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In Cold Blood eNotes Lesson Plan

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Excerpt From This Document

Lesson Objectives: 
By the end of this unit, students should be able to

  • appraise both sides in the continuing “nature vs. nurture” debate;
  • identify and examine how the author’s personal views manifest within a non-fiction context;
  • identify important characters in the book and explain their roles in the narrative;
  • summarize the arguments for and against imposing the death penalty on Hickock and Smith;
  • identify and interpret key symbols in the narrative and explain how they relate to themes in the book;
  • examine the literary techniques Capote employs to create suspense and explain why they are effective in creating dramatic tension.

Introductory Lecture:

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, published in 1966, has been described by reviewer George Steiner as “more than a book; it is a happening.” Critic Frederick Dupree considers it “the best documentary account of American crime ever written.” Capote biographer Kenneth Reed asserts that the book is a “virtual triumph in creative reporting...supremely orchestrated in its progression and tone.” Capote placed In Cold Blood in a genre of his own inventing—that of the “nonfiction novel.” His experimentation with merging journalism and fiction writing proved to be both a critical and a commercial success.

First serialized in four installments in The New Yorker magazine, In Cold Blood is an account of the murders of the Herbert Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas, on November 15, 1959. After reading a brief account of the murders in the New York Times, Capote set out for Holcomb with his childhood friend, Harper Lee, in tow. They interviewed dozens of townspeople, friends of the Clutters, and members of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) in order to tell the tragic story of a robbery and multiple homicide perpetrated without provocation on a hardworking, well liked, and God-fearing family.  

Capote’s initial intention was to cover the effects of the murders on the residents of Holcomb, a small, close-knit farming community in an essentially peaceful pastoral setting. During his research in Holcomb, however, the killers, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, were arrested, and Capote’s book evolved into a deeper examination of the murders. In addition to examining the lives of the Clutters and the effects of their murders in Holcomb, In Cold Blood follows Hickock and Smith from the planning and commission of the crime through their capture, murder trial, conviction, and eventual execution at the Kansas State Penitentiary, April 14, 1965.

Writing In Cold Blood proved to be an arduous undertaking for Capote, who found that he related personally to one of the killers, Perry Smith. Smith had a nightmarish childhood filled with abuse, neglect, and stints at multiple institutions; Capote was neglected by his parents, bullied and berated by other children for being effeminate, and sent to private  schools where he failed to thrive. The ongoing debate over “nature vs. nurture” is a prominent theme in In Cold Blood, as Capote examines whether Smith was innately damaged or became damaged by his environment.

Capote had a gift for recalling dialogue, and while he did not use recording devices during his meetings with myriad individuals, he did take copious notes that he transcribed via typewriter after the interviews at the end of each day. The resulting book is a seamless synthesis of verisimilitude and literary mastery.

Through his use of skillful narration, vivid description, official documents, and personal letters concerning the case, Capote takes readers on an unforgettable journey into the horror of multiple murders, the minds of the murderers, and the personal and professional lives of the detectives dedicated to apprehending them. He also chronicles the shock and disillusionment felt by the residents of Holcomb, the small Kansas town they once considered so safe they didn’t lock their doors.

About this Document

Our eNotes Comprehensive Lesson Plans have been written, tested, and approved by active classroom teachers. Each plan takes students through a text section by section, glossing important vocabulary and encouraging active reading. Each is designed to bring students to a greater understanding of the language, plot, characters, and themes of the text. The main components of each plan are the following:
  • An in-depth introductory lecture
  • Discussion questions
  • Vocabulary lists
  • Section-by-section comprehension questions
  • A multiple-choice test
  • Essay questions
Each plan is divided into a teacher and a student edition. The teacher edition provides complete answer keys for all sections, including example answers for the essay questions.