Is In Cold Blood a Polemic Against Capital Punishment?

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is critically acclaimed as a masterful portrayal of American crime and is known for the introduction of the concept of a “nonfiction novel.” At such crossroads of true events and storytelling, many criticisms can be drawn. For example, many have viewed the book as a polemic against capital punishment. It is easy to argue this is not the case, for surely Capote’s objective descriptive style and lack of opinionated comments do not exemplify what the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines as “a strong…attack against someone else’s opinions.” However, to ignore the text’s negative connotation towards capital punishment would be just skimming the surface of a book that certainly presents some form of a case against capital punishment, whether what one would refer to as a “polemic” or not. By the end of the book, the reader is not guided to feel any sense of joy or success from the hanging of two criminals, but rather some form of the opposite. Perhaps it does not go as far as to invoke sorrow or grief, but after getting to know the Clutter killers as characters and following along with their lives—from childhood to death row—the reader develops a sense of closeness to them, allowing Capote to craft a subtle argument against capital punishment that is perhaps far more compelling than any direct criticism.

One of Capote’s main tools in developing this argument is describing at length the personality, actions, and lives of the Clutter murderers—Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. Especially in terms of Smith, who Capote himself became quite close with, the reader develops an attachment to these characters as one would in a novel, even if not made out to be especially likable. From the start of the story, we are introduced with Perry’s (for the majority of the book, Capote uses their first names) dreams of success as an entertainer and obsessions over the world’s lost treasures left for him to find. Perry’s almost childlike personality is contrasted with Dick’s more practical mindset, and sets the foundation for delving deeper into the relationship between the two criminals as characters. Simply the length and detail of the account of their time while together alone invokes some closeness for the reader just as any story focusing on a character does. In terms of developing sympathy from the reader, while Dick’s affection for his family must be noted, especially compelling are the details of Perry Smith’s life. A “‘childhood marked by brutality’” (296), abuse by orphanage nuns who would “‘hold me under [cold water] till I was blue’” (132) and an army sergeant who wanted him to “roll over,” (134) a “lack of concern on the part of both parents,” (296) and other details give Perry a sense that the world is working against him, allowing the reader to possibly relate, or at least sympathize. This sense continues once the trial is wrapped up, with the murder perfectly understood in the eyes of the law, yet Perry—and indeed, the reader—still face confusion as to what led Perry to kill four people who “‘never hurt me…like people have all my life.’” (302) Perry is often described wondering whether he was trying to prove his worth to Dick or let out a rage against figures in his life, including his sister, whom he on one occasion wished “‘had been in that house.’” (143) When everybody around him is depicted reaching conclusions quicker than Perry, the reader is left wondering whether these conclusions should be enough to warrant the man’s death.

This sentiment is strongly brought out in Capote’s portrayal of the murderers’ trial, now transitioning to a more specific and direct criticism of a legal system that results in capital punishment. The trial is in many ways made to seem biased, and while, again, not directly condemning anything, Capote writes and includes information in a manner that guides the reader to think in a certain way. Evidence is presented that certain jury members—all of whom were from near the location of the murder—held opinions on capital punishment or the Clutters. Statements by psychological analysts are given to the reader but were not allowed to be heard in court due to the “M’Naghten Rule,” which Kansas state abides by, allowing “nothing more than a yes or no reply” to the question of the murderer’s mental state, which Capote describes as a “formula colorblind to any gradations between black and white” (294). The reader is informed such gradations did exist based on the analysis of Dr. Jones, which is included in the text. In the case of Hickock, Jones stresses the importance that the presence of “‘organic brain damage’” be studied more closely, due to his “‘serious head injury,’” and that either way Hickock showed signs of “‘severe character disorder’” (295). In the case of Smith, this is even more apparent; Jones states that “‘Perry Smith shows definite signs of mental illness’” but again calls for “‘more extensive evaluation’” (298). The fact that this further analysis did not happen and was not even allowed to be mentioned in court strongly suggests to the reader the incapability of this trial to determine the life or death of these men. Further opinions from other characters strengthen this view—from a jury member calling the trial “rabble-rousing, brutal,” and execution as “‘pretty goddam cold-blooded too’” to a Reverend claiming that “‘capital punishment is no answer: it doesn’t give the sinner enough time to come to God’” (306). An especially credible opinion—that of a Dr. Satten, a respected authority in psychiatry—identified the murder as one “‘without apparent motive,’” relating to “‘personality disorganization’” (299) and understood that Smith was “‘deep inside a schizophrenic darkness’” (302) while killing Mr. Clutter. This again shows the additional attention Capote thought this case should have had, considering it put these two men to death, and led the reader to agree.

Finally, Capote draws closer to the topic of controversy itself, and spends the next section of the book creating a sense that capital punishment is very arbitrary, yet always results in the same brutal ending for a human life. He discusses the inconsistent bureaucracy behind the death penalty, as well as its variance from state to state, including Kansas, where “‘juries hand it out like they were giving candy to kids’” (322). A point he focuses on is the time prisoners spend on death row, the variance of which he says “depends little on luck and a great deal on the extent of litigation” (330). For example, he contrasts a Texas robber killed a month after his conviction with a pair of Louisiana rapists waiting 12 years. Capote also brings up the point that while all the other members of death row in Kansas State Penitentiary were murderers, Hickock had technically “‘never touched a hair on a human head.’” Once again, none of this is direct criticism, but through such details Capote is able to establish an impression that a system so varied and arbitrary may not be trustworthy when it comes to human lives, no matter their crime. The book’s inevitable ending, Smith and Hickock’s execution, is Capote’s final subtle criticism of capital punishment. The reader is presented the event through the perspective of Al Dewey, another character the reader has gotten to know quite well over the course of the book. No more pleasant than the description of the Clutters’ murder, the hanging is depicted in detail, and then, through Dewey’s eyes are described “the same childish feet, tilted, dangling,” of the “dwarfish boy” he had first met in a Las Vegas interrogation room (341). One would think that if anyone, Dewey, who had worked so hard to solve this murder, would be satisfied with their death. But instead the reader is surprised to find that even he, who was “certain capital punishment is a deterrent to violent crime,” found no “sense of climax” or “design justly completed” by watching the execution (340). If not even the head of the investigation resulting in the death of the two men felt satisfaction from it, Capote makes it hard for the reader to feel any better about this case and capital punishment as a whole.

