Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1242
The great theme of In Cold Blood , if it can be called a theme, is America itself. The America of Capote's book is a vast sprawling landscape of deserts and beaches and plains, laundromats and diners. One is constantly impressed by the sheer distance, the amount of miles traveled,...
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The great theme of In Cold Blood, if it can be called a theme, is America itself. The America of Capote's book is a vast sprawling landscape of deserts and beaches and plains, laundromats and diners. One is constantly impressed by the sheer distance, the amount of miles traveled, the amount of miles there are to travel. Dick Hickock and Perry Smith travel over eight hundred miles in twenty-four hours to commit their crimes. Afterward they travel to Mexico, back to Kansas, to Florida, Texas, and Nevada. Perry spends his childhood following his parents from Texas to Oregon. He and his father move to Wyoming, Idaho, and Alaska. As a young man Perry goes from Seattle to Honolulu to Worcester, Massachusetts; St. Joseph, Missouri; McCook, Nebraska; and New York City. Perry "washed dishes in an Omaha restaurant, pumped gas at an Oklahoma garage, worked a month on a ranch in Texas." This sounds like an older America, an Old West America of pioneers and cowboys, a place of dissatisfied travelers who seek their destiny elsewhere, a land where the right job or good luck or gold is always in the next town, a neighboring state, in Alaska, Florida, or maybe Oklahoma. This is a country that by its sheer size and the variety of its landscapes seems to promise bounty, more than enough for everyone, and sets people dreaming and traveling. That size and variety is at the root of the myth of America. It is a place people have, because of industrialization and mass media, almost forgotten. Capote's book restores this America to memory.
The novel tells about the myth of America and how, in contemporary society at least, it can poison. Perry Smith is an American dreamer. He reads the dictionary to improve his vocabulary and loves hard, obscure words. He is a great believer in self-improvement, the peculiarly American obsession. He wants to hunt diamonds, buried treasure, so the killers go to Mexico. Perry starts to realize his dreams are untenable in America, and decides that maybe they could sail around the world, dreaming. Perry's done it all his life. As readers watch Perry stumbling across the American landscape they realize that this huge country which seems to promise so much can deliver very little. It begins to seem too big, monstrously large. It can engulf an individual in its indifferent size. It comes to seem a place where the weak and the disaffected can slip unnoticed into the cracks or get tangled in its teasing possibilities and wind up with rage and frustration crowding out whatever moral sense was there. One's sense of the unmanageability of the country is only heightened by the search for the killers. The police discover their identity by accident. The same landscape which helps to create Perry Smith takes him back in, enfolds him in its size, hides him. At one point they even pause again in Kansas, undetected.
Upon this vast backdrop Capote paints, in minute detail, the village of Holcomb, Kansas, a county of Garden City. It is a place of pastoral beauty. Everyone knows everyone else and their business. There is a cafe to gather and gossip in, a rather eccentric postmistress, an old mansion converted into apartments and called the Teacher-age because most of the school faculty lives there. It is farmland where silos and barns are common, a place where the Stetson wearing men are men and the apron wearing women are women. It is the kind of town that another American myth is made of, that of the peaceful small town peopled with upright citizens who are the backbone of this country, not because they are the power brokers, but because they go about the ordinary business of their lives without much fuss. They take pride in doing whatever their part is well and they are, as the saying goes, what makes America work. This is the kind of place, in the movies, where Dorothy and Toto lived, where Jimmy Stewart realized it was a wonderful life. These towns, like the landscape they cluster upon but do not dominate, are part of Americans' collective memory. Holcomb is an archetypal hometown, a place one would usually rather be from than live in.
And in Holcomb lived the Clutters: Herb, his wife Bonnie, his son Kenyon, and his daughter Nancy. Herb Clutters's two older daughters had moved away from home. Eveanna was married and had a child. Beverly was studying to be a nurse and was engaged to be married. So living at home were the husband, the wife, the daughter, and the son, a perfect family unit. They had a dog. Nancy had a horse. Herb was a prosperous cattle rancher. They were active in the Four-H and the church. Nancy was the town darling; everyone loved her. The family was the embodiment of the American Dream. Life wasn't perfect. Bonnie Clutter suffered from nervous illness and Nancy was dating a boy of whom her father disapproved because of their religious differences. Still, the Clutters appeared to be the perfect American family living in a farmhouse with two children. Such families are the stuff of television series like "Leave it to Beaver" and the "Donna Reed Show."
So Capote had his television-perfect idea of a family living in their movie-set village nestled into the mythic American landscape. What Capote found ready-made for him in the Clutter case was an idea of America, the P.R. of television commercials, a sentiment-drenched image culled from films, something he probably would not have dared invent because of its outrageous flirtation with cliché and stereotype.
