Capital Punishment Critique in Capote’s Novel in Cold Blood
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.
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