Some may argue, as many have, that Capote makes no clear arguments and wrote In Cold Blood in a strictly objective manner. Whatever his personal views may have been, it is apparent to many that a book including a strong description of a savage murder, details of Hickock and Smith’s other crimes, Hickock’s pedophilia (including that he “‘was going to rape [Nancy Clutter]’” (286) ), extensive evidence supporting the justness of the trial, and ultimately no strong assertions of Capote’s own opinion on anything, could not be considered a “polemic” or argument of any kind against capital punishment. Nevertheless, to ignore the subtext Capote creates would be an incomplete analysis of the text. Capote’s argument is subtle and deeply embedded within his writing style but is certainly present. And perhaps this argument is more convincing just because he includes such details as a vivid description of the murder. That a reader can be faced with such brutality, and yet still find some sympathy towards those who caused it, speaks volumes about human nature, and certainly Capote’s expert ability to guide it. Surely, this aspect of the book is what has made In Cold Blood such a success. Capote is able to use his portrayal of the murders as characters, creating some level of sympathy, as well as more logical, yet indirect, criticism of the trial and capital punishment as a whole, to guide the reader’s opinion with information while not imposing his own. If this was not the case, so many critics would not call the book a “polemic,” and considering that, as subtle as it seems while reading, Capote’s argument is criticised so heatedly, it must in some way be quite a strong one. Therefore, however one names it, Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood presents a subtle yet powerful argument against capital punishment.

The Art of Manipulation

Famous novelist, Truman Capote, in his non-fiction book, In Cold Blood, recounts the murders of the Clutter family committed by Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. Although this book is considered non-fiction, critics have questioned the authenticity of Capote’s story over the years. Specifically, in two segments of text found on pages 107-113, Capote contrasts the two characters as they recount the same day from each of their perspectives. He manages to distort the reader’s perception of the two main characters in order to support his personal opinions of them. The placement and distortion of the juxtaposed texts allows Capote to manipulate his readers into viewing Hickock and Smith as he intends them to be perceived.

Capote contends with Smith’s hard upbringing throughout the entire book. In emphasizing the tribulations Smith dealt with, Capote appeals to the sympathetic emotions of his readers. “It was ‘painful’ to imagine that one might be ‘not just right’—particularly if whatever was wrong was not your own fault, but ‘maybe a thing you were born with.’” (Capote 110). It is undoubtedly Capote’s own interjections that lead the audience to associate Smith’s actions with his family and childhood experiences. The quotation marks indicate he was directly quoting Smith, while the other words may have been mixed with his own thoughts. Capote continues to appeal to the emotions of his readers by deliberately breaking the fourth wall by directly addressing the readers and Smith in this text, allowing them to directly connect with Smith. Capote is not only conveying his thoughts to the reader, but to Smith as well. This effectively strengthens the narrative voice and the personal connection one feels to Smith. He claims culpability of Smith’s current lifestyle to his childhood, referencing his sister and alcoholic mother who had both committed suicide, “Look at his family! Look at what happened there!” (110). Capote continues to make his own interjections rather than purely narrating the scene. The reader becomes conscious of this and subconsciously agrees with Capote. This tactic continues to evoke sympathy from his readers. In contrast, Hickock is not portrayed as someone who suffered as a child. The immediate contrast between these two characters allows Capote to elicit compassion from the readers and for them to understand Smith’s actions. Dick expresses his normality repeatedly, claiming, “’I’m a normal,” (108). His claims convince the readers that he is ordinary compared to Smith and has experienced no tribulations that have caused his actions. “And Dick meant what he said. He thought himself as balanced, as sane as anyone,” (108). Capote interjects again, expressing his opinion on Hickock, distinctly different from that of Smith’s. As a reader, one’s opinion typically coincides with that of the author due to his use of rhetorical strategies. Capote’s interjections force the reader to become attached to Smith, while becoming disconnected to Hickock. These two clashing personas contribute to Capote’s intention for the readers to sympathize Smith. There is no rationale to Hickock’s actions, but Capote implies a direct correlation between Smith’s childhood and his current behaviour.

In each segment, the characters both recount Smith’s story about killing King, who was “a nigger” (109) friend of Smith. Each point of view allows the readers to understand the story from each perspective and how it develops the character’s persona. Dick recalls the story as it provoked “his original interest in Perry,” and “his assessment of Perry’s character and potentialities, was founded on the story Perry had once told him of how he had beaten a coloured man to death,” (109). Capote addresses Hickock’s intentions for a relationship with Smith were founded on homicidal qualities. This implies Hickock’s objective to kill was premeditated. Smith recalls telling this fib, “because he wanted Dick’s friendship, wanted Dick to ‘respect’ him, think him ‘hard’ as much ‘the masculine type’ as he had considered Dick to be,” (111). Capote directly quotes Smith again, enforcing his own opinion alongside Smith’s. The contrast in stories suggests a difference in character between the two. Hickock is perceived as “hard” and someone who respects others primarily on their ability to kill. The references to Hickock’s masculinity support Capote’s previously expressed opinion. Hickock is not to be sympathized with, as his masculinity reinforces the idea that he is capable of killing, while Smith is weak. Smith suggests that he would never be as “masculine” as Hickock was, thus unable to murder the Clutter family without remorse, making him less of a monster.

From the beginning of the book, Capote’s narration relies heavily on detail in order to set his scene. However, it is the details he chooses to leave out in these two segments of text that allow the reader to perceive Hickock and Smith as he intended. The absence of detail in Hickock’s version followed immediately by Smith’s abundance of detail creates Smith’s persona as that of a more rounded character. In Hickock’s account of the scene, he nonchalantly recalls that he, “saw a dog trotting along in the warm sunshine,” (110), as opposed to Smith’s detailed account containing imagery of the “old half-dead mongrel, brittle-boned and mangy, and the impact, as it met the car, was little more than what a bird might make,” (112). This strong imagery of hitting a feeble dog depicts Hickock as a monster. Despite the frail condition of the dog, “Dick was satisfied. ‘Boy!’ he said— as it was what he always said after running down a dog, which was something he did whenever the opportunity arose. ‘Boy! We sure splattered him!’ (113). Smith confirms that Hickock has previously intentionally hit dogs, but implies he does not approve of these actions. The juxtaposition of these two accounts exemplifies not only the difference between the character’s accounts, but also the contrast between their internal thoughts. Hickock’s narrative enforces the perception that he has little to no discontent in killing, as opposed to Smith, who does. Although Smith ultimately admitted to killing the Clutter family unassisted, (244-245), it was Hickock who had instigated the crime (161). The allegory of the dog indicates Smith’s remorse for killing the Clutter family. Hickock refuses to talk about the murders and does not mention the murder of the dog, where as Smith frequently expresses his guilt and that “there must be something wrong with us,” (110). In Smith’s account of killing the dog, he enforces the idea that it was exclusively Hickock who had done the deed and enjoyed it. The dog scenario itself is significant in portraying Smith as a complex and remorseful character, which implies that Smith is remorseful of the crime he performed and Hickock was the one who initiated it.

Capote subtly manipulates his readers into feeling sympathetic toward Smith through his rhetorical strategies. He conveys Hickock and Smith as complete opposites, despite their shared crime. By influencing his readers through his personal opinion, Capote is able to sway his readers into believing Smith is not as culpable for the murders as his partner, Hickock is.

