‘Breakfast’ is a short story by John Steinbeck (1902-68), the shortest piece to be included in his collection The Long Valley. The story first appeared in The Pacific Weekly in 1936 before being reprinted in The Long Valley two years later. Although it’s often classified as a short story, ‘Breakfast’ had its origins in notes Steinbeck made while working on his novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
In just a few pages, Steinbeck describes a camp where a young woman is making breakfast for herself, her baby, and two male companions. But what does this very short story mean? Before we offer an analysis of the story’s themes and symbolism, here’s a brief summary of its content.
‘Breakfast’: plot summary
Narrated in the first person, ‘Breakfast’ is about a young man who is walking along a country road one early morning. It is still cold. He comes upon a camp where a woman is cooking breakfast for herself and her two male companions, one of whom is young and the other older. These two men are presumably a father and son; we are invited to infer that the younger man is the husband of the woman. The woman is carrying a baby as she prepares the food.
The food is described in some detail, down to the pleasing smell of the frying bacon and the bread being baked. The meal consists of bacon, bread, biscuits, gravy, and coffee, which burns their throats as they drink it to wash down the food.
As they exchange a few words of conversation with the narrator, it becomes clear that these are itinerant farmworkers who work in the cotton fields, and have been working for twelve days. They ask the young man who is sharing their breakfast whether he also works in cotton, but he replies no.
The father and son have made enough money from toiling in the cotton fields to buy new clothes. They have also been eating well for the twelve days. They offer to find the narrator work in the fields too, picking cotton, but he declines, thanking them for their hospitality as he continues on his way.
As the above plot summary demonstrates, ‘Breakfast’ has an extremely simple plot. Indeed, it can barely be said to have a ‘plot’ at all, and it contains no real dramatic tension or action. Instead, the story’s worth lies in the details Steinbeck describes and the way he summons a particular time of day and a particular place.
We can barely consider it a ‘story’ at all: it is more of a vignette or short sketch, a single detail from life in ‘the long valley’, and not unlike Hemingway’s early short stories from Spain – his Spanish Civil War story ‘Old Man at the Bridge’ springs to mind – which simply detail a brief encounter with a person or group of people and a short exchange before the two parties go their separate ways.
‘Breakfast’ summons in particular a mood of peacefulness and openness: although the narrator is a stranger to the camp, he is made to feel welcome by the family. A key theme of the story is pleasure: the word is there in the opening sentence of the story, while the narrator comments that the experience of eating breakfast with these campers was ‘pleasant’. But it’s a decidedly mysterious pleasure: he comments in the opening paragraph of the story that he doesn’t quite know why the memory of it fills him with pleasure.
Actually, that isn’t entirely true. The narrator’s statement, ‘I don’t know why’, is ambiguously sandwiched between the statement about the memory of the breakfast filling him with pleasure (directly beforehand) and the declaration that he can remember the breakfast in every small detail (directly afterwards). Is it the strong memory of the breakfast or the fact that it brings him such pleasure to remember it that is mysterious?
This element of mystery marks the end of ‘Breakfast’ as well, with the narrator opining that, whilst he knows some of the reasons why the encounter was pleasant, there was some other, more enigmatic ‘element of great beauty’ about it too. Steinbeck uses temperature in interesting ways in this story: although it is a cold morning, and even the growing strength of the sunrise makes the air seem colder, the memory of the event creates an inner warmth, as he says at the end of the story.
Of course, the stove is literally warm and the food, the narrator tells us, warms him and his hosts through. And the coffee, if anything, proves too warm, scalding their throats as they drink it down. But the cold air remains a problem. A contrast is being made between external comfort and inner contentment: one can be satisfied and happy even among the rugged terrain of the open country, braving the cold of the early morning when the sun is barely above the horizon and camping in a tent in the valley while picking cotton. The simple life contains simple, but profound, pleasure.
But ‘Breakfast’ is also noteworthy for what it doesn’t say. The men and woman make several mentions to their run of luck over the last twelve days: they have eaten well, and the two men have been able to afford new clothes. It’s not hard to pick up on what this implies. Prior to the last twelve days of steady work, they could not afford to eat well or buy clothes. They have been on hard times and working in the cotton fields has lifted them out of poverty.