Holly’s Pursuit of Self-Liberation in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’

Literary Criticism

Holly is enthralling for readers, as she is for the other characters in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, because she represents truly unconventional qualities, particularly in the narrated context of the war-ridden 1940s. Holly exhibits competing desires across the novella; her continued free-spiritedness points to a quest for self-liberation, just as her nostalgic moments imply an acute longing for security. Her limiting notions of the former unconsciously shape these into seemingly mutually exclusive pursuits. While clearly flawed, her developing circumstances and the narrator’s perspective suggest marked sympathy, if not affirmation, towards the pursuit of self-liberation.

The tension between Holly’s twin pursuits of self-liberation and security is captured in her escape from Doc Golightly. Holly “didn’t have to lift a finger” (Capote 65) as Doc Golightly’s child-wife, and reveals her reciprocal feelings when telling the narrator “Doc really loves me, you know. And I love him.” (68) Her decision to run off implies an initial triumph of self-liberation over security, but the tensions continue to surface throughout the novella. “[T]he plaintive, prairie melody Holly sometimes played on her guitar” (62) originated from her time with Doc Golightly, suggesting a romanticism of the past. Nonetheless, in gifting the narrator a cage, Holly wants him to “promise [he]’ll never put a living thing in it” (57), suggesting her strong desire to be free from external constraints.

This is ironic when one considers Holly’s willingness to box other characters up. She has clearly defined notions of characters both real and fictional in the novella. Holly believes “Rusty feels safer in diapers than he would in a skirt” (42) and labels Mag Wildwood as having the same trouble as “many of these Southern girls” (45). She misinterprets the narrator’s story, saying “if it’s not about a couple of old bull-dykes, what the hell is it about?” (25) She also insists that the narrator found her “brazen” for escaping into his house, claiming “Everybody does… It’s useful.” (22) While Holly desires to be free, it seems dependent on having stereotypical notions towards others. It appears that other characters are seen as examples of what not to be, in order to be liberated. While this flawed outlook contributes to her charming free-spiritedness, it puts others at distance, possibly producing an aversion to commitment. Hence, it is incompatible with her other goal of security.

Holly’s attachment to riches shows another flaw in her vision of liberation. Rusty Trawler and Sally Tomato, to whom she is well-acquainted, are both well-to-do. Even after her arrest, Holly instructs the narrator to “get a list of the fifty richest men in Brazil” (94) for her escape. Yet her rejection of Hollywood shows that she does not pursue riches for its own sake. “I don’t mean I’d mind being rich and famous… but if it happens… I want to still be me when I wake up one fine morning and have breakfast at Tiffany’s.” (39) The mention of Tiffany’s is significant. Tiffany’s is a luxurious place where Holly calms her “mean reds”, or angst, which are times “you don’t know what you are afraid of.” (40) Her soothing trips may have reinforced the notion that wealth and status help to free her from fears, on top of the practical effect that monetary security does allow one to focus on more idealistic pursuits. However, as her connections with Sally and José show, she might be looking in the wrong places.

There are two major turning points in Holly’s life which defined her pursuits of self-liberation and security. The first is Fred’s death. Holly is devastated at losing the only one who would “let [her] hug him on cold nights.” (72) In the immediate aftermath, she becomes attached to José. This implies that the loss of Fred had roused her insecurity, which is assuaged with José and their unborn baby, to the extent that she’s willing to comply with José’s wishes: “I’d stop smoking if he asked me to.” (77) Just when Holly is ready to settle, she is thwarted by the second turning point: her arrest for involvement in a narcotics scandal. She ends up condemned by Sally’s “international drug ring” (83) and José’s status as a public figure, which he alludes to when he says “I am a coward where those institutions enter.” (91) Her fate is further compounded by the loss of her child, which she’d “still be looking forward to… in an unwed mamas’ home.” (91) Holly’s hopes of settling down were raised, then fully and cruelly dashed by circumstances she appeared oblivious to. That she loses her baby in rescuing the narrator while riding horses – Fred was “fine with horses” (66) – is a yet greater rebuff of her desire to settle down, or confine herself.