Perry Smith’s Culpability in ‘In Cold Blood’

In Truman Capote’s nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood, Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock were convicted of murdering the entire Clutter Family. When proven guilty, both Perry and Dick were sentenced to death. Though Perry had been the one to murder the members of the family, Dick had planned the whole thing. Without Dick’s planning, Perry would have never thought to kill that innocent family. Throughout the novel, the audience is given a look at the backgrounds and inner thoughts of the criminals. Dick was perfectly capable of determining right from wrong, yet he proceeded with the murders, keeping complete control of the situation. On the other hand, Perry (whom we learned later in the novel could have been a paranoid schizophrenic all along) had lost all control in the situation. Perry’s childhood and mental health leads to the conclusion that he should be spared, and treated for his mental instability.

Authors often lead readers to feel compassion for the criminal- maybe regarding a mistreated, abusive childhood, or challenges and struggles they’ve had to face. Even though people understand the consequences of the crime, they feel sympathy for someone who’s had so much pain in their life. They assume that the “evil” was rooted in something that truly affected the criminal. Perry Smith is no exception. Capote not only included Perry’s thoughts, but his father’s as well. Perry’s father wrote a manuscript called “A History of My Boy’s Life”, trying to mollify the Kansas State Parole Board so that they could allow his son, Perry, to be obtain parole. Mr.Smith writes about his drunkard wife (Perry’s mother), who had taken Perry and his siblings from their father at a very young age. “My children all cried at the top of their voices” wrote Perry’s father, “and she only cursed them saying they would run away to come to me later.”(Pg.126). Just as his mother had then said, Perry tried to run away from his mother. She had then send poor Perry to a Catholic orphanage. There, Perry was mercilessly beat by nuns who punished him for small things like wetting his bed. After such an experience, Perry began to resent nuns, religion and God, altogether. He was kicked out of the Catholic orphanage and sent “somewhere worse…A children’s shelter operated by the Salvation Army.”(Pg.132). The nurse at the shelter had no love for him either–for wetting the bed and for having a Native American mother. The “evil bastard” would fill a tub with ice-cold water and hold helpless Perry under the water “until he turned blue”. He inevitably got sick with pneumonia (Pg.132). Perry’s childhood was filled with abandonment, abuse and neglect. His horrible mother constantly “threw him away” from orphanage to shelter (the next one being worse than the previous) –trying to get rid of him somewhere so she wouldn’t have his “burden”. No one should be treated like that. He had grown up in a very dysfunctional world, with an almost non-existent sense of self-worth or self-respect. It led to an emotional imbalance in his life, leading to cause bigger problems for him as an adult. This ultimately led to affect his mental health, resulting in his loss of control during the murders.

Throughout the novel, we read about Perry being a child trapped in a grown man’s body. Perry dreams of “buried treasure” and adventures around the world. His ever active imagination even attracts Dick’s attention. Even he seems to notice something strange about his partner in crime. “There was something wrong with Little Perry” said Dick, “always wetting his bed and crying in his sleep…sit for hours just sucking his thumb and poring over them phony damn treasure guides”. Dick also noticed his emotionally instability. He would describe Perry to be “spooky as hell…ready to kill you, but you’d never know it”(Pg. 108). Perry’s childhood had indubitably led to concerning, questionable actions in his adult years. Throughout the whole novel, Perry just seemed as though he was making sure he had Dick’s respect and approval. He wanted nothing more than to feel accepted, even to someone like Dick. Perry develops a story about a murder in which he beats a “nigger” to death while in Las Vegas (Pg.109). He tells Dick this life in hope of Dick’s approval. Feeling like an outcast for all of his life, Perry was determined to get respect and positive attention from Dick. Dick essentially picked Perry as his partner to “settle the score” because he had believed Perry’s lie about killing a man. Perry— lost and desperate – was more than willing to gain a friend (finally feeling important to someone) and possibly go to Mexico, the place he has been dreaming to go since he was younger, at the price of a dirty conscious. To Perry, the feeling of self-worth could now only be accomplished if he gained respect from Dick.

Though someone might say “murder is murder”, and that in the end, both men deserve to die. They believe that even though Perry could be clarified as a paranoid schizophrenic, this deranged psychotic motivation can’t be to blame for the murders. Dr. W. Mitchell Jones had even said that Perry Smith was “oriented, hyper-alert to things going on about him…showing no sign of confusion.”(Pg.296). While it all could be true, Dr. Jones still concluded that Perry could not determine right from wrong at the time of the murders. “Perry shows definite signs of severe mental illness… a childhood marked by brutality and lack of concern on the part of both parents… he has a ‘paranoid’ orientation toward the world.”(Pg. 297). Dr. Joseph Statten of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas consulted with Dr.Jones and supported his concluding evaluation of Perry. Statten recommended that “only the first murder matters psychologically… when Smith attacked Mr.Clutter he was under a mental eclipse…a schizophrenic darkness, for it was not entirely a flesh and blood man he ‘suddenly discovered’ himself destroying, but a key figure in some past traumatic configuration (his father? the orphanage nuns?)” (Pg.302). This evidence/theory surely proves Perry’s mental instability. Though he had committed the crime, he could not be fully to blame. He lived a lifetime of confusion and despair, only leading up to instability and problems as an adult— and that’s where the ability to murder had rooted from.

“In Cold Blood” entangles the reader in the dark depths of Perry Smith’s life. The reader has made a heavy judgment of Perry throughout the book. The reader has reviewed his thoughts and actions. One could only sympathize when hearing the horrid life he had been through. The reader could determine that Perry was not in good mental health. Every aspect of his life had led up to that point, that moment in time where he decided he would kill Herb Clutter. From the beginning, his life had been nothing but a feeling of no self-worth. Perry’s mother, the nurses and the nuns did not know that their actions could affect someone so deeply. They probably then did not realize that their abuse and neglect cause everlasting consequences for Perry. He should not be put to death because he could not be fully blamed for what he had done. His life had left him with serious mental instability, something that he could not be held responsible for.

