Before you start diving into Jamie's incredible In Cold Blood study guide, I'd highly recommend that you check out LSG's free Ultimate Guide to VCE Text Response.
Introduction and Narration
• Although its structure and cinematic plot development resemble that of crime fiction, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a ‘nonfiction novel’ detailing the 1959 murders of four members of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas. Put simply, the book was conceived of journalism and born of a novelist.
• The novel is a product of years of extensive research by Capote and his friend and fellow author Harper Lee, who followed the trails of the Kansas criminals across numerous US states. In Cold Blood revolutionised the American ideals of journalism and literature, blurring the lines between these labels.
• A notable technique Capote employed in order to access classified information was becoming personally acquainted with the criminals of the case. For example, Capote became extremely close to Perry Smith, one of the main murderers in the case, which gave him exclusive information on the personal motives of the killers.
• In Cold Blood reflects this relationship with the murderer through Capote’s narration of the book as an objective bystander. On page 23, we see the almost endearing way that Capote describes Perry; “his voice was both gentle and prim– a voice that, though soft, manufactured each word exactly, ejected it like a smoke ring issuing from a parson’s mouth.” As such, Capote’s friendship with Perry allows him to present the killer to the audience with a certain humanity and empathy, showcasing a broader picture of criminals than just a merciless murderer.
True facts of the Case
• On the 15th of November, 1959, all four members of the small farming Clutter family were brutally murdered, including Herbert Clutter, his wife Bonnie Clutter and their two teenage children, Nancy and Kenyon.
• The family was discovered bound and shot in the head. Herb’s throat had also been slashed. After ransacking the entire house, the criminals had left without finding any cash, carrying with them no more than fifty dollars, a pair of binoculars and a transistor radio.
• Perry Edward Smith and Richard Eugene ‘Dick’ Hickock were convicted of the crime. The two men had become acquainted during serving time at the Kansas State Penitentiary, and soon confessed to the crime, claiming that that they had heard from another prisoner that Herb Clutter was extremely wealthy, and kept his money in an easy-to-reach safe in his house.
• After the confession, the two murderers were flown from Nevada to Garden City, where they stood trial for their crimes. On 29 March, 1960, they received a guilty verdict, and were sentenced to the death penalty. For the following five years, Smith and Hickock lived on death row in Leavenworth, Kansas and were executed by hanging on the 14th of April, 1965.
Perry Edward Smith
One of the two murderers of the Clutter case, Smith is portrayed as a sensitive and artistic man haunted by his turbulent and lonely childhood. Described by Capote as a man of ‘actorish’ good looks, he disfigured both of his legs due to a motorcycle accident, which gave him chronic pain and an addiction to aspirin. His criminal actions are often directly linked to his childhood, described as ‘no bed of roses but pitiful, an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage and then another’. Smith’s father was extremely abusive towards his wife, Flo Buckskin, and his four children, and so Buckskin later divorced him, taking the children with her. However, on her own she became an alcoholic and died by choking on her own vomit when Smith was only thirteen years old. He was then transferred to a Catholic orphanage, where he suffered from psychological, sexual and physical abuse from the nuns, one of whom attempted to drown him. Smith’s father and two of his siblings committed suicide during his time on death row. Smith eventually befriended Capote through their extensive interviews, and is believed to have shared personal information with him, believing him to be a true friend.
Richard Eugene ‘Dick’ Hickock
The second murderer of the Clutter case. Having grown up in Kansas, Hickock was a popular football player before turning to a life of crime after realising that he could not afford to go to college. During the course of the Clutter murder investigations, Hickock persistently blamed all of the murders on his partner in crime, Smith, claiming that ‘Perry Smith killed the Clutters…. It was Perry. I couldn’t stop him. He killed them all.’ Capote later states that during the murder, Smith was the one who stopped Hickock from raping the 16-year-old Nancy Clutter, as Hickock harboured pedophilic tendencies.
A well-liked and kind-hearted wheat farmer in Holcomb, Kansas. Proprietor of the large River Valley Farm, Herb is described as a hardworking and valued citizen before his murder, who lead a relatively quiet life other than a troubled marriage with his wife due to her chronic depression.
Described as an ‘anxious woman’, it is revealed that Bonnie has a history of numerous mental illnesses, one of which is postpartum depression. Capote states that she and Herb had not slept in the same bed for many years.
