes place.
While Holly affirms that belief in God matters to her — “I do say my prayers” (p.68) — and she values the St Christopher medal from Tiffany’s that “Fred” has given her, the vision and motivation of religious faith are only marginally connected to her daily living; they are at the borders of her world, like the unvisited church next door to her brownstone East Side apartment building.
Effectively, Holly’s outlook is nihilistic, as shown in her bleak reaction to her brother’s death when news arrives that he was killed in action: “It’s all that’s ahead of us” (p.89), and her comment on the “empty place” she conceives her life to be, where things that matter just “disappear” (pp. 69-70), even the alluring “sky”, the symbol of her best life-dreams.
It is not surprising that Christopher Isherwood’s novel set in Weimar Germany, The Berlin Stories (on which the famous 1972 movie Cabaret, starring Liza Minnelli, Michael York and Joel Grey, was based), identified Capote’s protagonist as a soul-mate of his own notorious and ultimately pathetic Sally Bowles.
It is indeed tempting to see Holly merely as a flighty opportunist and party hopping “good-time girl” intent solely on satisfying her own immediate wants. At one point her female flatmate derides her as a “revolting and degenerate girl… a hop-hop-hop head with no more morals than a hound-bitch in heat” (p.87).
There is some is truth in this impression because of the pragmatic, self-serving attitude Holly invariably displays when her own interests are at stake. For instance, she eliminates her call-girl rival Mag Wildwood’s competition for her clients by breathtakingly asserting that Mag has a sexually-transmitted disease. She further undermines Mag by stealing her boyfriend, José, an upwardly mobile Brazilian diplomat, preparing herself very practically for a future as his wife by reading about Brazilian politics, language, history and culture in the NY Public Library. And she demands of the narrator, who loves her, that he provide her with a list of the wealthiest men in Brazil, where she intends to flee from the law in the United States before she can be called before the courts on a charge of complicity in drug-trafficking for her mafia connection, Sally Tomato, and his shady associate, the defrocked priest turned lawyer, Oliver O’Shaughnessy.
Then there is also the evidence found in Holly’s own words, expressing her throwaway attitude to sexual morality: “I’d settle for Garbo any day. Why not? A person ought to be able to marry men or women.… if you came to me and said you wanted to hitch up with Man o’ War), I’d respect your feeling.… I’m serious” (p.77).
However, Capote balances this unfavourable impression by presenting sympathetic and revealing details in his portrayal of Holly: she lost both parents to a tuberculosis epidemic as a small child; she and her brother Fred were mistreated by their adopting parents, leading her to run away and then marry, at the age of 14, “Doc” Golightly, many years her elder.
Despite initial appearances to the contrary, Holly, who makes her living offering favours to wealthy older men, is not completely amoral or careless: she feels morally indebted and loyal to those who have shown kindness towards her: “ I might be rotten to the core, but testify against a friend I will not.… My yardstick is how somebody treats me” (p. 93).
“Doc”, the husband she abandoned for the high road to New York and the bright city lights, holds a special place in her esteem and gratitude: “… the confidence he gave to fragile things. Anyone who ever gave you confidence, you owe them a lot” (p.69).
Holly is also shown as valuing self-honesty: “unto-thyself-type” self-knowledge. Beneath the carefully cultivated sophistication of her designer shades, elegant clothes and apartment adornments, and her distinctive style of speech spiced with French words, she is what O.J. Berman, who is indebted to her, admires as “a real phoney” — that is, one who knows herself to be one. “I’d rather have cancer than a dishonest heart,” she confesses to the narrator (p.77). This sense of honesty she also extends, albeit naïvely and crudely, to her relationship with the men to whom she has granted sexual favours: “I’ve only had eleven lovers.… I mean, you can’t bang the guy and cash his cheques and at least not try to believe you love him” (p.76).
Holly also elicits the reader’s sympathy by allowing two men, the narrator (an unknown struggling writer whom she assists in having his work published by O.J. Berman, one of her wealthy, influential contacts) and Joe Bell (a lonely bartender), to care for her, bringing colour, purpose and friendship into their lives.
