In In Cold Blood, what is the significance of Perry singing the song 'In the Garden'?

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The decidedly unreligious Perry Smith is depicted as singing the popular religious song, ‘In the Garden’ on the night when he is to commit a shocking multiple murder. Capote has his reasons for including this particular detail at this point in the story.

Throughout the text Capote portrays Perry as a complex character who does not deserve to be written off purely as a cold and callous killer. Without making any direct attempt to excuse Perry’s actions, Capote confronts the reader with a picture of a sensitive and even sympathetic character to some extent. We are frequently referred to Perry’s grim background of poverty and abuse and extreme neglect, a factor that cannot be ignored in any discussion of his crimes. Along with this, Capote makes a point of stressing Perry’s better qualities, most of all his highly creative abilities. He is often shown playing his guitar and singing, but all his talents go to waste.

Capote implicitly condemns society for neglecting individuals like Perry. The murder of the Clutters is figured, at least in part, as Perry’s revenge on society for his past deprivation: ‘Maybe it's just that the Clutters were the ones who had to pay for it,’ he remarks.

Perry’s rendition of an uplifting song like ‘In the Garden’ on the eve of committing a ghastly crime at once tantalises and baffles the reader, thus evoking the kind of complex response to Perry’s character intended by Capote. It is also a narrative device used for heightened dramatic and ironic effect.

It is noteworthy that the song Perry sings is a religious one. Perry is generally shown to be anything but religious, at least in the conventional sense. A lot of this has to do with his ill-treatment as a child in orphanages run by nuns. Yet he responds emotionally to religion; he weeps when hearing Christmas carols and paints pictures of Jesus in prison, prompting the Rev. Post to exclaim that anyone who can produce such pictures ‘can’t be a hundred per cent bad’.  It is undoubtedly Capote’s aim to show that Perry, in spite of his terrible actions and lack of real repentance, is not a hundred percent bad.

Finally, we can note that music is of itself a kind of religious activity for Perry. His most treasured possession is his old Gibson guitar, and when it is stolen he grieves its loss, for, as he says:

You have a guitar long enough, like I had that one … it gets to be kind of holy.

Music could have been Perry’s salvation; instead, he ends up a notorious murderer. 

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