Described as the ‘darling of the town’ - the class president and future prom queen Nancy was the 16 year old daughter of the Clutters.
Athletic but introverted, Kenyon was the 15 year old son of Herbert and Bonnie Clutter.
A personal friend of the Clutters, Dewey was the primary investigator in the Clutter murder case and worked for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
Themes and Motifs
The American Dream
The novel is Capote’s reflection upon the American Dream, as he portrays both the lives of those who epitomise it and those who are tragically out of its reach. Herb Clutter’s position as an upstanding American citizen with a prosperous farm elicits the reader’s interpretation of his character as the rags-to-riches ideal. In stark contrast with this, the rootless and criminal Dick Hancock and Perry Smith are presented as individuals for whom the Dream is perpetually unattainable. Their attempt to finally become ‘rich’ materialises through their attempt to rob the Clutters’ home, the failure of which ironically results in their brutal murders of the people who successfully represented the American Dream.
In accordance with the American Dream, In Cold Blood also explores the concept of what is considered ‘normal’ in America, and what can be revealed as the darker underbelly of its white picket fence ideal. Dick asserts throughout the novel that he is ‘normal’, but from an external, objective perspective, he is clearly far from such; he has distorted physical features and has committed a terrible, vicious murder. Capote also explores the idea of normal mental health, as Bonnie Clutter seems to have the perfect marriage and life with Herb, and yet suffers from extreme bouts of ‘nervousness’ and chronic depression which result in her hospitalisation.
What is evil is primarily explored through the character of Perry, who has conflicting ideals about what can be considered truly ‘evil’. The more feminine and gentler of the two murderers, Perry possesses conflicting morals, as despite being a ruthless murderer, he does feel remorse and is affected by what he has done. He even thinks to himself that Herb Clutter is a ‘very nice gentleman’ even in the midst of slitting his throat. Capote in the novel reveals that there are numerous facets to the meaning of true ‘evil’, and the blurred borders that exist between each of these.
Symbolising the idea of dominance and power, Dick and Perry, who have a complementary and polarised gender relationship, feed off each other in order to boost their own masculinity. Described as ‘aggressively heterosexual’, Dick is evidently the more stereotypically masculine counterpart, having had numerous relations with women. Perry, on the other hand, is more feminine and submissive, as Dick often calls him names such as ‘sugar’ and ‘honey’. Both men in the novel utilise the other in order to make themselves feel more masculine in their highly restrictive and conservative society — while Dick emphasises Perry’s feminine qualities, Perry admires Dick and craves his words of affirmation that he, too, is masculine.
Essay Writing for In Cold Blood
Below are some possible prompts for In Cold Blood, and possible ideas to begin writing an essay.
Theme-based Essay Prompt
"I think it is a hell of a thing that a life has to be taken in this manner. I say this especially because there's a great deal I could have offered society. I certainly think capital punishment is legally and morally wrong.”
Is In Cold Blood merely a novelistic argument against the death penalty? Discuss.
To learn more about LSG’s Five Types of essay prompts, I’d highly recommend checking out this blog post. It’s a super unique strategy developed by the founder of LSG, Lisa Tran. The Five Types method, outlined in the top-rated How To Write A Killer Text Response eBook, takes the stress of students and gives them easy to follow rules and tips so that they know how to approach every essay topic, every time.
• The best way to approach any essay prompt is to recognise the limiting and/or important words of the essay question. In this thematic prompt these words are: ‘legally and morally’, and ‘merely’.
• Secondly, for prompts which incorporate a quote, it is helpful to understand the context of the quote. In this case, the quote was said by Perry as his last words before his execution by hanging. Consider the importance of this; these words are especially more meaningful as they symbolise the last direct influence he leaves upon society. They are remorseful words of a murderer reproaching the justice system, which begs the question - does Capote position the reader to agree with the murderer’s view?
• Planning this essay can be structured along three arguments...
1. Capote argues against capital punishment through eliciting pathos for the murderers and portraying them as more than mere monsters.
• Evidence for this argument could be based mostly on the descriptive elements of Capote’s writing, or his emotional attachment to the murderers, particularly Perry.
