“House of Flowers”
“House of Flowers” is one of three pieces of short fiction included at the end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s the story of Ottilie, a young woman from Haiti, whose only power is in deciding which life of submission she will lead, one as a prostitute or one as the wife of Royal Bonaparte, a native from the mountains. What makes this story remarkable, I think, is the double side of Ottilie’s situation. She is strong-minded and feels the power of being able to choose, but the reader sees just how dismal her options are.
Ottilie is younger and prettier than the other women at Champs Elysées, a bordello in Port au Prince, and she’s also a customer favorite. The proprietress, to protect her investment, gives Ottilie the best room with an electric light-bulb and the men buy her bangles and silks. She is happy with these new things, for she had nothing as a girl in the mountains. She laughs and gossips with her new friends, Baby and Rosita, and the bordello becomes her home.
But despite the attention from her customers, Ottilie wants love. She thinks she might love Mr. Jamison, an older American and one of her best customers. “How do you feel if you’re in love?” she asks her friends from the bordello. They tell her she will feel pepper on her heart and tiny fish swimming through her veins, but she does not understand. A voodoo priest tells her, “You must catch a wild bee and hold it in your closed hand…if the bee does not sting, then you will know you have found love.”
But the bee stings her hard and she knows she has not found love in Mr. Jamison.
It’s different when she meets Royal Bonaparte at a cockfight during carnival season. Like Ottilie, he’s from the mountains and she is drawn to this and to his beauty. She thinks she recognizes love. Capote is great at describing how she feels and it’s easy to picture her looking tentatively at Royal. “Ottilie was used to boldly smiling at men; but now her smile was fragmentary, it clung to her lips like cake crumbs.”
And when the bee does not sting her, she knows.
Royal takes her to his house of flowers, a seeming haven covered with wisteria and lilies, kept cool by its cover. But Ottilie’s new life is not easy and Royal soon returns to his old unmarried ways. And this married life includes Old Bonaparte, Royal’s spell-making grandmother, “a charred, lumpy creature” who torments Ottilie by leaving a cat’s head in her sewing basket, dead snakes and other dead creatures in the house. It’s a battle of wills and Ottilie fights back with clever revenge. When Old Bonaparte dies, Royal insists that Ottilie be tied to a tree for a day as punishment, to break the grandmother’s spell.
When Baby and Rosita come to rescue her, Ottilie must choose, but which life is better, one that promises security and friendship, but takes away much more, or one that started with love, but has turned into something else?
I liked this story because of Capote’s precise character descriptions. He explains situations by what his characters say, or don’t say, and by what they do. For example, through Rosita, he shows you how Ottilie is unable to see the house of flowers for what it is, small and unremarkable, promising nothing. Ottilie tells Baby and Rosita they need to get to a cool place and points to the house. She says, “It’s like you picked a wagon of flowers and built a house with them: that is what I think.” But Rosita sees the house differently. Instead of agreeing with Ottilie about the house, she sniffs and says only that they should get out of the sun. I think this is a terrific way of showing how communication is often subtle and hidden between the lines.
I also like how Capote gives you a glimpse of Royal’s true character and how it doesn’t come out completely until the end of the story. After Royal has dragged Ottilie out of the house, kicking and screaming and biting, he walks off to work annoyed, “sucking his hand where she had bit him.” Capote doesn’t say Royal is a jerk, he shows it in this small detail.
Ottilie chooses and the story ends, but not without the twist of a mind game, something I always love in a story. We can see she is trapped either way, but her spirit exerts some independence and rebellion. And I don’t think she feels bad or helpless about her decision.
“House of Flowers” was published in 1950. It opened as a musical in 1954 with a cast that included Pearl Bailey and Diahann Carroll. Capote also wrote the play, but he made a lot of changes in the plot. Harold Aren wrote the music and the lyrics. It was Capote’s only musical and it closed after 165 performances, to poor reviews.
Click here for more information about the musical.
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