In light of such developments, Holly’s decision to jump bail is expected, but she leaves with a final twist. Her attachment to the St Christopher medal given by the narrator (94) is a restatement of her free-spirited intent. Her mailbox name card reads “Miss Holiday Golightly, Travelling” (16). Her escape to Brazil seems to confirm that she is more “holiday” than “Hollywood”, that she is a perennial traveller not to be bound by constraints. Yet, Holly becomes unsure of herself after dumping her cat. “I’m very scared… Not knowing what’s yours until you’ve thrown it away. The mean reds, they’re nothing.” (99) This is a moment of rare introspection. She discovers a more poignant kind of fear – that of misdirection and loss – than existential angst. This might be a better riposte to her flawed quest for self-liberation, than if she had settled down with Doc Golightly or José. However, Holly’s enhanced consciousness actually offers a new hope that she will eventually learn to reconcile the false dichotomy of her twin pursuits, likely the underlying cause of her “mean reds”.

The critique of Holly’s pursuits ultimately rests with the first person limited narrator, through whose lens we know about Holly. Like with Joe Bell and other male characters, Holly piques the narrator’s incessant curiosity. Despite her tactless response to his story, he quickly finds that his anger “was ebbing; she absorbed [him] again.” (26) When the narrator is forced to retrieve Holly’s gift cage, he deems it “a capitulation that did not lessen [his] resolve to put Holly Golightly absolutely out of [his] life” (60), which he clearly fails at. The narrator has progressed from not being a “real writer” (23) before meeting Holly to writing about Holly, as he does in Breakfast. Holly has made a lasting impact on the narrator’s life, and whether he recognizes it, he is conditioned by that nostalgia of their past acquaintance. This sentiment is in sharp focus in the novella’s first line: “I am always drawn back to places where I have lived” (9). This ensures that Holly will at least be regarded with sympathy, confirming that her fearful departure is not meant to be a riposte of Holly’s dreams, however flawed at that moment.

The ways in which the narrator begins and ends the novella indicate an endorsement for Holly’s ways. He starts with the possibility that Holly has been sighted in Africa, based on Mr Yunioshi’s photographs of a carving with “the spit-image of Holly Golightly” (12). This is not refuted by the lack of follow-up to Holly’s last postcard, which suggests she again fails to settle “with duhvine Señor” (100). The narrator loses himself in “the image of her riding away on a horse” (15), implying awe at her liberated self. It is unlikely that this favourable impression is merely attributable to time, given that the narrator unequivocally tells Holly, “I will. Miss you.” (79), and after a near-death ordeal, “You’re wonderful. Unique.” (82) Though the purported sighting of Holly in Africa is unverifiable, it gives the narrator and readers renewed hope over her fate. In the final line, the narrator conveys a telling affirmation of Holly’s twin pursuits: “African hut or whatever, I hope Holly has [arrived somewhere she belonged], too.” (100)

Eventually, it does not really matter if Holly has discovered “a real-life place that made [her] feel like Tiffany’s” (41), found a loving husband, built a loving family or indeed reconciled the pursuits of self-liberation and security that seem to afflict her ceaselessly. Her misguided perceptions of other characters and her own angst led her into cruel circumstances, but also gave rise to the possibility of growth. The narrator and Holly “had reached that sweet depth where two people communicate more often in silence than in words” (77). Whatever the narrator’s feelings towards Holly, he embraces her imperfections, and in narrating her story, inclines the readers to do the same. Holly’s fate is as elusive as her free-spirited personality. Breakfast is thus a moving tribute to Holly’s pursuit of self-liberation.

Works Cited

Capote, Truman. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. 1958. New York: Penguin Classics, 2000. 9-100.