• Capote paints Perry particularly sympathetically, highlighting his sensitivity as well as his broken and abusive childhood. Quotations from the novel make it clear that his character is romanticised to an extent, such as “It was a changeling's face, and mirror-guided experiments had taught him how to ring the changes, how to look now ominous, now impish, now soulful; a tilt of the head, a twist of the lips, and the corrupt gypsy became the gentle romantic.”
2. In Cold Blood supports the anti-death penalty argument through its structure and organisation.
• The epigraph of the novel is a verse of the poem, ‘Ballade des pendus’ by Francois Villon, that he composed whilst on death row in 1463. Villon’s criminal circumstances were strikingly similar with Dick and Perry’s, as he murdered a priest and stole from his strongbox before being arrested and sentenced to death. Despite this, Villon was ultimately charged with a 10 year banishment from Paris, whereas the Clutter family murderers are hanged - a strikingly different outcome. Thus, Capote employs this poetic epigraph to strengthen his argument against the unjust executions of Perry and Dick.
• In addition to this, the structure of the novel is also used to argue against capital punishment. Although Part One focuses on the lives of both the Clutter family members and Dick and Perry preceding the murder, Part Two skips over the actual murders themselves and recounts the aftermath of its events. This allows Capote to further develop Dick and Perry into real, complex people rather than merely cold blooded murderers; people who do not deserve such a cruel fate.
3. However, Capote does ostensibly condemn the cruelty of the murders and presents the opposing argument that capital punishment is not, in fact, ‘legally and morally wrong’.
• The brutality of the Clutter murders are emphasised through the novel, as Larry Hendricks, who discovers the bodies along with the police, provides the gruesome details of the bodies - ‘each tied up and shot in the head, one with a slit throat’.
• As Perry later admits to the murder in his extended confession, Dewey highlights the fact that the Clutters ‘had suffered’ due to the ‘prolonged terror' inflicted by the murderers, and orders them, as such, to be ‘hanged back to back’.
• The argument for capital punishment in In Cold Blood is also supported by religious beliefs. As a small and predominantly Christian town, Kansas and its residents can be perceived interpreting the words of the Bible literally; at the end Dick and Perry’s trial, the prosecuting attorney Logan Green reads an excerpt from Genesis in the Holy Bible: ‘Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed.’ Rejecting the notion that Christianity preaches forgiveness, Green strives to punish the killers for failing to abide by the laws and prophecies of the Old Testament.
Character essay prompt
Perry Smith, despite Capote’s authorial sympathy towards him, is really a cold and merciless monster. Discuss.
When approaching character-based prompts, you must depart slightly from examining the holistic messages of the author, as you would in a theme-based prompt, but rather analyse how the specific character develops this authorial message. The above essay question could be brainstormed in the following way:
1. Capote’s description of Perry shows that he is far from a ‘monster’, but a human being of great sensitivity and emotion.
• During his confession of the Clutter murders, Perry’s comment, ‘There's got to be something wrong with somebody who'd do a thing like that,’ shows that he, to some extent, understands the gravity of his actions and regrets them.
• Perry is also described by his sister as ‘gentle’, and someone who ‘used to cry because he thought the sunset was so beautiful’. Likewise, even in moments of cruelty, he often shows mercy and a wide moral compass, even stopping Dick from raping Nancy Clutter during their murder spree.
2. Perry is also depicted as someone ‘weakened’ by the tragic events of his past and his own insecurities, rather than an inherently ‘cold and merciless’ person.
• Capote often links Perry’s violent tendencies with his childhood, described as ‘no bed of roses but pitiful, an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage and then another’, as he was raised ‘with no rule or discipline, or anyone to show [him] right from wrong’.
• In addition to this, Perry can be perceived to be the more insecure and submissive of the two killers, as while Dick often calls him stereotypically feminine names such as ‘sugar’ and honey’, Perry admires his ‘aggressive’ masculinity and craves his words of affirmation in order to feel as masculine and strong as his counterpart.
3. Despite this, Capote does not entirely erase the murderous aspects of Perry’s character.
• Due to the prompt and seemingly nonchalant way in which he kills the clutters, Dick becomes convinced that Perry is that rarity of a person,"a natural killer.”
• Thus, Capote, despite his empathetic portrayal of Perry, never allows the reader to forget the extent of his criminality, and how easily he was able to fire those ‘four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.’