Truman Capote was born in New Orleans in 1925, a harsh time in America. He was brought up in an amalgamation of places in the South of America, moving among New Orleans, Alabama and New Georgia. He began writing stories at the age of fourteen, depending on the seasonal changes. He later went on to work for the New Yorker after having left school at fifteen. He soon became renowned as the author of the celebrated Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Finally, he published his masterpiece, In Cold Blood, which is most certainly a work of art that changed the nature of writing for all time to come. The novel is filled with contrasting themes, ranging between moments of sombreness and cheeriness, invoking various emotions when reading the non-fictional novel. The novel revolves around the lives of the infamous murderers, Richard Eugene Hickock and Perry Edward Smith and the story of how they murdered four innocent people, known as the Clutter family.
This essay will explore the relationship between character and theme presented in In Cold Blood, referring specifically to the characters of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, assessing the question about whether the characters are portrayed empathetically or as ruthless murderers, the theme of light versus dark being represented in each of these two characters. The contrast drawn between Dick and Perry and the Clutter family will be shown with reference to minor characters that influence the reader’s perceptions of the characters, as well as the effect of narrative scope on the novel.
Firstly, Perry was born, “Perry Edward Smith Oct. 27 1928 in Huntington, Elko County, Nevada, which is situated way out in the boon docks, so to speak… in 1929 [his] family had ventured to Juneau, Alaska” (Capote 274). He had not had a normal upbringing. His mother left his father at a young age and moved around the country without real love, friends or a proper grounding. Perry lived in a nunnery at one stage of his childhood where he was severely beaten to the stage of near death from drowning incidents caused by a certain nun.
Therefore, it is no wonder that he felt as though the world was against him. Moreover, “Sitting, [Perry] seemed a more than normal-sized man, a powerful man, with the shoulders, the arms, the thick, crouching torso of a weight-lifter” but he was disproportionately structured, “when he stood up he was no taller than a 12-year-old child” (Capote 27). It is this that is ominously foreboding of his personality. At a first glance he seems to be grotesquely large and well-built, but further inspection allows one realise that he is merely, “overblown and muscle bound” (Capote 27).
The same thought process is attached to his inner qualities; he seems at first, with his boyishly good-looks, to be soft and sweet, a part Indian and a part Irishmen to be a placid romantic. One would never assume at first that Perry is a cold-blooded killer. Instead, one would think the opposite with him being so caring of animals such a squirrels, enjoying the company of children and being an excellent artist and skilled guitar player – “With the aid of his guitar, Perry had [often] hung himself into a happy humour. He knew the lyrics of some two hundred hymns and ballads – a repertoire ranging [endlessly]” (Capote 59)
But, through further analysis one finds that, “In some ways old Perry was “spooky as hell”… He could slide into a fury… “He might be ready to kill you, but you’d never know it, not to look at or listen to. ”” (Capote 116) What was really going on with Perry, whether he was anxious or nervous, scared or ireful – even with his anxiety causing his blood to bubble, it was almost assured that he would remain cool, calm and collected on the outside, “with eyes serene and slightly sleepy” (Capote 116). Therefore, Perry had a, “doom against which virtue was no defense” (Capote 185).
He “had such a rotten life” (Capote 306). In many ways Perry is portrayed in an array of varying degrees of passivity and iniquity. It is then true to state that, “‘the path of the righteous man is beset on all sides with the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men” (Jackson). He was in no doubt destined to the awful vengeance that was incurred upon him – death by hanging from the neck. In contrast to this, Dick Hickock lived a much better life than what Perry did; he lived a somewhat average middle-class lifestyle. As a child he eceived much love from his parents and at one stage received a bicycle for his birthday, which he was indeed very proud of. He partook in most sports and achieved highly even being given a scholarship to go to college (which he did not accept). Instead, he started working and married a young but pretty girl who was above his standards, and even though this was the case, they had children together. Furthermore, Dick honestly thought of himself as, “a normal. And Dick meant what he said. He thought of himself as balanced, as sane as anyone – maybe a bit smarter than the average fellow… (Capote 116) He too, at first, seems to be kind hearted as he tends to smile somewhat and make jokes. But with his harmless jokes come harmful ones too, such as in the closing moments of the court case where both Dick and Perry laughed loudly at Dick’s comment of, “No chicken-hearted jurors, they”! (Capote 307) Moreover, Dick’s truly evil side is portrayed when he speaks of his lust for young adolescents and his paedophiliac propensities. He openly claims that he, “never [gave] any thought to whether it is right or wrong” (Capote 278).