In Cold Blood: Retaining the Reader’s Interest through Suspense and Tension

In modern literature, suspense and tension are almost essential in producing works that are both successful and interesting to the reader. These two aspects of literature are especially important in Truman Capote’s novel, In Cold Blood, which delineates the story of how a mere robbery attempt concludes in the death of four well-respected and affable family members. Although the reader is cognizant of various outcomes in the story beforehand, Capote effectively retains the reader’s interest through suspense and tension. Capote particularly engenders this suspense and tension by shifting between simultaneous events, waiting to disclose the details of the murder, and suggesting fallacies in America’s judicial system. Suspense proves to be an essential aspect to this novel, particularly in the way in which it proves to be a new plot mechanism. For example, one way Capote introduces suspense is through the short segments within each chapter. He constantly switches back and forth between Dick and Perry and the people in Holcomb, leaving the reader longing to discover what happens on both perspectives of the story. More importantly, he ends many of the segments with surprising and suspenseful actions and thoughts. For example, when Nancy broaches her suspicions about the smell of cigarette smoke, Capote cunningly ends with this thought: “Before she could ask if this was really what Nancy meant, Nancy cut her off: ‘Sorry, Susie. I’ve got to go. Mrs. Katz is here'” (22). This ending leaves the reader wondering whether Mr. Clutter, who possesses a strong aversion toward such matters, would actually take part in smoking. This suspected, sudden change in the daily habits of the family allows Capote to stir up a suspenseful atmosphere in the reader’s mind because these details seem to foreshadow the murder. In addition, Capote amplifies the suspense by ending the section on this note, leaving the reader at a climactic point. Furthermore, as Capote switches back to the murderers, he describes their preparations in a casual manner. The tensions thus increases as the reader becomes upset at the lack of morals of the murderers and the total obliviousness of the Clutter family toward the upcoming events. The constant switching also serves another purpose by bringing the reader into the actual story as he or she tries to keep up with simultaneous events as they occur. Furthermore, Capote presents many of the unfolding events through the testimonies of various citizens, which gives more credibility to the story. In addition to the timely shifts in the novel, Capote engenders suspense by waiting to disclose various details of the story, most importantly of the actual murders. Capote chooses to stop the description of the “score” just as the murderers approach the house: “Dick doused the headlights, slowed down, and stopped until his eyes were adjusted to the moon-illuminated night. Presently, the car crept forward” (57). After this passage, Capote skips straight to the discovery of the dead victims. Capote utilizes this very effective tactic of skipping ahead in order to build suspense. He surprises the reader and leaves him or her with the desire to continue in order to unearth the facts and details of that hideous night. In addition to building suspense, this method again places the reader in the eyes of the bemused Holcomb citizens, as they are equally clueless on the details surrounding the murders. Similarly, Capote does not explicitly introduce the murder plot: “Still no sign of Dick. But he was sure to show up; after all, the purpose of their meeting was Dick’s idea, his ‘score'” (14). Referring to the murder plot as the “score” serves various purposes. First, this reference adds to the suspenseful ambience because the reader cannot decipher its exact meaning; he or she can only construe that the term refers in some manner to the murder. Secondly, it puts the reader in the eyes and thoughts of Perry because he too appears incognizant of the actual plan before meeting Dick. Finally, during the period between the meeting and the murders, Capote adheres to using the reference “score” so that he may keep any motives and details mysterious and suspenseful. Again, Capote masterfully puts the reader into the eyes of the curious Holcomb citizens because neither the reader nor the citizens become aware of the motive until much later in the novel. In addition to using suspense as an efficacious tool in retaining the reader’s interest, Capote also brings into play an aspect of tension during the court trials and psychiatric evaluations. Capote commences to impose his own thoughts and beliefs into the story during the court trials. He lucidly demonstrates his condemnation of the M’Naghten Rule due to its tight strictures and inflexibility: “But had Dr. Jones been permitted to discourse on the cause of his indecision, he would have testified: ‘Perry Smith shows definite signs of severe mental illness'” (296). By including the statements of Dr. Jones, if he would have been allowed to speak further, Capote evinces his concern and frustration over the utilization of the death penalty when dealing with the insane. A one word response to a question dealing with whether or not a person is insane is, of course, hardly sufficient to convey the full scope of the evaluation, especially if the subject’s life depends on this evaluation. Capote also probes the inner mind of Perry Smith during his incarceration: “Eventually he wondered if perhaps he had invented them (a notion that he ‘might not be normal, maybe insane’ had troubled him ‘even when I was little, and my sisters laughed because I liked moonlight. To hide in the shadows and watch the moon’)” (265). This passage creates tension and the reader’s mind vacillates on whether or not Perry experienced schizophrenia. Moreover, by including this passage, Capote foments a feeling of sympathy for the murderer. Throughout the beginning of the novel, the reader feels animosity towards Perry, but as Capote discloses these new details, the reader begins to reevaluate his or her previous convictions. Thus, Capote again allows the reader to see things through Perry’s perspective. Once more, tension arises from a sudden shift in the mindset of the reader. Nonetheless, Capote leaves the reader with an ambiguous ending. Only the reader can decide whether Perry could acknowledge his actions as wrong on that horrific night or if the emotional and physical scars created by Perry’s childhood drove him insane. Thus, because Capote effectively uses tools of suspense and tension, he retains the reader’s interest throughout the entire novel. The simultaneous shifting between events, delaying of crucial facts and details till later in the story, and the questioning of the court’s laws on cases dealing with the insane and the death penalty are only some of the mechanisms Capote utilizes to conceive an extremely powerful and intriguing novel.

In Cold Blood: Gender Roles Between Dick Hickock and Perry Smith

In our society—past and present, gender norms have presented themselves in a moderately strict frame of which personality traits are to be expected from males and females. In past traditional expectations regarding gender, it was the women’s role to be the more passive, more submissive caretaker, often hindering them from becoming involved in social and political situations. For men, the expectation was always to be the one to assert dominance through their masculinity. The more masculine and dominant a man was, the more likely it was that they would be successful. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood presents the significant contrast within a specific gender role through the way that Capote chooses to present Dick Hickock and Perry Smith’s relationship.

Dick and Perry are the two ex-convicts and now murderers of the Clutter Family. The criminal pair have both a complementary and polarized gender relationship. Dick is portrayed as the more masculine person, fitting the socially standard definition of masculinity. He was often seen as “aggressively heterosexual” and well-liked by many women (Stuckey-French, 2015). Throughout the novel, Capote emphasizes Dick’s masculinity, usually from the perspective of Perry admiring Dick. Contrasting from Dick, Perry is portrayed as the more feminine and the more submissive figure. Perry is often following Dick’s lead and can be easily convinced to do anything that Dick decides. It is evident that Dick is aware of Perry’s submissiveness and is often able to get Perry on board when using endearing words such as calling him “sugar”, “honey”, and “baby” (Capote, 1966). The language used between the two could be easily interpreted as more than a friendship relationship.

The 1960s was a time of societal change, but homosexuality was still regarded as a mental illness (Burton, 1987). During this particular time in history, the acceptance of homosexuality was miniscule. The need to fit into society was desired by most people, even if it meant masking part of who you are. Dick’s intense sexual inclinations towards women and young females are mentioned many times throughout the novel. As Capote had mentioned, Dick was seen as aggressively heterosexual, almost as if to intentionally make a point that there was no room for doubt that he could ever be anything else.

Perry plays more of a submissive role in the novel. Capote writes about Perry as a person who easily got his feelings hurt to the point where he noticeably cried a lot. These are traits which are often associated with femininity and weakness. Aside from a few mentions of one-night stands, it does not appear that Perry ever has much interest in sexual relations with anyone. In fact, Perry was disgusted while in Mexico when Dick was having sexual relations with different young woman there. He referred to it as a nuisance (Aliana, 2017). Perry viewed himself as an intelligent, sensitive, and creative person who was just not given the opportunity to develop his talents due to his circumstances growing up. Perry understands the value in an education, but since he never received one, he figured that his only way to gain respect is through his actions as a criminal. This is how he compensates for his masculinity.