Enter Perry Smith and Dick Hickock into this American idyll; one American Dream thwarted and warped, confronting another fulfilled. The confrontation between the Clutters and their killers is not one of the ugly truth of the murderers piercing the false, illusory values of the family, as it would be in Flannery O'Connor's work. The Clutters' manifestation of the Dream is as real as the killers', perhaps more so. The Clutters, as presented, are good. Their lives are productive and contributive. Kenyon builds and invents. Nancy is a helpmeet to anyone in Hoicomb who needs her. Herb is just with his employees and active in the community. Only the mother is incapacitated, but even she is kind and worthy. When Smith and Hickock drove up the Clutters's dirt driveway in their black Chevy, they were another of part of the Dream, a festering underbelly of it. America, in its grandeur and diversity, had made promises it couldn't keep to every single person, and now someone was going to pay for the resultant disillusionment and disgrace of lives cheated by promise. In a sense Hickock and Smith are all the Capote characters of his nocturnal mood, the neurotic, the lonely, the crazy, the paralyzed, come home to roost in the placidity of a house so cozily stitched into the fabric of society. To all of Capote's critics who said that those nighttime characters were ''unreal," here was his answer: One ignores their reality at one's own peril. Seen in the context of Capote's other work, the gruesome murder of the Clutter family is the revenge of the disaffected, those disinherited by the Dream and stewing in their own alienation on the fringes of society, upon the innocent. As Perry Smith says at one point, "Maybe it's just that the Clutters were the ones who had to pay for it."
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 669
Nature versus Nurture
Capote includes, almost in their entirety, long texts written by Smith's sister, his father, the court-appointed psychiatrist, and his friend Willie Jay, which detail Smith's childhood, motorcycle accident, prejudices, and mental state. The composite image of Smith derived from these accounts is one of an innately intelligent, talented, sensitive being warped and eroded by neglect, abuse, humiliation, and unresolved emotional trauma. Smith's mother, an alcoholic, choked on her own vomit. His brother and sister committed suicide and another sister disowned him. His father moved him from house to house during childhood, preventing Smith from going to school. Nonetheless, Smith has taught himself to play the guitar and harmonica, to paint, and to speak with exacting grammar. He reads constantly and, ‘‘being a bit of a prude,’’ avoids vulgar literature and materials. In prison, he paints a portrait of Jesus for the prison chaplain, which leads Reverend Post to believe that Smith cannot be "all that bad.’’ Capote's recounting of Smith's childhood and family life begs the question whether Smith's crimes stem from inherent criminal tendencies, or whether he is pushed onto that path through circumstances beyond his control.
The community of Holcomb, Kansas cannot rest until the killers are brought to justice. "Why don't you arrest somebody?’’ a townsperson asks Agent Dewey. "That's what you get paid for.'' The subsequent mistrust and insecurity that pervade the town can only be alleviated by the knowledge that someone has been apprehended and punished. Simultaneously, the fact that the killers are outsiders instigates a hope that the killers are "other'' than the Holcomb norm. The crowd awaiting Smith and Hickock outside the courthouse is shocked into silence to see that the killers are human, just like them.
Sexuality is at a low but consistent frequency throughout the narrative. Hickock cannot be satisfied by monogamy and is married twice and divorced twice. He gets himself into two engagements while the pair is in Mexico and makes love to one of his fiancées while Smith is in the room. His secret sexual deviance, however, is that he is aroused by young, sometimes prepubescent girls. Smith must keep Hickock from raping Nancy Clutter in the house, and Smith later admits that he cannot stand people ‘‘who can't control themselves sexually.’’ There are suggestions that Smith is homosexual, and it may be his need to control and even hide his own sexuality that provokes his scorn for those who indulge in sex casually.
Hickock, openly homophobic, refers to Smith as "baby," "sugar," and "honey," and arrives at the conclusion that he needs to part with Smith, as he is tired of Smith's whining. Smith himself had often attracted the attention of homosexuals in the Army, and had originally been hesitant to approach Willie Jay as a friend because he seemed to be too delicate. Smith thought that Hickock was a good complement to him, since Hickock was ‘‘totally masculine.’’ While Hickock is forever proving his heterosexual prowess to Smith, Smith reciprocates by proving his potential for violence to Hickock; this orbit is driven by each man's insecurity about his sexuality.
Dewey concludes, after hearing the indifference with which Hickock and Smith confess the crime, that the murders were ‘‘a psychological accident.’’ Smith seems to have followed a path not of his own making entirely, but an unfortunate and fatal series of such accidents, including events after the murders. Capote is careful to describe the sudden and small twists of fate that, in his opinion, bring Smith to the Clutter home: he contracts pneumonia as a child, leading to his reunion with his father, which keeps him out of school from the age of eight; he misses meeting his friend Willie Jay at the Kansas bus station by just a few hours, when meeting Willie Jay would have given him reason to part ways with Hickock; he was essentially forced to return to Kansas after the murders by Hickock's relentless bravado, leading eventually to his capture by the police.