This act in itself is worthy of maximum penalty and coupled with assisted murder of first degree on four counts it is no doubt that he too be destined to the ultimate punishment – death by hanging from the neck. One of the reasons why the novel is so appealing is the nature of its impartiality; in the partnership of Dick and Perry they are both portrayed empathetically as well as like ruthless killers. Throughout the novel there are minor characters that ensure that one feels empathy at times toward the dire-stricken duo and at other times one will feel detestation and abhorrence toward the cowardly couple.
With regards to Perry one feels compassion for him when he explains the horrors of his childhood, the way in which he was so often mistreated and misguided and lost out on so many important aspects of growing up that would normally lead to living a normal life. Perry Smith wanted to go to college and receive a proper education and was most jealous of former in-mate Lowell Lee Andrews who had what he desired, despising him for it. One might feel sorry for him insofar that he suffers from pain in his legs as a result of a motorcycle accident and resultantly became an addict of aspirin.
One might even be envious of him for he is full of wisdom, being opposed to conventionalism for, “there is considerable hypocrisy in conventionalism” (Capote 150) and for being so artistically and musically inclined. It is Perry’s father, Tex John Smith, and his friends, Donald Cullivan and Willie-Jay? On the other hand, though it need not be mentioned why, one feels utter distaste towards such a felon for his heinous crimes are unspeakable and his lack of remorse is most certainly worthy of hatred and the label of ‘a cold-blooded killer’.
Perry’s cold-bloodedness is most clearly portrayed when he openly exclaims, “[he] didn’t want to harm [Herb Clutter]. [He] thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. [He] thought so right up to the moment [he] cut his throat. ” (Capote, 246). With regards to Dick, one would also be inclined to think kindly of him because he is a clever and quirky man, always “quick with a joke, or to light up [one’s] smoke” (Joel). He would hardly be seen without a smile and to be quite charming. The people in his life, which cared for him most, would be his parents, Mr. nd Mrs. Hickock – who never spoke badly of their son and always had hope and faith in him, even up until the last moment. It is precisely this aspect which makes one feel compassion for Dick. However, one finds his actions inexcusable and sees him as a cold blooded killer insofar as he was the main instigator for the ‘score’ of the Clutter household. He was the ringleader and the mastermind of the whole operation and he perpetually insisted that him and Perry leave no witnesses standing. It is thus that he is rightfully named a ‘cold-blooded killer’.
Furthermore, there is a great contrast with regards to the theme of light and dark pertaining to Dick and Perry and the Clutter family, for even though Dick and Perry initially seem to be somewhat gentle or not as malevolent as they are after what one eventually learns about them, they most certainly are laced with evil streaks. Conversely, the Clutter family, each and every one of them was of pure goodness, not just in appearance or facades but in their minds and hearts too. Their souls were comprised of untainted decency. They were a tightly knit unit that worked coherently to enrich others’ ives. Similarly, Dick and Perry also worked together, a team but conversely yet again, their aim was to impoverish other peoples’ lives. Moreover, the narrative scope is from two varying viewpoints: that of the Clutter family who were innocently murdered, and that of the two cold-blooded killers, Dick and Perry. The different points of view allow one to relive both sides of the story; Capote presents them without foregone conclusions hence, each standpoint is one of impartiality. Capote works wizardry with the use of the third person omniscient perspective to communicate the two points of view.
Emphasis is laid on some important scenes in the novel because of the way it is not written in complete chronological order. Finally, by closely analysing various aspects of the novel such as character and theme, whether or not Dick and Perry are portrayed empathetically or as cold-blooded killers, and how the theme of dark versus light is portrayed in the two main characters in accordance with the Clutter family and the effect of narrative scope we can fully understand what a wonderful masterpiece Truman Capote has fashioned.
Word Count: 1794 Bibliography Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood. New York: Penguin Books, 1965. Joel, Bille. “Pianoman. ” Piano Man. cond. M Stewart. By Billie Joel. Los Angeles, 1973. Pulp Fiction. Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Perf. Samuel L. Jackson. 1994.
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