Friday, June 22, 2012

In Cold Blood - an analysis

Capote’s In Cold Blood is an astonishing journalistic insight into instances surrounding the murder of a farm-dwelling family in America in the mid-20th century. The psychological depth into which the book goes is unparalleled in most books – fact or fiction. As Capote himself said: ‘No one will ever know what ‘In Cold Blood’ took out of me. It scraped me right down to the marrow of my bones. It nearly killed me. I think, in a way, it did kill me.'

It’s not an easy book to read. But for the right reasons I think, the extraordinary attention to detail, the harrowing effect of insights into each characters psyche, the subject matter itself. 

The first time we meet Perry and Dick, the killers, their humanity is emphasised, they are even equated with the victims: ‘Like Mr Clutter, the young man breakfasting in a café called the Little Jewel never drank coffee.’ (12). Their similarities are played upon in a very straightforward domestic way with something as simple as a distaste for coffee. There is a reduction to the plane of the ordinary that sets the stage for the rest of Capote’s chronicling of events. 

My interest in this book stemmed from a philosophical interest in issues of determinism, free will and responsibility and a lot of the quotes I have selected try to situate Perry and Dick in this kind of context. Clearly, sociological and psychological influences are things that interested Capote too as there are many references throughout the book. Perry Smith is perhaps the most pitiable and intriguing of the two and is portrayed as one who demands a degree of empathy, however slight. Perry’s attitude is clearly fatalistic and he is said to be superstitious as well. Both these qualities are evidenced on page 88, where he says:  ‘Because once a thing is set to happen, all you can do is hope it won’t. Or will – depending. As long as you live, there’s always something waiting, and even if it’s bad and you know it’s bad, what can you do? You can’t stop living’. This gives a sense of a fixed course with definitive points, where choice is irrelevant and the human being is powerless. This may be a convenient way to shed the burden of responsibility but Perry’s musings and self-pity actually suggest a deeper confusion over the state of things. 

There is no denying that his history is deeply troubled: ‘After all, it was ‘painful’ to imagine that one might be ‘not just right’ – particularly if whatever was wrong was not your own fault but ‘maybe a thing you were born with.’ Look at his family! Look at what had happened there! His mother, an alcoholic, had strangled to death on her own vomit.’ (106), two of his siblings had committed suicide. Perry had ended up a ‘hated, hating half-breed child living in a California orphanage run by nuns – shrouded disciplinarians who whipped him for wetting his bed.’ (89). His treatment at the hands of these religious figures certainly embittered him, as he reflects when asked before his hanging if he’d like to speak to anyone: ‘Priests and nuns have had their chance with me. I’m still wearing the scars to prove it.’ (280). At intervals he recounts his time in the orphanage, referring to it as a ‘nightmare’, recalling how one nurse used to hold him under water every night to the point of drowning, and put burning ointment on his penis for her own amusement. Perry’s underlying rage and animosity surfaces during these times: ‘what I wished I could have done to her and all the people who made fun of me’ (267). 

If anything Perry is shown to be deeply, dangerously sensitive. Humiliation is his deepest shame and mingled with anger and envy it is his deepest weakness. One of the most heart-breaking accounts is of a time when his own father raised a gun and pulled the trigger repeatedly on his own son, ‘and when he realised the gun wasn’t even loaded he started to cry.’ (132). After the loyalty Perry had shown to his father as a child, this act is the last severing of any family bonds and he is left completely alone. His father acknowledges his influence, reflecting that: ‘How well I know that Perry is goodhearted if you treat him rite’. (120-125) Perry may commit the actual murder but he is not premeditating about it, his intention is not to go in and cause harm: ‘I wasn’t kidding him. I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat.’ (237). If Dick hadn’t been there would any of it have happened? No, I don’t think so. Events converged to an extreme that something in Perry slipped. 
When examining the crime scene, detectives observed that ‘at least one of the murderers was emotionally involved with the victims, and felt for them, even as he destroyed them, a certain twisted tenderness.’ (99). Perry arranged the mattresses for the Clutters’ comfort, he refused to leave Dick alone with the daughter, trying to protect her from Dick’s sexual interests. And yet somehow he murdered them all in cold blood. Dewey, the detective, goes so far as to call the crime a ‘psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act; the victims might as well have been killed by lightning. Except for one thing: they had experienced prolonged terror, they had suffered… none the less, [Dewey] found it possible to look at the man beside him without anger – with, rather, a measure of sympathy – for Perry Smith’s life had been no bed of roses but pitiful, an ugly and lonely progress towards one mirage and then another.’ (239). Was Perry carried along by the circumstances? He admits wondering: ‘Why don’t I walk off?’, but ‘it was like I wasn’t part of it. More as though I was reading a story and I had to know what was going to happen. The end.’ (234). More like the currents of some psychological narrative that he and Dick had fallen into. They went into the house on the false supposition of there being a safe. They left it having murdered an innocent family for no reason but perhaps their own fear and frustration. For Dick, it is suggested it is the rush of power he felt from the ‘knife in his hand’, for he was ashamed of his sexual interest in children but he does not do anything about it (194). He is carried away by it all. 

