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.
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