In Cold Blood: Literary Analysis

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The story of a family of four living the American dream only to be killed seemingly without motive is a tale that explores crime and its possibilities. In Cold Blood, published as a four-part serial in The New Yorker, is a nonfiction novel written by Truman Capote. Published in January of 1966 with 343 pages, In Cold Blood has been recognized as a classic and been given the Edgar Award for best fact crime. The book follows the real-life story of the Clutter family murders and its consequences. It’s about striving for recognition, social order, and the achievement of dreams no matter the societal position.

The story opens up with the Clutter family, Herbert, Bonnie, and their teenage children Nancy and Kenyon. They lead a prominent and prosperous life on their farm in Holcomb Kansas. The narrative follows the Clutter family through to November 14th, 1959 ominously referred to as their “last.” In another part of Kansas, the story follows two men, Dick Hitchcock, and Perry Smith who are forming plans to make it big. They head towards Garden City and proceed to the Clutter farm. The morning after the fateful event, friends arrive at the Clutter house and find all four family member brutally murdered. The scene troubles the residents as well as the police officers who find little to no evidence. The investigation is launched and the story continues to follow Smith and Hitchcock as details of the murder are slowly revealed. We learn more about the murderers past, hopes, and dreams. The investigation picks up after a former employee of Herb Clutter and former cellmate of Hitchcock’s reveals information on the two. The police trace, capture the murderers, interrogate them, and they are put on trial. The prisoners’ experience psychiatric evaluations and are found to be guilty. They spend five years on death row with other high-profile murderers. Eventually, the two are hanged on April 14, 1965. The last scene shows the lead investigator visiting the cemetery where the Clutters are buried. He takes a moment to wonder at life’s persistence even in the face of tragedy.

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Throughout the book, the author’s style and tone are used to further engage the reader and tell the story. Capote’s language is used for the in-depth development of characters as the events and facts of the story are already known. More freedom is given in what he can write about the characters and uses that allowance fully. The detail given offers different perspectives, for example, Perry who is known as a murderer and to be monstrous is given a poetic voice with a soft heart of dreams. These details are used to convince the reader to believe the story and Capote does brilliantly. In the original publication of the story, there is an editor’s note at the top of the first installment which reads, “All quotations in this article are taken either from official records or from conversations, transcribed verbatim, between the author and the principals.” Capote claimed all the facts to be true, therefore he had to create a realistic style to make it feel as real as possible. Capote’s tone is found to be both fatalistic and empathetic and can be found even in the beginnings of the book when the narrator describes Nancy Clutter setting out her dress for church, then mentions that those are the clothes she will be buried in. This approach is detached and supports the grim outlook that people have no power over what happens to them. Facts are stated without emotion, just as cold hard facts. “You live till you die, and it doesn’t matter how you go; dead’s dead.”(3.146)

Multiple themes can be identified in this book, such as family, Christianity, and plans and dreams. Each of these are found throughout and tie in closely with the characters. The idea of family in this book is seen as something that protects you. Family ties are the explanation as to why Smith is seen as a misfit and why the Clutters are the seemingly picture-perfect family. Both Hitchcock and the high-profile murders are examples that you’re family doesn’t entirely influence you. Capote shows a balance between growing up changing the characters and their DNA not being entirely representative. The idea of religion, Christianity in particular, is seen throughout this book. Particularly the idea of redemption and salvation. The Clutters are seen as extremely religious whereas Smith developed an aversion to it due to abusive nuns. Smith’s recurring childhood vision of a golden parrot that descends upon him in times of need is believed by him to be a sort of avenging angel. The concept of good and evil also plays a role in turning Hitchcock and Perry’s lives to crime, the death penalty, and their plans and dreams. The idea that the American dream is necessary is why characters struggle to achieve their dreams and scrutinize those who don’t

Capote’s bias in this book can be found in terms of characters and their continuity. One way he shows bias is in his clear favoring of Smith over Hitchcock. He sympathizes with Smith and portrays him in a far more positive manner compared to Hitchcock. The tones Capote uses between the two influence the readers to see Smith in a more positive light. For example, an empathetic tone is used when speaking of Smith’s childhood while the description of Hitchcock’s makes him seem sociopathic. Especially when Hitchcock’s pedophilic tendencies are revealed along with Smith’s disproval of them. Details are placed throughout the book to make readers question the motives of the criminals and their compassion for those they murdered. Such as the placement of pillows under the victims head as a final act of compassion. Artistic flourishes are also found. Capote doesn’t know everything about the story and definitely doesn’t know what Mr. Clutter was thinking while strolling on his farm. Or what Perry’s motive for the murder really was. These ideas aren’t verifiable, but they are necessary in order to follow a narrative. They can be accurate in the general sense and in terms of themes even if they’re slightly inconsistent in detail. Capote’s bias as a whole has some effect on the reader, but nothing drastic. Perhaps the readers were swayed one way or another, maybe he compromised the integrity of the characters, but it’s needed if one is going to mix fact and fiction with the desire for artistic prose.

As a piece of journalism, Capote’s book was one of the first to start the literary movement of new journalism. This type of writing pushed the limits of traditional journalism and non-fiction writing. It combined journalistic research with techniques used in fiction writing to create stories about real-life events like the Clutter murders. Capote submersed himself into the story and collected six years of research and interviews. All of which were transcribed by memory without use of tape recorders or notes. His novel is full of details that wouldn’t be found in a newspaper story. Capote got so into the story that he felt torn apart by the conflict and expressed how haunted he was by the whole ordeal. He wanted to create this book as a literary experiment and felt he was one of the rare creative people who took journalism seriously. In my opinion, In Cold Blood is a great piece of journalism. It varies from the norm and offers a whole new perspective on the story. By taking a risk Capote’s work paid off and brought new ideas to the table. He says,” the most underestimated, the least explored of literary mediums is journalism, and that in the right hands journalism, reportage, could be forced to yield a serious new art form.”

In Cold Blood a true account of multiple murders and its consequences, a true story of lost hopes, dreams, and the continuation of life after tragedy. This book has a lot to offer as a narrative as well as a piece of journalism. It provides information while simultaneously giving the reader a colorful look into the past. It’s an enjoyable read that dives into the meaning behind the facts and puts the reader into a visual whirlwind that engages them with the story. Capote created a valuable resource, one that will be here for the ages. This book is recommended for anyone who loves a grounded story with a sense of realism. “Imagination, of course, can open any door – turn the key and let terror walk right in.”            


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