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.
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