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In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood is perhaps amongst the less popular texts chosen by schools for the VCE exams, and most often dreaded by English students due to the novelty of the genre, and the pace of the novel, in that it is packed with events and difficult to follow. To alleviate the anxiety of those required to study this text, we have written a comprehensive guide into the book, together with passages of sample analysis, hoping to give you a better understanding of the work as a whole.

In Cold Blood is a nonfiction novel written by Truman Capote and first published in 1966. The book details the 1959 murders of four members of the Clutter family in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas. Capote spent six years researching and writing the book, which is often considered to be one of the most influential examples of the nonfiction novel genre. The book has been praised for its journalistic detail and for its ability to evoke the atmosphere of the rural Midwest in the 1950s. However, it has also been criticised for its use of literary devices such as fictional conversations and for its focus on the perpetrators of the crime rather than the victims.

About the Text: 

In Cold Blood explores of the social turmoils permeating America in the 1960s and illustrates the seemingly random crime that had become symptomatic of that period. While the novel opens with the image of an idyllic town, Capote’s anti-pastoralism surfaces as he complicates the traditional image of Kansas and shatters the audience’s perception of the state.

Through the use of rich imagery, he subverts the idyllic image of pastoral country towns and alerts readers of the omnipresence of evil and corruption. In contemporary America, meritocratic and cosmopolitan values were promoted, galvanising ambitious young people to work hard in the pursuit of wealth and success. However, Capote dispels the illusion of the American dream, showing how such illusions mask the corruption of capitalism and fractures within personal and social milieu. Wealth and resources are unequally redistributed, and individuals are seen to miserably pursue perfection. In Cold Blood features the Clutters as the embodiment of the American Dream, and conversely characterise their killers the victims of society.

Note: The American dream has been a central part of American culture since the country’s founding. It is often cited as one of the key reasons that people choose to immigrate to the United States. The American dream is also often cited as a reason for the country’s high levels of economic and social mobility. Despite its popularity, the American dream is not without its critics. Some people argue that the dream is no longer attainable for many people due to economic inequality and other social factors.

American exceptionalism is investigated and critiqued in Capote’s allegory of tragic fate and destruction. In particular, Capote unveils the truth behind unquestioned assumptions of American exceptionalism, prosperity, liberalism and optimism. His narrative showcases an atmosphere of social disturbance and the threats of corruption that soon manifest, which cause the widening of social divisions, institutional abuse and racism, societal neglect and oppression of minorities. Capote shows an uncanny sensitivity to the mood of discontent, accompanied by urban violence and government repression; the novel anticipates the omnipresence of violence underlying the idyllic illusions of American life.

Note: American exceptionalism is a phrase used to describe the theory that the United States is qualitatively different from other countries in the world, i.e. it is “exceptional”. The phrase is often used in the United States to justify American actions on the world stage, and to argue that the United States is entitled to a greater role in global affairs than other countries. It also implies that America is immune to the issues and limitations that apply to countries elsewhere.

Style and Structure: 

Employing a conventional four-part classical structure, Capote maintains a high level of suspense across his novel. His novel is fast paced, alternating between the images of the murderers and victims, allowing freedom of time and space  for metaphorically relevant digression. The use of flashbacks, vignettes and cross-cutting allows him to construct characters as multidimensional figures and evocative images of the literary space. The blending of nonfiction tropes and fiction tropes creates a near factual reportage presented in the style of a novel.

Authorial Intent:

Normality and Otherness

The Clutter family are the perfect embodiment of the American dream, but Capote does not depict them as perfect. Instead, he renders them real people trapped within a narrow social reality segregated from the Others, until the moment when both worlds collide with each other. The heteronormativity of the Clutter family is starkly juxtaposed against the queerness of Dick and Perry; the murderers embody social and sexual otherness divorced from the domestic sphere. The imposition of normality seems to have caused Bonnie to suffer, as exemplified through the joy she momentarily attains when she is away. Her mental illness, or more specifically postnatal depression, represents the misery of women entrapped within the domestic sphere forced to conform to social norms and constructs. 

The Disintegration of the American Dream

“Everything Herb had, he earned—with the help of God. He was a modest man but a proud man, as he had a right to be. He raised a fine family. He made something of his life.”’

The Clutter’s family life is described as idyllic at the beginning of the novel, and Herb’s achievement of success via hard work, vivid duty, marital fidelity reflects meritocratic values promoted by America at the time. However, the audience soon recognises the flaws and dissatisfaction of Herb and Bonnie – the illusion of such a dream becomes shattered. The destruction of the Clutter family represents the disintegration of the American. The visual imagery depicting the immolation of their belongings and the thinning smoke captures the fragility of their lives, their collective mortality. The “big annihilating sky” therefore symbolises a cosmic destruction and fate’s indifference towards human suffering. Thus, Capote questions the solidity of the family’s lives and values through the ways in which they vanish into the sky.

