Characters Discussed

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Perry Edward Smith

Perry Edward Smith, a superstitious and sentimental man, an inveterate dreamer with an explosive personality. As a child, Perry was shunted from one orphanage to another, neglected by an alcoholic mother and a father who drifted in search of gold. Perry joined the merchant marine, then the Army, serving a four-year hitch. A motorcycle crash left him with permanently disfigured legs and constant pain. He escapes from a Kansas jail, where he is serving a sentence for burglary, but is recaptured and sent to prison, where he meets Dick Hickock. Dick’s plan to rob and kill the Clutters offers Perry a chance to fulfill his dream of treasure hunting in Mexico, a dream that evaporates when the crime nets the pair no money. Convicted along with Dick of the Clutter murders and sentenced to death, Perry spends his time on death row reviewing his life with a degree of self-pity. As he is about to be hanged, he apologizes for his crime but adds that perhaps he could have contributed something worthwhile after all.

Richard Eugene (Dick) Hickock

Richard Eugene (Dick) Hickock, the twenty-eight-year-old son of poor Kansas farmers. He has been married and divorced twice and has fathered three boys by the time he is sent to prison for writing bad checks. A car accident has given his face an uneven, serpentine look. Intelligent and friendly, he easily talks merchants into cashing checks that later prove worthless. He boasts that, after robbing the Clutters, he will “blast hair all over them walls.” Seeing young women as “blond chicken,” he secretly plans to rape Nancy Clutter before killing her, but at the last minute Perry prevents him. Dick’s wisecracking manner continues through his trial and stint on death row. Only at the foot of the gallows does he turn solemn, politely shaking hands with the four agents who led in his capture and who know that beneath the personable exterior, he is a mean, vicious punk.

Herbert (Herb) Clutter

Herbert (Herb) Clutter, a wealthy Kansas wheat farmer, the father of four children, a devoted husband, and an active member of the Methodist church. A rumor that he keeps as much as forty thousand dollars in his house with which to pay workers reaches Dick Hickock, who hears it from a cellmate. When Herb is awakened by Dick and Perry, who demand the money, he tries in vain to convince them that it does not exist. He pleads with them not to harm his family and to be especially careful of his wife, Bonnie, whose health is very fragile. His efforts to reason with the two killers end when Perry cuts his throat.

Nancy Clutter

Nancy Clutter, the town favorite. She is sixteen years old, bright, pretty, and outgoing. Her days are active and filled with pie baking, music lessons, rides on her favorite horse, and errands for her mother. In her diary and on the telephone with her close friend, Susan Kidwell, she talks mostly about Bobby Rupp, her boyfriend. Self-possessed enough to chat with Perry as Dick searches the house for money, she is the last of the Clutters to be shot.

Kenyon Clutter

Kenyon Clutter, fifteen years old, the youngest Clutter child. He is tall and awkward, and he wears glasses. He busies himself making a hope chest for his sister, Beverly, who is soon to be married, and chasing coyotes in his old truck with a friend. Bound and gagged and laid out on a sofa in the basement, with a pillow placed under his head to make him comfortable, he is the second...

(This entire section contains 834 words.)

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one to be shot.

Bonnie Clutter

Bonnie Clutter, a timid and pious woman in poor health, Herb’s wife and the mother of the four Clutter children. She rarely is strong enough to greet the friends who come to the house, staying in her second-story bedroom, where she sleeps alone, too fragile even to share a bed with her husband, who sleeps downstairs. She is the killers’ third victim.

Alvin Adams Dewey

Alvin Adams Dewey, a special agent of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. He heads the team of investigators assigned to the Clutter case. Taciturn and tough, he is a former county sheriff and Federal Bureau of Investigation agent. He knows and respects the Clutter family. He stoically bears the brunt of criticism from the locals who are impatient for the crime to be solved. When the killers are captured in Las Vegas, he and three of his agents return them to Kansas. On the trip back, Alvin elicits from Perry a detailed description of the murders. At the execution, he remembers seeing only Perry’s small feet dangling in the air. Later, at the Clutter gravesite, he is reminded of what has been lost and what remains when he encounters Nancy’s close friend Susan Kidwell, now studying at the university. She tells him that Bobby Rupp, Nancy’s boyfriend, has married “a very nice, beautiful girl,” then looks away.


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One hesitates to call characters culled from real life "characters," especially when four of the "characters" were cruelly murdered in reality. "Character" seems to trivialize their complexity as human beings. Nevertheless, Capote treats these people, who were alive and complex and had unknowable depth in life, as characters in his fiction, and, with one exception, as two-dimensional figures at that.

