“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, 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.”
The book begins and ends with descriptions of the landscape; the serenity of the plains is an unlikely setting for a tragedy, which makes it all the more disturbing when one does occur. The book starts by taking the “long view” of its subjects, outlining them from a distance before eventually zooming in to probe the microscopic details of the case, a trajectory that reflects Capote's own dealings with the residents of Holcomb and Garden City. Here, also, Capote compares the landscape to that of ancient Greece, indicating that the story contained in these pages has larger significance as an examination of timeless human themes.
“This hitherto peaceful congregation of neighbors and old friends had suddenly to endure the unique experience of distrusting each other; understandably, they believed that the murderer was among themselves.”
The Clutter killings wreak havoc on the security of Holcomb, fragmenting the community and sowing the first seeds of doubt and suspicion. In allegorical terms, the residents of Holcomb experience a kind of fall from grace, and a loss of their former innocence, as for the first time they are forced to confront the unseemly reality of the killers and the world they represent.
“‘Deal me out, baby,’ Dick said. ‘I’m a normal.’ And Dick meant what he said. He thought of himself as balanced, as sane as anyone—maybe a bit smarter than the average fellow, that’s all. But Perry—there was, in Dick’s opinion, ‘something wrong’ with Little Perry.”
Dick uses Perry as a foil for his own self-image, often belittling or impugning him for his more eccentric, “childish,” or effeminate qualities, in comparison with which Dick convinces himself that he is “normal.” Perry, on the other hand, prides himself on being “exceptional,” sensitive, even “artistic” in comparison to Dick. However, each man looks to the other for affirmation of his own masculinity, Dick latching onto Perry for his “killer instincts,” and Perry yearning for Dick to think him “hard, as much the ‘masculine type’ as he considered Dick to be” (111).
“No, sir, I wouldn’t have him in the house. One look and I saw what he was. With his perfume. And his oily hair. It was clear as day where Dick had met him.”
Mrs. Hickock makes a snap judgment of Perry, based on his appearance, which alienates him from their household, and at the same time speaks more generally to how Perry is perceived in the eyes of “conventional” Americans. Whether or not his “perfume” and “oily hair” are signifiers of a homosexual orientation - as Mrs. Hickock presumes - they mark Perry as different and, symbolically, divorced from the family-oriented, middle-class American values that other characters so preciously uphold.
“They shared a doom against which virtue was no defense."
In a moment of despair, Barbara takes a deterministic view of her and Perry’s lives. Wishing to rid herself of the burden of their troubled upbringing, she has settled into a comfortable and secure life with her husband; but Perry is a constant reminder of her past, and his run-ins with the law feed her own insecurities that she, too, will one day succumb to the fate of her siblings and parents. Unnerved by this possibility, she turns her back on Perry, causing him to venture further down the path of self-destruction and isolation.
“[Dick] was holding the knife. I asked him for it, and he gave it to me, and I said, ‘All right, Dick. Here goes.’ But I didn’t mean it. I meant to call his bluff, make him argue me out of it, make him admit he was a phony and a coward. See, it was something between me and Dick. I knelt down beside Mr. Clutter, and the pain of kneeling—I thought of that goddam dollar. Silver dollar. The shame. Disgust. And they’d told me never to come back to Kansas. But I didn’t realize what I’d done till I heard the sound. Like somebody drowning. Screaming under water.”
Perry describes his motivation for the first of the killings. It begins with a rivalrous confrontation with Dick over whether Dick will go through with his promise to “blast hair all over the walls”; this is quickly eclipsed by Perry’s feelings of shame and self-loathing while reflecting on the indignity of the botched robbery and, by association, the indignity of his life as a criminal. He is hardly conscious of slitting Herb Clutter’s throat; the murder comes as a kind of automatic response to the memory of other frustrations and insults he has endured, of which the Clutter household is symbolic.
“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.”
Perry claims to have liked Mr. Clutter, as well as the other members of the family; this at first seems ironic, but in fact it says a great deal about Perry’s motive for killing the Clutters. The murders, it seems, were not inspired by a literal hatred of this specific family, but by misdirected frustration and resentment that finds a symbolic object in the Clutters and the values that they represent. The family is unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of this fury, but they are by no means its source.
“The crime was a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act; the victims might as well have been killed by lightning. Except for one thing: they had experienced prolonged terror, they had suffered. And Dewey could not forget their sufferings. Nonetheless, he found it possible to look at the man beside him without anger—with, rather, a measure of sympathy—for Perry Smith’s life had been no bed of roses but pitiful, an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage or another.”
Dewey is ambivalent about the moral implications of the Clutter case: while he acknowledges the detestable nature of the crimes, he finds it difficult to wholeheartedly condemn the men responsible, for they too have suffered in unspeakable ways, and beyond this, seem to have lost control of themselves in committing the murders. The Clutters represent everything that Perry has been denied in his own life; Dewey’s sentiments are close to those of the book as a whole, which emphasizes the difficulty of making an absolute moral judgment of the killers one way or the other.
“When Smith attacked Mr. Clutter he was under a mental eclipse, deep inside a schizophrenic darkness.”
This quote is from the clinical analysis of Perry’s criminal tendencies, and it legitimizes Perry’s claim that he was not in complete control of his actions when he carried out the murders of the Clutters. He was, rather, acting out of his medical incapacity to manage his emotional responses.
“Dewey was fifty-one, four years older than when he supervised the Clutter investigation. . . . The dream of settling on his farm had not come true, for his wife’s fear of living in that sort of isolation had never lessened. Instead, the Deweys had built a new house in town; they were proud of it, and proud, too, of both their sons, who were deep-voiced now and as tall as their father. The older boy was headed for college in the autumn.”
The book concludes from the perspective of Alvin Dewey, and the developments of his life since the Clutter case reflect the passage of time and the resilience of the surrounding community in the wake of the deaths. The memory of the Clutters persists, having made its permanent impression on their lives; but nonetheless, Dewey and his family are oriented towards the future, taking in stride the triumphs and the losses of the passing years.
In Cold Blood Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for In Cold Blood is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
As one of four children born to the Western rodeo duo of Tex John Smith and Florence Buckskin, Perry lived an impoverished and itinerant childhood until his parents’ separation when Perry was six years old. After living for a short while with his...
In a Mexico City hotel room, Perry browses through his personal artifacts and papers. He comes across a letter written by his father on his behalf while at the Kansas State Penitentiary, detailing the events of Perry’s early life. As one of four...