Philosophical Insights from Breakfast at Tiffany’s

The classic ‘60s movie, based on the novella by Truman Capote, stars Audrey Hepburn (playing Holly Golightly) and George Peppard (the struggling writer, Paul Varjak). Givenchy, high fashion, and the iconic little black dress are just a few things that spring to mind when referring to Breakfast at Tiffany’s. However, beyond this, the elegant, stylish and luxurious world of Holly Golightly also offers some interesting philosophical insights.

For those who may not be aware, Holly is a hill-billy turned Manhattan playgirl and socialite, who finds herself infatuated with her charming new neighbour. Paul is also drawn to Holly’s superficial world, not because he likes the idea that he reminds her of her younger brother, but because, little by little, he succumbs to Holly’s beguiling allure. Even though they don’t openly admit it, the two reluctant lovers have a past that they struggle to keep at bay. 

Naming as Identification 

One of the key themes of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is Holly’s endless pursuit of self-actualisation. Baptising herself as Holly, she changed her name from Lulamae to fit the new life that she began to build for herself, away from her previous husband Doc Golightly. Yet, she keeps his last name, signifying an attachment to her past. 

Additionally, Holly has an unnamed cat, as she claims that she doesn’t have a right to bestow him with one. Neither name – Holly nor Cat –  belong to each other in the same way that people do not belong to each other. Holly does not know who she is, and in this, she is like Cat.. They are a couple of unnamed slobs. They belong to nobody and nobody belongs to them. So, Holly doesn’t want to give Cat a name until she has earned a life for herself and found a real place that makes her feel like Tiffany’s – and nothing bad can ever happen at Tiffany’s.  

Nihilism and Nietzsche

Famously used by Fredrich Nietzsche to describe the disintegration of traditional morality in Western society, nihilism is the belief that all genuine values are baseless and that nothing can be known or communicated for certain. It is a branch of philosophy often associated with extreme pessimism and a radical scepticism that condemns existence. A true nihilist would believe in nothing, have no loyalties to anyone and anything, and thus, have no purpose. 

Holly lives a nihilistic life. She does not adhere to any principles of moral code which would otherwise imply that anything in the world can have purposeful existence. Instead,  she has limited moral principles, evidenced by actions, such as stealing masks, being a call-girl, and marrying for money, along with being involved in a drug raid. She also projects cultural nihilism in which she has a broader problem of dishonesty with oneself and the lack of authenticity with the self. For instance, her rejection of naming her cat. 

If one is dishonest with oneself, it is because one doesn’t actually believe in what one claims to believe; there is a dissociation between one’s claims. For instance, Holly holds on to her own name – whether it be Holly or Lulamae – and her brother’s, Fred, by projecting that name onto Paul. 

Nietzsche’s concern was whether we can honestly embrace any values at all and whether it is even possible to have a philosophy relevant to life at all because, as we can see with Holly, her values become blurred. Though Nietzsche emphasised what the problem of nihilism was, he did not provide a solution as he did not want to impose a route for the reader. Instead, people have to wake themselves from the slumber that they are in, in their own way. This is what Holly is trying to achieve through annulling her marriage with Doc, and building her own life independently from men. However, she is also afraid of how the world really is and what it faces. She wants to be free, but has also caged herself with nihilism. 

Criminality

Though Holly Golightly is portrayed as a naïve girl, she is actually a criminal and a call-girl. Anyone, if placed in the situation of being married at a young age and annulling that marriage would be overjoyed by gaining (financial) independence by receiving $50 for the powder room. She needs money ‘and [she] will do whatever [she] needs to get it’. However, that money was meant for her to build a life for her and her brother after he came back from fighting in the war. 

Hannah Arendt would suggest that this is a banality of evil, that evil is not necessarily perpetrated by evil people. Rather, they can simply be the result of bureaucrats dutifully obeying orders such as when Holly submits to getting the weather report (coded messages) from Sally Tomato, a mob boss serving time in Sing Sing prison, in return for money to Mr O’Shaughnessy. Holly was not intentionally part of the mob, yet her actions of passing on the weather reports aided them. Thus, as Arendt claims, Holly should be punished for her actions even though she may not be completely morally responsible for them due to her moral luck– her naivety of helping the wrong people at all the wrong times. 


Ultimately, Breakfast at Tiffany’s promotes being your own individual and sticking up for who you are and what you believe in, living your life to the fullest by not being afraid of what life brings upon you. Rather than dating ‘super-rats’ and earning money unethically, Holly realises that one’s happiness is the most important through her enlightenment of her love of Paul, even if that meant staying poorer. She transforms her pessimistic views, realising what the meaning of life is through her own mind, with no one’s help – which is what Nietzsche’s nihilism preached. 

After all, being happy is like breakfasting at Tiffany’s! 

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