Both Dick and Perry use each other’s versions of masculinity to cover up for their own insecurities to make them feel more masculine and more in power. Dick likes to pick out and emphasize the feminine qualities in Perry in order to make up for his own insecurities and make himself feel more dominant. Similarly, Perry is always looking up to Dick, looking for any sort of affirmation that he too is masculine and dominant. Perry often tells Dick fake stories about murders and other crimes which he has been involved with in order to boost his perceived level of masculinity. The irony in the situation is how both men view masculinity as a way to power and dominance. Dick is who readers perceived to be the most masculine, yet he was unable to carry out the Clutter murders, whereas Perry, the more effeminate person, is the one who carried out all the murders. Although it always appears that Perry seems to have a greater attachment to Dick, they both greatly depend on each other. One can’t accomplish much without the other.

Despite the fact that they used each other to boost their own sense of masculinity, Perry was often disgusted by Dick’s way of asserting his masculinity. “He had no respect for people who can’t control themselves sexually,” especially when the lack of control involved what he called “pervertiness”—”bothering kids,” queer stuff, rape. And he thought he made his views obvious to Dick; indeed, hadn’t they almost had a fistfight when quite recently he had prevented Dick from raping a terrified young girl?” (1966).

Masculinity in this novel symbolizes something much larger than just gender. It symbolizes the idea of dominance and power. In our society today, we often hear men being described as “manly” or “macho” oftentimes used as a synonym for strength and power (Genuske, 2015). All classic superheroes are men, and every person who has held the title of President of the United States, has also been male. Society has a bias viewing men as dominant and powerful people, and amongst many men, the battle to be most the masculine and most dominant does exist. Dick did everything in his power to be perceived as masculine most likely because he wanted to be respected. He gained his respect through being feared. Fear oftentimes resolved into respect. Perry who was clearly smaller and more feminine tried to emulate Dick and felt that impressing someone as masculine as Dick was a boost of confidence towards his own masculinity.

Overall, this novel demonstrates the dynamic between Dick and Perry, and how they feed off of each other to boost their masculinity. Had names or explicit gender not been assigned in this book, some people may have thought that Perry was a female based on his personality traits. In Capote’s field notes, he had written down: “In profile, he resembles a plump, rather unpleasant, and exceedingly tough lesbian” (Holleran, 2012). This goes to show that gender is not black-and-white and crimes as severe as murder can be done by anyone—not just the stereotypical “tough-guy” like Dick.


Aliana, L. (2017, May 30). Gender and sexuality in Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song”: struggles with masculinity. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from

Burton, N. (2015, September 18). When Homosexuality Stopped Being a Mental Disorder. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from

Capote, T. (1966). In cold blood: a true account of a multiple murder and its consequences. New York, NY: Random House.

Genuske, A., Gray, E., & Vagianos, A. (2015, January 23). This Is What Masculinity Really Means To Men. Retrieved January 21, 2018, from

Holleran, A. (2012, July 1). Sympathy for the Devil. Retrieved January 22, 2018, from

The American Dream and Dick and Perry’s downfall

Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’, highly contested for its scathing depiction of 1960’s American society is renowned for its portrayal and characterization of the permeating theme; The American Dream. It seeps into all facets of society and impedes the development of those on the barriers of society, embodied in the criminals Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. The manner in which the American Dream facilitates and even spawns the growth of mental illness and priorities the acquisition of wealth over all, and its connotations with happiness, is what leads the two aforementioned characters to fall victim to its trap and ultimately their own downfall, death.

The American Dream is only able to succeed because it capitalizes on the impetus of our own capitalist, money-hungry society, it is used as a tool by the wealthy upper-classes to manipulate and control. The American Dream, an aggressive used-car salesman, grabs society by its shoulders and showers spittle over its adoring face, screaming “You want this life! You need this life! You want to be happy, and you can be, with a little bit of money! That’s all you need, and you’re so close!” And it works, people like Dick and Perry, people on the margins of society, eat up every word and lick the plate clean. It drives their pursuit of wealth through immoral means as they seek their own individualized American Dream, Perry to be surrounded by golden treasures and Dick to be surrounded by the faces of young, subservient girls, and they’re told they can achieve this. They “hang paper” but unsatisfied with the profit, turn to murder. A dramatic irony, in that the money they make isn’t even enough to afford a competent lawyer who’s not doing it “because someone has too”, a hidden criticism by Capote on the injustice system, how “the rich never hang. Only the poor and friendless”. The innate desire of any human to achieve happiness is exploited, instead a warped, zombified husk of The American Dream advertises this artificial counterpart through wealth, pushing already broken people to dangerous ends, it puts the flayed corpse of the American Dream on a marble pedestal and tells Dick and Perry that it’s what they need, to be like Herb Clutter, a “proud man” who supposedly earned the dream. But life is fast, says the American Dream, to beat it, to win “the race without a finish line” you need to take shortcuts. You need to kill the Clutter family. The American Dream, a paradoxical cycle, traps Dick and Perry inside the confines of its own tornado-esque hubris; to be happy you must have the dream, to have the dream you must have wealth, to have wealth you must have the dream. This alone, however, is not the effect of the American Dream, for the shattering of such has gargantuan effects on Dick and Perry.

Mental illness, not in the context of the depressed and bed-ridden Bonnie Clutter but seeping into the psychopathic, dissociative realm, can be argued to be the devilish offspring of the American Dream, and inevitably, the reasons for its shattering. The unavoidable realization that such a warped and fantastical idea is ultimately unattainable is, in a subtext perpetuated by deeply religious community of Holcomb, is comparable to a young child finding out God doesn’t exist. It is this realization, in conjunction with Perry’s difficult upbringing and Dick’s sociopathy that amalgamates in the form of mental illness. It consumes and controls their every impulse, their every vein, it pulls up their arms like a puppeteer to his plaything and pulls the trigger. Perry, who dreams of “hot sand, deep-sea diving in fiery-blue water for hidden treasure” is unable to face the impossibility of the idea. Dick wants to “go on to college” but it is their own mental state that prevents them, in this way the American Dream is a grotesque paradox. It lures in the vulnerable with promise of a better life, than it swallows them whole and spews them back out again with a debilitating health condition, leaving them groveling at the feet of the drooling abomination for another turn on the merry-go-round. It feeds into the swirl of resentment the characters feel towards the society that actively created the American Dream, and is expressed through the only remaining outlet, crime. Crime which culminates in the incarceration of the pair, leaving them with nothing but the rope from which their lifeless flesh dangles. Capote suggests both Dick and Perry were mere victims of an ineffective rehabilitation system, one that in conjunction with their mental illness, trapped them to die in a cell.

The American Dream is ultimately responsible for pushing both Dick and Perry to commit the cardinal sin and inadvertently cause irreparable damage to their own selves. It tells them to make money through any means necessary and allows mental illness to fester, all culminating in their final downfall, the death of the Clutter family and the death of themselves.

In Cold Blood Rhetorical Analysis as Anti Capital Punishment

Through the use of a carefully chosen epigraph, organization, a non authoritative presence, embellishment, researching the character’s backgrounds, and pathos, Truman Capote is able to tell the story of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith in great detail while also presenting his argument against capital punishment in his masterpiece In Cold Blood.

