In Cold Blood is crafted like a modern-day tragedy, on the scale of one of the Greek dramas from classical antiquity, and deals with many of the same universal themes: murder, vengeance, and the pursuit of justice. This, for Capote, was the power of his new literary genre, the nonfiction novel: to take events from the contemporary world and elevate them to epic storytelling proportions, enabling them to transcend their specific historical moment and reflect on broader truths about humanity. Capote assembles the disparate facts and perspectives about the Clutter case into a narrative that speaks profoundly on the nature of human life and death, criminality, American society and the pursuit of individual happiness -- reinventing in the process many of our modern-day forms of mythology (for example, the myth of the American dream).
Loss of Innocence/Undermining the American Dream
The Clutter killings are a turning point for the citizens of Holcomb and Garden City: for the first time, the dangerous wider world seems to threaten their peaceful existence, and their former naïveté gives way to feelings of doubt, fear and suspicion. According to Capote, it is the first time the citizens of this part of Kansas have had to endure the “unique experience of distrusting each other” (88). Their version of the American dream – of safety, security, and the ability to determine their own fate – becomes undermined, if not entirely thwarted, by the victimization of the Clutters. Their view of the world must suddenly include another kind of person, a poor, embittered, “rootless” person, for whom this dream was never an option in the first place.
The Banality of Evil
When the murders are first discovered, Perry and Dick, as “persons unknown,” are elevated to an inhuman, almost mythic stature, the essence of a pure and motiveless evil that has come to destroy the peaceful lifestyle of the Holcomb residents. Capote, however, replaces this simplistic view with a more nuanced and sensitive interpretation, by exploring the material, psychological, environmental circumstances that cause two otherwise ordinary human beings to commit such an atrocious act. Throughout the novel, Perry and Dick are transformed from heartless, cold-blooded menaces, whose actions seem to defy human logic, into the fraught, pitiful, completely humanized individuals they are at the end of the book, and the crime itself is boiled down to a very basic and fairly understandable set of emotional responses. Although he does not attempt to excuse their actions, Capote shows how ordinary feelings of frustration and despair accidentally erupt into such an extraordinary crime. The book seems to contend that criminality and “evil” are not things apart, as we tend to define them, but normal human responses that merely become amplified and find a destructive outlet.
Family life is a key determinant of individual character in the context of the book. The Clutters, who symbolize the utmost integrity of family life, are obliterated by Perry, who represents everything it means to come from a broken home. The Clutters’ uprightness is related to the strength of their family, as Perry’s criminality is connected to the dissolution of his own kinship ties. In spirit, Dick is still wedded to his first wife, and his dreams of becoming self-sufficient are linked to the ability to support her and their three sons. The strength of a person’s family ties has the larger implication of whether that person can live happily, well-off, and in a self-determined fashion. (The exception to this rule is with regard to Dick’s parents, who seem to have raised him lovingly and for whom he has genuine respect and affection, despite his criminal tendencies.)
The Clutter killings are symbolic of a class conflict, highlighting the discrepancy between the affluent, middle-class, predominantly white citizens of Holcomb and the underprivileged, working-class, mixed-race (in the case of Perry) killers. Theft is the only form of economic mobility that Perry and Dick have ever known, as neither of them have had a chance at a proper education or a solid career (Dick, we learn, could not afford to attend college, and Perry was forced to help his father earn their basic subsistence in Alaska). Economic insecurity is at the root of the murders on every level: it forms the initial motive for the break-in (to steal the contents of Herb Clutter’s safe), and later on causes Perry to feel ashamed, for “crawling on my belly to steal a child’s silver dollar” (240), a sentiment which is ultimately to blame for the fatal turn the robbery takes.
The theme of self- or ego-image is crucial to understanding the interpersonal dynamics of Perry and Dick, especially those that lead to the eventual murder spree. Both men, Perry especially, are highly image-conscious and attuned to how others perceive them. Towards the end of the book, we learn from Perry’s psychiatric evaluation that he is “overly sensitive to criticisms that others make of him, and cannot tolerate being made fun of. He is quick to sense slight or insult in things others say” (297). In some sense, the rivalry between Dick and Perry is a mutual struggle for self-recognition, with each wishing the other man would validate his own self-image (this may be fueled, as some critics have suggested, by homoerotic desire). Self-image represents, in a larger sense, social status and self-determination, neither of which is available to these men. For Perry, the botched robbery at the Clutters is a painful reminder of his own lack of means or social mobility, and his feelings of shame and self-loathing at this realization are ultimately at the root of his homicidal rampage.
Homoerotic desire is just below the surface of the relationship between Dick and Perry, between Perry and Willie-Jay, and, more implicitly, in the meta-textual relationship of Truman Capote to his two subjects. Whether or not these attractions were overtly acknowledged or even consciously realized by their subjects (Capote thought it was likely that both men had repressed these feelings), they are a palpable subtext of the narrative and serve several functions. On one level, they elucidate the relationship of Dick and Perry, adding a layer of intensity to their interactions that helps to explain why, for example, they might have become so frustrated at the Clutter home, or why so much of Perry’s self-image rests on Dick’s opinion of him. But the theme of homosexuality also functions as a larger symbol of, and premise for, Dick and Perry’s status as outsiders, social misfits for whom conventional society seems to have no place. At the time that In Cold Blood was penned, homosexuals were considered a threat to the social order, so much so that the F.B.I. kept official watch lists in order to monitor their activities. This unspoken element of their relationship heightens the intensity of their clash with conservative, small-town American life, and raises the stakes of the murder trial by a perceptible margin.
Perry and Dick’s criminal tendencies are revealed to have underlying medical causes (Perry suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, and Dick has brain damage from a concussion); the difficulty of the murder trial becomes, to what extent are they still accountable for their actions? In a larger sense, the book seems to grapple with the question of whether the same moral standards are applicable to all people, regardless of their upbringing and their life circumstances; or whether Perry and Dick are in some measure redeemed (at least morally, if not legally) by the fact of their mental illness, and the fact that their own lives have been so lacking.
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.