Student Question

How does Capote's structure of In Cold Blood shape the reader's interpretation?

Quick answer:

Capote's structure of the story to some extent shapes the reader's experience and interpretation. Thus, this is an example of a literary technique that will enhance the reader's experience of the narrative, because it will make him want to keep turning the pages. And, this is an example of a literary device that will enhance the reader's experience of the narrative, because it makes him think about what happened in the Clutter home that night. Capote is probably trying to do more than just tell a story. He probably wants his book to be remembered as a work of art and literature like Crime and Punishment or The Sound and The Fury .

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To me the most interesting aspect of Capote's book was the way in which he withheld a description of what had actually happened inside the Clutter home until the two killers had been captured. This was a logical way to tell the story, since Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were the only eye-witnesses to the four shotgun murders. Ordinarily a crime is described first, then the investigation, then the identification and capture of the perpetrator or perpetrators, and finally the trial and sentencing. But if Capote had described the four murders early in the book he would have used his most emotionally stirring material, and everything else would have seemed anticlimactic afterward. The reader naturally wants to know what happened in the Clutter house that night. This is the hook that keeps the reader turning the pages. But until the two killers were captured, nobody knew much of anything except that four innocent people had been found dead. 

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With his writing of In Cold Blood, Truman Capote created a new genre, that of the journalistic novel. After having read of the mass murder of the Clutter family in The New Yorker, for whom he worked, Capote became intrigued by this multiple slaying. He, then, traveled to Kansas and researched this case as a journalist. Interestingly, upon its publication, the novel was serialized in The New Yorker and major newspapers across the U.S.

But, Capote's journalism is a subjective one; for, he selectively reports by eliminating details that do not suit his purpose, as well as imposing details and interpretations of Perry for whom he becomes sympathetic. Moreover, he creates suspense by withholding some "gory" details until the latter part of the novel. Yet, he draws the reader immediately into the narrative through his verbatim reporting of dialogues which makes the characters real. In addition, Capote's close attention to detail and the re-creation of scenes that appear authentic, mimics photojournalism, which carries the power of visualization. For instance, Capote creates a sort of backdrop of the times and countryside that Dick and Perry traverse in the chapter entitled "Persons Unknown" by creating a dialogue at a lunch counter:

"...a few tables, an alcove harboring a hot grill and an icebox and a radio--that's all there is to Hartman's Cafe. But our customers like it....Got to. Nowhere else for them to go. Less they drive seven miles one direction or fifteen the other way. Anyway, we run a friendly place and the coffee's good since Mabel came to work"--Mabel being Mrs. Helm. 

Truman focuses much more upon the criminals than the victims, convinced perhaps, like Tolstoy, that "Happy families are all alike" and unappealing to readers. Contrasted to Dick who is a typical predator, sadistically running down dogs and attempting rape, Perry is more dimensional, Capote weaves a psychological tale about Perry, whom he found intriguing. Further, by making the Clutters only two-dimensional and by placing Dick in the background of the murders with Perry as the killer who is complicated by an extremely lonely and sad childhood, Capote evokes much sympathy from readers for this man he portrays as artistic and melancholic, describing his dreams that emanate from his Native American spirit--

"...the parrot appeared arrived while he slept, a bird 'taller than Jesus, yellow like a sunflower', a warrior angel who blinded the nuns with its beak, fed upon their eyes, slaughtered them as they 'pleaded for mercy', then so gently lifted him, enfolded him, winged him away to 'paradise'."

--rather than from a paranoid-schizophrenic and cold-blooded killer. Thus a  complicated character, Perry becomes real.

Also, Capote has embellished parts of the novel. For instance, he gives the investigator, Irvin Dewey, Jr., credit for breaking the case, but factual reports indicate that when the prison friend of Dick Hickock comes forward with information that leads to the capture of Dick and Perry, Dewey did not immediately investigate believing people resentful of the Clutters killed them. Also, Dewey said his visit of the Clutter's grave at the end was Capote's invention for dramatic effect. 

In Cold Blood is, indeed, compelling because of the artistic skills of Capote, who imbues life into a gruesome tale of death by imposing almost photographic images and realistic dialogues and, especially, great psychological insight into the minds of the killers, particularly Perry Smith.

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