The best of traditional fiction characters have a complexity of desire, motivation and feeling that readers attribute to the often bewildering actions of people. Yet authors sometimes find two-dimensional characters to be more useful for the purposes of their art. For example, in allegory, fables, fairy tales, romances, and some of the best postmodern fiction, three-dimensional characters would be clumsy and obtrusive. Readers don't care that the Wicked Witch had a lousy childhood, gives money to support public television, and has a quirky and rather endearing love of hair nets of which she has a considerable collection. She's a witch. All she need be is a terror. There is a time and a story for two-dimensionality.

That given, one has to ask if Capote's use of two-dimensional characterization is justified. This is difficult to assess. If one sees the book's content highly charged with American myth, then the choice could be justified, for characters in myth are usually flat, more important for their representational or symbolic presence than as fully rounded characters. On the other hand, the symbolic importance of the Clutters probably would not have been lessened if they had been fleshed out a bit more. If anything readers would have felt even more the ruthless snuffing out of those very particular lives. Yet it is hard to fault Capote's choice, for the Clutter lives have a realism if they do not have depth. Capote achieves this strange effect by a precise use of detail. One's only sense of the Clutters may be that of good folks, but the reality of decent lives being led is not lost. Part of Capote's problem may be that it is more difficult to make good people than evil ones into interesting fiction. Thackeray lamented that his public loved wicked Becky in Vanity Fair (1847-1848) more than his saintly heroine. Or as Tolstoy said, "Happy families are all alike." Life for the Clutters could not have been one long joy ride, not with a mentally ill mother in the house. But Tolstoy's dictum that happiness, and by implication (if one consults Thackeray) goodness, are uninteresting in fiction, may be applicable here. Still, it would be easy to condemn Capote's characterization of the Clutters if one felt little or nothing at their deaths. But his unflinching description of the gory slayings provokes moral outrage in the reader. It does not, perhaps, produce the same depth of emotional reaction that a more rounded depiction of the Clutters would have. What Capote's characterization does is to produce something like Bertolt Brecht's alienation effect, where one registers horror more intellectually, less emotionally, but no less effectively.

Perry Smith complicates the characterization issue even more, for he is both the one example of depth characterization in the book and the most fully realized character in Capote's oeuvre. Novels are usually a mixture of depth characterization and flat characterization, the main characters having more depth than the minor ones. Dick Hickock is not a problem. He is evil incarnate and his presence in the book is almost annoying. He takes attention away from Perry who is not so relentlessly repugnant. Readers sympathize with Perry because they receive more information about him than anyone in the book and it helps to complicate him, make him more human. One understands Perry because he is contradictory in a way the Clutters or Dick never are. Few people are as good and uncomplicated as the Clutters appear to be and even fewer are as evil as Dick seems. Strangely, for all of his pathology, readers tend to identify most strongly with Perry.

Capote was roundly criticized for this imbalance which seems to shift readers' sympathy from the victims to one of the killers. Yet though one sympathizes with Perry one cannot forget his crime. One never loses empathy for the victims because of Capote's controlled, chilling telling of their deaths. It is impossible to feel anything but fear and pity for Nancy Clutter when she says, "Oh no! Oh, please. No! No! No! No! Don't! Oh, please don't! Please!" before they kill her. What one feels for Perry is sympathy because he is all too human and injured. What readers feel for the Clutters is empathy because everyone has been helpless and their plight is the readers' nightmare. Sympathy and empathy are two different emotions, and empathy is finally the deeper response.

The Clutters do not need depth of characterization to invoke empathy. Nor do they need it to serve their function in the novel. But without a fully-realized Perry Smith the novel has less potency. What the Clutters represent is simple. What Smith represents is twisted. If he, like Hickock, were reduced to the banality of evil, he would lose all force as the inversion of an American myth and the novel would become more of a Christian conflict between good and evil than an examination of the American Dream, and finally a much less interesting book.

Capote's attraction to Perry can not all be passed off as an interest in him as a character of metaphoric possibility. One of the themes of Smith's life was his lifelong attempt to bond with his father. It was the theme of Capote's first book and his life as well. Capote, who felt abandoned (and with reason) by his own parents, was probably deeply touched by Perry's similar experience. In interviews with and writings by Capote one is struck by the occasional similarity of feeling with comments Perry Smith made. But the empathy Smith may have inspired in Capote, which led to the rich portrait of Smith, finally led Capote to tap into something much deeper. In the book, Perry Smith is not simply a man made sociopathic by the absence of parents and the resultant cruel upbringing. He becomes something more profoundly American and disturbing, an actor in the Dream who becomes the tortured and the torturer.