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.
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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 […]