Division and Disunited States

The collision between the worlds of the murderers and the Clutter family symbolises the division between the lower and upper echelons of society. This division is widened by issues such as classism, the vulnerability of the nuclear family, and the masked perversion of American society. The apprehension of violence that existed at the margins had always been a prominent feature of American life – the product of class segregation.

Quotes Analysis:

These quotes are extracted from Part 1 of Capote’s In Cold Blood.

“The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there” (Capote 13).

Through bird’s-eye-view descriptions of a serene and pastoral town in Western Kansas, Capote presents readers with idyllic scenes of American life. The ostensibly peaceful atmosphere of Holcomb is subsequently shattered by the “four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives”. By juxtaposing the initial setting of the town with the unexpected violence and danger, the author embeds within his novel the omnipresence of evil beneath the town’s façade. Here, Capote evokes anti-pastoral tropes, undermining the nostalgic memory of placid domesticity and purity usually associated with the pastoral scenes depicted.

“a good-looking establishment which reveals a circumstance that the appearance of the community otherwise camouflages: that the parents who send their children to this modem and ably staffed “consolidated” school. .. a fleet of buses to transport the students … are in general a prosperous people.” (Capote 14)

Capote demonstrates the town’s economic priorities through references to capitalism and the unequal distribution of wealth and resources – a system that only benefits the wealthy. The “unnamed, unshaded, unpaved” streets represent the town’s limited resources, but its poverty is “camouflage[ed]” by the establishments built for the rich. Capote therefore alludes to the impacts of capitalism on society, as signs of wealth segregation manifest through the description of the school as “a good-looking establishment” for “prosperous people”.

“A set of doll-house teacups, anchored to a diminutive tray, trembled in the palm of her hand”

Bonnie’s attachment with the miniature things is evident. Bonnie’s tiny, perfect objects are emblematic, of her own unfulfilled and unrealised dreams. These items are juxtaposed against the grand houses she lives in and events beyond her control, and provides her with an escape from reality. Bonnie is affected by post-natal depression, but her mental health issues remain unaddressed by Herb. Normality is imposed, forcefully, on the family, which causes them to conceal any signs of abnormality or imperfections existing.

“Situated at the end of a long, lane like driveway shaded by rows of Chinese elms, the handsome white shouse, standing on an ample lawn groomed Bermuda grass, impressed Holcomb; it was a place people pointed out”

The house is a symbol of house and exterior appearance and the status of the Clutter family. The family ostensibly represents the virtues of the American society, and also the achievement of the American Dream. Yet, as alluded to in the description of Holcomb, a town characterised by Gothic tropes,—darkness underlies every manifestation of the apparent “normality.” Mr. Clutter, the patriarchal head, is portrayed as overbearing. The familial house constitutes his space – it was the house that “impressed Holcomb; it was a place people pointed out” (21). The presence of other family members, or their space, seems peripheral in comparison.

A+ Tips – Quotes Analysis & Reading

  • When analysing a quote, it is important to consider the speaker’s intent and the context in which the quote was given.
  • It is also important to consider the audience to whom the quote was addressed.
  • The tone and purpose of the quote should be considered when analysing it.
  • The meaning of the quote should be interpreted in the context of the speaker’s overall message.
  • The historical and cultural context of the quote should also be taken into account.
  • The quote should be evaluated in terms of its literary and rhetorical devices.
  • The implications of the quote should be considered.

Some elements that may be considered when analysing a novel include its plot, characters, setting, and themes. Additionally, a reader may analyse the author’s use of language and literary devices.

This includes the events that occur in the story and the sequence in which they happen. You may consider the motivations of the characters and how they interact with one another. Additionally, the setting of the story and how it contributes to the plot and the characters’ development should be considered.

An A+ student would place a great emphasis on analysing the author’s use of language in light of the novel’s message. This includes the words that are used and the way they are arranged. Analyse the effects that the author’s choices have on the story, the use of literary devices such as metaphor and symbolism to boost your marks. Last but not least, a well-thought-out discussion of thematic ideas will distinguish yourselves from other students. These are the ideas that the author is exploring in the story. These also reflect your understanding of the essay prompts, and the ability to consider how the themes are developed and how they relate to the plot and the characters.

Ultimately, there is a myriad of ways to develop your understanding of a text. However, by considering these different elements, you can get a better understanding of the story and the author’s intentions.


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