Before the book begins, Capote sets the tone with a verse of “Ballade des pendus” by Francois Villon, which he composed while on Death Row in 1463. Capote kept the excerpt in its original French, but when translated it reads “Men my brothers who live after us, / have your hearts not hardened against us. / For, if on poor us you take pity, / God will sooner show you mercy.” This poem is very subtly foreshadowing Capote’s intentions of writing the book about the killers and their point of view, as well as attempting to make the reader feel pity for them. The poem also references religion, which plays a very important role in the story with the Clutters and especially Perry. Villon’s backstory also has a surprising amount of similarities to Dick and Perry’s crime spree; he murdered a priest, stole from a strongbox right before a crime spree with a gang, and then was arrested for brawling and sentenced to death. Interestingly, his sentence was changed to a 10 year banishment from Paris. Capote uses this epigraph to give readers a glimpse of what they’re in for without revealing any details about what happens. It’s a fitting reference because both Villon and the Clutter Killers committed somewhat similar crimes but had two very different outcomes.

Organization is a very important aspect of In Cold Blood. Part One focuses on the soon-to-be victims of Dick and Perry, the Clutter family, but Part Two skips over the murders and recounts the events that followed. The specifics of how the murders happened is delved into later in the book. Like everything in Capote’s finely crafted masterpiece, this was intentional and done for a specific reason. Smith and Hickock’s trip after their “score” is described before the gruesome details of the murder. This allows Capote to flesh out Dick and Perry as human beings without the reader’s opinion being tainted by knowledge of their appalling actions. It also establishes the Clutters as a personification of the American Dream and gives details about the family that will give the reader a better understanding of events later in the book. In Cold Blood is credited as the beginning of a new genre, creative nonfiction. By combining real events with his literary technique, Capote is in control of how the reader perceives events and characters, which he uses to his advantage to portray Dick and Perry as complex human beings rather than simple criminals.

Every element of the narrative was chosen to be included by Capote based on how effective they were in convincing the reader to agree with him, but this is done without an authoritative stance. For example, he mentions the doctor crying as Andrews’ “heart kept beating for nineteen minutes” (383). Very faint indications of the inhumanity of the death penalty are sprinkled throughout, but Capote doesn’t explicitly state his personal opinion on the matter and presents the information so the reader can come to their own conclusions. This lack of a dominating presence builds Capote’s ethos as having an equitable outside perspective, as well as him not shying away from the details of Dick and Perry’s awful deeds to keep his opinion unbiased and concede that they were far from innocent. His lack of presence is most notable with “the journalist, who was as equally well acquainted with Smith as he was with Hickock” (386). It’s easy for this detail to slip by undetected, but the journalist is actually Capote himself in the process of taking the thousands of pages of notes he prepared for the book. They’re not mentioned in the book, but his extensive note taking and time spent interviewing the inmates certainly also establishes his ethos as an extremely well informed source. Creative nonfiction can create dispute over the validity of the events it presents, and In Cold Blood is no exception. Many witnesses to the hanging claim that Capote’s account of Perry’s apology was embellished for dramatic effect. Choosing to exaggerate Perry’s last words would match the sensitive man Capote portrayed Perry as earlier in the book. However, somebody who says “I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat” (281) when discussing a murder he committed doesn’t seem like they would have much remorse. If Capote did in fact embellish Perry’s apology, it would be to prove that no matter what horrible things someone does, there’s still some humanity left in them and perhaps rehabilitation would be better than the death penalty.

It may come as a surprise that family is a central theme of a book about the brutal murders of an innocent family, but it’s significance is obvious once the characters’ backstories are established. Other than the Clutter family obviously playing an important role, both Dick and Perry’s families from their childhood were given a lot of attention. Dick’s parents sound a lot like the Clutters; both were simple farmers who treated their children well, the main difference between the families being the sizable gap in wealth. Perry, on the other hand, had an awful childhood, which appealed heavily to pathos. His parents had a messy split, his siblings committed suicide, his education ended after third grade, and he was treated horribly by pretty much every adult in his childhood, leaving him without a role model. Nuns beat him for wetting the bed and Perry describes what a Salvation Army children’s shelter worker did to him: “she’d fill a tub with ice-cold water, put me in it, and hold me under till I was blue. Nearly drowned” (152). His tragic upbringing could certainly compel readers to be a little more empathetic to him and understand his mental instability. Dick’s background makes the reader wonder how he ended up in the same position as somebody with a past as difficult as Perry’s, but Capote points out that Dick was never punished for his wrongdoings as a child.

While one case was much more extreme than the other, the way they were raised affected Dick and Perry’s psyche. Dick and Perry’s case was wrought with controversy, and Capote shows that it could be seen as very unfair against the defendants. Even though it didn’t ultimately affect the outcome of the trial, Capote highlighted Dick’s effort to argue the inadequacy of their defense. Among those who believed the trial was unfair was Dick’s father, who said: “The judge up there! I never seen a man so prejudiced. Just no sense having a trial. Not with him in charge” (324). Capote not only questions the morality of the death penalty, but in the process addresses questionable aspects of their trial. More than anything, Capote examines the M’Naghten Rule, described as “quite color blind to any gradations between black and white” (339). This law restricted the psychologist at the hearing to answer only “yes” or “no” when asked if the defendants knew the difference between right and wrong and about their mental health. Most people would agree that this doesn’t really make sense and doesn’t give a juror adequate information to come to a consensus. Capote certainly thought so, and goes so far as to include what the psychologist would have said. Giving the reader more information than the jury had access to creates dramatic irony and makes the reader wonder what the outcome of the case would have been if the jurors had known that Perry showed “definite signs of severe mental illness” (342).

Through the use of numerous rhetorical techniques, Truman Capote effectively argues against the death penalty in In Cold Blood. The use of an epigraph, organized structure, a lack of authority, embellishment, focusing the character’s backgrounds, and looking at the case in detail all subtly persuade the reader to take Capote’s side.

Capote’s Bias and Fairness: An Analysis of In Cold Blood

Nonfiction novels are a genre of book that employ all devices of a fictional piece, however all of the information is completely factual. Though legitimate, the integrity of the writer still can be called into question, depending on the portrayal of the facts. Truman Capote, being the first author to use this style of writing, was the first to twist a true story into his own. He was able to do this in In Cold Blood through his use of bias. Truman Capote shows bias in In Cold Blood through his selective characterization and attention to detail, yet this bias results in a more fair narrative overall.

One way Capote shows his bias in the novel throughout is his clear favoring of Perry over Dick. Capote characterizes Perry in a very positive manner compared to Dick, making readers feel sympathy for him. From the beginning, readers are led to believe that Perry is submissive to Dick. Perry follows what Dick tells him and rarely bothers speaking his own mind. This combined with the contrasting tones Capote uses between the two of them make readers see Perry in a more positive light. For example, using a sympathetic tone while speaking of Perry’s childhood (98) while using a calm, yet humorous, tone just hours before Dick’s execution to make him seem like a sociopath (339). Also, Capote highlights a scene during the murder in which Perry replies to Dick, “Uh-huh. But you’ll have to kill me first” after Dick proposes the idea of raping Nancy (243). This makes readers view Perry as a hero for stopping Dick. Capote’s favoring of Perry over Dick is one of the key ways he displays bias in In Cold Blood and also leads readers to question the integrity of his writing.