The narrator expresses his love directly to Holly, and Joe does so most poignantly when he says, years after Holly has disappeared from New York: “If she was in this city, I’d have seen her. You take a man that likes to walk … a man that’s been walking the streets going on twelve years, and all those years he’s got his eye out for only one person, and nobody’s ever her…” (p.14).
Moreover, despite her calculating, pragmatic survival skills, Holly is revealed by Capote to be capable of genuine appreciation and affection. She shows this in her feelings for “Doc” and her gratitude for his kindness to her, and she demonstrates spontaneous and generous human sympathy, and respectful appreciation of dignity, for the prison visitors at Sing Sing.
She says: “All the visitors do make an effort to look their best, and it’s very tender, it’s sweet as hell… they make the dearest effort to look nice and smell nice too, and I love them for it. I love the kids, too, especially the coloured ones … the kids the wives bring”(p.26).
When Holly finds love and contentment with José, her “first non-rat romance” (p.76), she gives up reading horoscopes and prepares to commit herself to conventional family life and motherhood: “He’ll marry me, all right. In church. And with his family there” (p.80). She jokes happily, too, about one day bringing her “nine Brazilian brats” back to New York, where she has finally found a sense of home: “I love New York … 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” (p.78).
This dream of a stable, secure relationship and the meaningful identity and sense of belonging that it provides is, however, short-lived with the fateful public implication of Holly in her jailed benefactor Sally Tomato’s narcotics empire. Forced to go on the run again, she utters lines that indicate a soberly ironic self-appraisal: “I’m very scared, Buster … because this could go on forever. Not knowing what’s yours until you’ve thrown it away. The mean reds [bouts of angst], they’re nothing. The fat woman [death], she nothing. This, though: my mouth’s so dry, if my life depended on it I couldn’t spit” (p.99).
Her warning to her secret admirer, Joe Bell, the bartender, carries the same idea of fearful wastefulness through a lack of discernment and belatedly and regretfully frustrated awareness of it: “Never love a wild thing… 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…. You’ll end up looking at the sky.”
There is an almost chillingly ironic and fatalistic note struck here by Capote. Despite the illusion of freedom, “wild things” are driven creatures, incurable and impossible romantics with insatiable dreams and desires, inexorably “gluttonous for everything” (p.56), who can only disappoint and hurt those who love them.
Through all her rootlessness, evasiveness and slick moves, typified in her self-styled epithet “Travelling”, her identification as a “jaybird” by her husband “Doc”, her rejection of the narrator’s Christmas gift of an antique palace-shaped bird cage precisely because “it’s a cage” (p.53), her arrangement of her bedroom and parlour with “a camping out atmosphere: crates and suitcases, everything packed and ready to go” (p.51), her deliberately non-committal refusal to name her friend, the narrator, or her pet cat, and her signature question “How do I know where I’ll be living tomorrow?” (p.42), Holly desperately desires the security the narrator relates that her cat now enjoys in the final poignant image of the novella.
The narrator says: “Flanked by potted plants and framed by clean lace curtains, he was seated in the window of a warm-looking room: I wondered what his name was, for I was certain he had one now, certain he’d arrived somewhere he belonged” (p.100).
By contrast, Holly, whom the narrator imagines to be somewhere in Africa, is playing out the lyrics of her prairie melody from childhood: “Don’t wanna sleep, don’t wanna die, just wanna go a-travellin’ through the pastures of the sky” (p.62).
With Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote carved a place for himself in the distinctive gallery of the Western canon’s American writers who have created iconic figures that embody and vividly re-create the defining ethos and issues of their era. Fitzgerald had done it in The Great Gatsby; Salinger did it in Catcher in the Rye; Miller did it in Death of a Salesman.
If members of at least a generation, especially women in the “come easy 60s and swingin’ 70s”, found entertainment and inspiration in Holly Golightly’s chic style, witty chatter and contrived bravado, thanks to her creator, Capote, then the “American dream” in its latest manifestation found a new and important critic whose voice resonates even more pertinently, perhaps, today.
John Kelly is a South Australian secondary school teacher.