HomeLiterature Study GuidesBreakfast At TiffanysSection 1 A Visit With Joe Bell Summary

Breakfast at Tiffany's | Study Guide

Truman Capote

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Breakfast at Tiffany's | Section 1 (A Visit With Joe Bell) | Summary

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Breakfast at Tiffany's is a novella, or short novel, and as such isn't divided into separate chapters. The author instead uses several lines of white space to divide the story into 20 distinct sections. This study guide follows the same approach. The section number indicates the section's chronological place in the story; the subtitle describes events that occur within the section.

Summary

The unnamed narrator, a writer, describes his first apartment. Located in New York's Upper East Side, its rooms were gloomy and shabby, but he loved having a place all his own. Private telephones were somewhat rare during the early 1940s, so the narrator and his neighbors direct their phone calls to a nearby bar owned by Joe Bell. Joe and the narrator are more acquaintances than friends and it's been several years since they have talked. Receiving a call from Joe in 1957, the narrator instinctively knows he's calling about Holly Golightly—the narrator's former neighbor and the only person the two men have in common.

When the narrator shows up at the bar on a rainy October afternoon, Joe presents him with a photograph of "a tall delicate Negro man wearing a calico skirt" and holding a wooden carving of a young woman's head. The narrator at once recognizes the face as Holly's. It turns out the photograph was taken by Mr. I.Y. Yunioshi, who also lived in the brownstone apartment building at the same time as Holly and the narrator. Yunioshi, a professional photographer, was in Africa during Christmas 1956 when he came across the man with the carving of Holly's face. He learned that three white people—two men and a woman—had come through the village the previous spring. Nobody else Yunioshi met on the continent remembered seeing them.

The narrator and Joe hypothesize about Holly's whereabouts. The narrator realizes Joe was in love with Holly, though Joe swears he never wanted sexual contact with her—"[y]ou can love somebody without it being like that." The narrator leaves the bar and walks to the old brownstone. Holly's name is no longer on her mailbox.

Analysis

The first section of Breakfast at Tiffany's sets the stage for the rest of the novella, which is told as a flashback from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who makes his living as a writer. The narrator remains nameless throughout the book, though he is assigned a pet name by Holly Golightly. Some literary critics believe the narrator is a fictionalization of Truman Capote himself, who was also once a young writer from the South getting his start in New York City. As the story progresses, there are several notable similarities between the two men. Both are homosexual writers who are fascinated by glamorous, broken women. They observe the world at a distance, then go home and write about it.

Joe Bell isn't a major character in Breakfast at Tiffany's, but he and his bar introduce one of the novella's frequent motifs: homosexuality. Though Capote never explicitly says any of the story's characters are gay, he drops hints that many aren't exactly straight, either. Homosexuality was more widely acknowledged in the 1950s when Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's than during the novella's 1940s' setting, but the label still held a damaging stigma. Many people still believed homosexuality was a communicable but curable illness. Capote's decision to merely imply his characters' sexuality makes his story more palatable for people who wouldn't sympathize with homosexual characters. His references are so coded that many people, including critics, completely missed the hints that neither the narrator nor Joe Bell are sexually attracted to women. Joe, for example, is passionate about hockey, a radio soap opera, and the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan. He always has flowers in the bar, which the narrator describes him as arranging "with matronly care." His Manhattan watering hole is devoid of the usual neon sign, and instead of glass windows, the bar has "[t]wo old mirrors reflect[ing] the weather from the streets." Joe deliberately diverts attention away from his bar and his customers. This was the custom for gay bars in the first half of the 20th century, as homosexual activities were against the law throughout the United States. Individuals could be prosecuted, and violence against homosexuals was common. Discretion was key.

Joe's feelings for Holly are more protective than romantic in nature, and he tends to idealize his image of her. While the narrator thinks Holly is dead, insane, or married, Joe assures himself she's wealthy and living the good life. He needs her to be those things so he doesn't have to worry about her anymore.

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