Specific details displayed throughout the novel sway the readers’ opinions on who the criminals really are. Capote uses these details to instill is bias into others. One detail from the murder that makes readers question the motives of the criminals, is how pillows are placed under the heads of the victims (64). This detail makes readers wonder why a murderer would go through the trouble of comfort, if they didn’t care about the victim. This gives the appearance that Dick and Perry have compassion. Another thing that makes readers feel sympathy for the killers, is the explanation of their rough childhoods. Perry in particular, had it rough. He was in and out of orphanages, his mother was a drunk, and his father was flaky (132). This coupled with hints of their mentally instability, for example, Dick’s “emotional abnormality” (294) and Perry’s “signs of severe mental illness” (296), pull an emotional response from readers. It makes readers pity the murderers, which typically is not the natural response in a situation like this. This twisting of classic roles makes the novel more fair to both sides.

The bias in favor of the criminals results in In Cold Blood being a more accurate portrayal of both sides of the story. In most murder mystery stories, readers are made to feel more sympathy towards the victims of the crime. The difference in In Cold Blood is that readers not only feel sympathy for the Clutter family, they also relate and hurt along with Dick and Perry. He does this in order to make readers think on a deeper level about capital punishment. Capote evokes these emotions from readers in several ways. One way in which he does this, is he focuses heavily on the pain the criminals face after the murdering. We see Perry “studying” papers at a dinner, reading the article about the murder “fifty times” and questioning what it says (88). Perry is visibly anxious in this moment- he obviously is feeling some remorse. Also, later on, after Dick gets a few drinks in him he exclaims to Perry, “What about Dad? I feel– oh, Jesus, he’s such a good guy. And my mother–” (99). Dick worries about his family and what they will think of him for his crime. Another way Capote pulls readers to feel for the two of them, are by sharing their back story. The story speaks of how Perry had an alcoholic mother who was “strangled to death on her own vomit,” and two of his siblings committed suicide (110). This is a tragic situation for anyone to be in, and it makes readers sympathize for Perry.

Capote makes In Cold Blood a more fair portrayal of the murders by sharing his bias with readers. Capote got up close and personal with the case, allowing him to see all sides of the story and to provide the world with a new perspective. Though his bias is still called into question, it does not change the fact that everything he wrote is completely factual. The mix of fact and bias is what makes this novel as interesting as it is.

In Cold Blood as Experimental Nonfiction

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote reconstructs the Clutter family murder and investigation case into what Capote calls a “nonfiction novel,” an experimental type of journalism that combines the fluidity and continuity of a novel with the facts and sources of a nonfiction work while retaining the appeals of both formats. The story revolves around the murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959 at the hands of Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, two seemingly clashing men whose avarice eventually leads to their downfall, with dialogue, backstory, and factual evidence to flesh out the beginning, middle, and end of the truth surrounding the travesty. As the thrill of uncovering the truth underneath the underneath breathes life into what would otherwise be a bland newspaper article, the novel slowly unravels the fallacy, deceit, and half-truths that engulf the mystery of the Clutter family’s end. It is easy to forget that the characters and events in the story were and are real due to the notion of novels being fantasy or purely imagination, but Capote’s usage of pathos, imagery, and atmosphere to elaborate on the Clutter case using his experimental nonfiction novel as a medium to portray the fruits of his research instills unto the audience that the characters, events, and impacts of the murder are actually real.

Capote uses pathos throughout the novel to accentuate the realness of the murder and those involved in it to give life to the tale beyond mere words printed on pages, particularly paying attention to Perry’s life story to create sympathy and pity for someone who would otherwise be deplorable given his situation that then segues to observations on other characters. While each section of the novel provides a kindred feeling between the audience and characters through the extensive use of pathos, Capote strategically targets Perry, a man whom the reader knows is guilty of murder, and surrounds his character with a tragic backstory: “I was scared because I thought my father was going to hurt me . . . [She would] furiously beat me with a large black leather belt – pull me out of bed by my hair & drag me to the bathroom & throw me in the tub & turn the cold water on . . .” (Capote 274). His childhood relays an abusive, loveless relationship with his parents as the missing puzzle piece to his mental illnesses, justifying his present state of mind by developing his character into a pitiable one. However, Capote firmly reinstates the fact that while Perry’s devastating childhood may have led to his current disposition, it is not an excuse or attempt to escape punishment. This helplessness that the audience feels as they are torn between feeling pity for or disappointed in Perry creates a sense of sympathy for his situation due to the inevitability of the hand he had been dealt; this hopeless situation draws on the audience’s sympathy, thereby making Perry a tragic character that readers can relate to because of his very human-like reaction to his scars. His non-cliche past of violence and neglect are flaws to his character, and because humans are naturally flawed in real life in various ways, Perry’s own faults give him an air of realism. Unlike other novels’ characters that seem to be too good to be true, Capote illustrates Perry as a broken yet loyal man who abides to his own set of questionable morals. Due to his imperfections, the audience can relate him to themselves in a way that they are constantly reminded of the fact that he was a real person with real feelings and, eventually, a real death. It makes the audience wonder and ponder the reasoning behind why someone could possibly take another’s life; to what extent was the murderer, Perry, pushed to to even consider killing? These questions and the flaws that birthed them contribute to the relatability of the audience to Perry, for he also feels emotions as the audience does. Opposite to other characters in novels that are merely fantasy, Perry was actually a real person who lived life like the audience did, albeit estranged to the joys of living, and readers are constantly reminded of this through his flaws, thoughts, and mistakes that blossomed from Capote’s pathos-based description of him.

Vivid imagery is a major part of Capote’s novel due to its ability to enrapture the audience in its stunning descriptions and situations that shock them by its realness, a factor that is usually lost in novels but is not in In Cold Blood. The information contained in the highly descriptive imagery that Capote entwines with the text creates a sense of surrealness, as if the reader were viewing it through the eyes of the characters themselves. Instead of simple two-dimensional visions from the text, Capote reminds the audience that his novel is nonfiction to boot by appealing to our senses when he writes during the Clutter’s funeral, “The four coffins, which quite filled the small, flower-crowded parlor, were to be sealed at the funeral services – very understandably, for despite the care taken with the appearance of the victims, the effect achieved was disquieting. Nancy wore her dress of cherry-red velvet, her brother a bright plaid shirt; the parents were more sedately attired, Mr. Clutter in navy-blue flannel, his wife in navy-blue crepe; and – and it was this, especially, that lent the scene an awful aura – the head of each was completely encased in cotton, a swollen cocoon twice the size of an ordinary blown-up balloon, and the cotton, because it had been sprayed with a glossy substance, twinkled like Christmas tree snow” (95). The reader is overcome with a feeling of dread as they read “victims” and “head” due to the prior knowledge of the family being murder victims who were shot in the head. The image of a ghastly mass funeral enters the reader’s mind as they read the overly descriptive text, a scene where each of the four heads is covered with a layer of cotton to shield their gruesome injuries from the public view. The mood is somber and grieving; the family is dressed in nice clothing despite their grotesque forms, almost as if to mock the people who miss them and wish they were still alive. As the audience replays this scene in their head, they are met with the undeniable fact that other characters, real people as well, were affected greatly by this funeral and the death of the Clutter’s. The dark mood that overhangs the funeral and its imagery is nearly palpable, a stark contrast against the vibrancy of the family while they were still alive; readers take this into account and unconsciously take in the small details: the reactions of those around them, the gruesome descriptions of their dead bodies, the funeral service, the specific words used to illustrate the event, and, most importantly, the sullen mood the imagery invokes. Eventually, these small snippets add up and, suddenly and shockingly, the audience realizes the effect the death of the Clutter family had on others around them. It makes them realize that, because this is a nonfiction and they were real people, the impact around them was also real as well. The imagery Capote uses helpfully illustrates the impact of the event and masterfully crafts a sense of tangibility to the fact that the event, people, and reactions were all real instead of mere work of fiction.

The atmosphere of In Cold Blood that Capote illustrates greatly increases the audience’s awareness of the reality of his nonfiction work. Immediately, the story begins with: “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.’ . . . The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them” (3). This rustic description of the primary setting invokes a podunk feeling about the story, as if the village the novel took place in was a separate reality from the rest of the world. “A lonesome area” and “out there” are phrases used to describe Holcomb, giving it a cryptic, mysterious air because of the lack of details. Simply stating that Holcomb was “as graceful as Greek temples” offers the audience a feeling of awe as they imagine a majestic village closed off from the rest of the world, still within reach but not quite there, just like the great Greek architectures full of grandeur. Greek temples were known to inspire awe from those who have seen it, so to describe Holcomb as such would be to compare it to an awestruck sight. This creates an atmosphere of mystery surrounding the podunk village; its lack of industrial details makes Holcomb seem like a place where reality is slightly warped, where time has no place and things are perpetually perfect. This puzzling feeling the audience feels is similar to how one feels about their own home: it is there but not quite connected to the rest of the world. The relatability of Holcomb’s description as the Clutter’s home to the audience’s home provides insight on how the characters, real people who lived in this real village, must have felt about it. The solemn, almost dignified atmosphere the state of Holcomb, Kansas is in reminds the audience that even if Holcomb seems like an exotic world all by itself, it’s still the home to many others who share similar feelings about it as the audience does to their own home, that Holcomb isn’t some fantasy world created from pure fiction alone.

In Cold Blood is an experimental novel by Truman Capote that takes the boundaries of fictitious novels and nonfiction works and combines them to create a nonfiction novel. Capote retells the tale of the Clutter family murder in 1959 in Holcomb, Kansas using pathos, imagery, and atmosphere as his main strategies to grab the audience’s attention and show them that despite the novel seeming like a work of fiction because of its format, the work pertains to real people who existed and lived lives similar to the audience’s. His surprising detail in these three devices give the audience a sense of realism towards the characters and events in this story.

Character Development in In Cold Blood: From the Clutters to Their Killers

A majority of the world would agree that random murder is unethical and deserving of severe punishment- especially if this murder is done to an innocent, kind family. However, there is a great debate over the extent of punishment which random murder deserves. Should capital punishment be permitted? What is human life worth, and who has the authority to declare it? In the nonfiction novel In Cold Blood, author Truman Capote fully characterizes the victims, the Clutter family, using dialogue and outside descriptions in order to help the reader comprehend the loss and murder of the family more fully, and to ironically humanize the murderers Dick and Perry using parallelism; this is done in order to subtly suggest Capote’s belief that capital punishment is wrong.

As the reader gets to know the Clutter family members through dialogue and outside description, the characters become more real to the reader, so their deaths feel more personal. First, we read a description of Nancy, “a pretty girl… [whose] eyes… made her immediately likeable, [they] at once announced her lack of suspicion” (Capote 19). Nancy’s eyes stand out, especially because of their reflection of her innocence. She is personified here as a doe eyed gazelle unaware of the huntsman, or an innocent lamb to be slaughtered. This makes the reader feel increased sympathy for Nancy, as the damsel in distress is a familiar character- and the damsel who wasn’t saved is by far a tragic story. Second, the reader sees Mrs. Ashida’s opinion of Herb, as she tells him, “I can’t imagine you afraid. No matter what happened, you’d talk your way out of it” (Capote 36). Herb is the father figure. He is supposed to protect his family. He is, ideally, practically invincible. With the murder of Herb, the reader sees a hero’s failure, and so further comprehends the loss of the family.

Finally, we see the nature of Bonnie and Kenyon. In one of her meltdowns, Bonnie tells Wilma, “I’m missing out on… The best years, the children- everything… And how will [Kenyon] remember me? As a kind of ghost” (Capote 30). All Bonnie hopes for is a chance to connect with Kenyon, who is in every sense “Bonnie’s child, a sensitive and reticent boy” (Capote 39). However, with the murder of the Clutter family, any possibility for a close relationship is taken away with the brutality of chance and a gun. In all of these cases the author plays on the sympathies of the reader using intertextuality, as a familiarity with the types of characters helps further realize the loss of the characters and the value of human life. Further, Capote uses stock characters to develop the reader’s expectations, and then he changes the narrative from the stock character’s traditional role in order to further emotionally involve the reader.

As Capote continually quotes and references the Clutters throughout the book, he also characterizes the murderers. So, while the reader winces upon hearing Perry’s testimony of the final cries of Nancy, which sounded like, “Oh, no! Oh, please. No! No! No! No! Don’t! Oh, please don’t! Please!” (Capote 245), the reader also feels a twinge of sympathy upon hearing of the immense neglect and abuse Perry suffered (Capote 130-136). As Capote himself said, ” If [Perry had] had any chance in life, things would have been different…” The author uses parallelism to humanize the murderers in the same way he had humanized the murdered: with life stories and outside descriptions. In this way, Capote is claiming equality between the murderers and the murdered; both parties are a part of humankind and capable of loving and being loved. This serves to finalize Capote’s subtly written belief that capital punishment is inhumane. The Clutters, Dick, and Perry all had valuable lives and great potential; ultimately, the Clutters, Dick, and Perry all lost this potential.

Capote expresses his disapproval of capital punishment to the readers, simply by employing human understanding. While most would agree the deeds Dick and Perry had done were sick and cruel (to say the least), some are able to read Capote’s narrative of their lives and come away with the slightest compassion for Dick and Perry. Though they have killed and done wrong, they are still a part of humanity. Capote shares his belief that all people are equal- all are surging forward to their goals, all are loving or hating, all are different and yet one coherent whole of ingenuity and hope. Capote wanted the reader to see the truth: human life is valuable.