Dick had a different background to Perry but with troubles of his own. His father cites him as ‘an outstanding athelete – always on the first team at school… he wanted to go on to college… never had any money… concussed his head in a car smash-up. After that, he wasn’t the same boy… when he came out of Lansing, he was a plain stranger to me. You couldn’t talk to him. The whole world was against Dick Hickock – that’s how he figured’. (159) Dick also had a succession of troubled marriages which resulted in children at a young age, and ‘we were too young to have three kids. Maybe if we hadn’t got so deep into debt. If I could’ve earned extra money…’ (211). This arguably started his phoney cheque ruse and descent into crime. 

Perhaps it is Perry who we are drawn to because he has ambition, ambition that was quashed by his circumstances. He resents their jail-mate Andy, because he ‘was the one thing in the world Perry wants to be – educated. And Perry couldn’t forgive him for it.’ (326) Perry is also deeply jealous of the rest of his family because his father ‘wouldn’t let me go to school… every damn one of you got an education. Everybody but me. And I hate you, all of you – dad and everybody’. (179)Perry is always correcting Dick’s grammar, once dreamt of being a performer and studies meticulously: ‘Everybody always remarks what a beautiful handwriting I have. I do, and it’s because once I bought a book on the subject and practised till I could write the same as in the book.’ (131). He displays marks of tremendous drive and determination; he could have had something to offer, as he points out before he is hung. I don’t think it is a bad thing to feel sorry for Perry Smith, it’s a bad thing to not try and understand. As Perry’s friend remarks – ‘it’s easy to ignore the rain if you have a raincoat’ (140). Perry is startlingly aware and perceptive, pointing out society’s inconsistencies: ‘Soldiers don’t lose much sleep. They murder and get medals for doing it. The good people of Kansas want to murder me – and some hangman will be glad to get the work. It’s easy to kill – a lot easier than passing a bad cheque. Just remember: I only knew the Clutters maybe an hour. If I’d really know them, I guess I’d feel different. I don’t think I could live with myself. But the way it was, it was like picking off targets in a shooting gallery’ (283). Perry cares, but no one cares about him and I think that’s the tragedy of his story. 

I’m not arguing for hard determinism though I definitely recommend taking a look at the Clarence Darrow’s defence in the Leopold & Loeb trial earlier in the century. In Cold Blood bears many similarities to that case, but also many differences. The deterministic extreme holds that, as John Hospers said, it is ‘all a matter of luck’ – human beings cannot be blamed for their wrong-doings as they are determined by forces they cannot control. Darrow expressed this kind of idea in his defence of two young murderers in 1924, saying they were doomed before committing the crime: ‘nature takes this job in hand and we play our parts… what had this boy to do with it?’. But Darrow was arguing that the boys should serve life imprisonment rather than the death penalty. He did not absolve them of complete responsibility. But he showed the kind of empathy that might be useful. The boys’ ancestry and upbringing was ‘handed to him… he did not make himself and yet he is compelled to pay… if there is responsibility anywhere, it is back of him’, as a reader, it is easy to read Perry Smith in this way but it is dangerous to absolve him of responsibility for his actions. Instead it suggests a different kind of blame and punishment may be suitable. Just because people may be caused to act in a certain way, it does not necessitate or excuse it. 

Modern physics, however, maintains the most basic laws of nature are NOT deterministic but PROBABILISTIC. There is room for manoeuvrability. The other extreme is libertarianism which states that we have complete free will, highlighting our ability to choose. But if we argue against causality completely, we are left with randomness. A universe in which there are random events, is not one in which we have free will. Causality must exist because we can enforce it. Existentialists like Sartre suggest that we show our freedom in our aim to be free and act freely. Whether we are free is actually irrelevant.  
Thomas Aquinas adjusts the idea of free will, defining it as a rational operation – the fact that you are aware and can think. The more you contemplate and deliberate, the more you are choosing what you do. It could be said that Perry and Dick do not contemplate or deliberate over their actions, and are thus not making a free decision, whether this is their own failure or not.

I guess I will conclude with reference to James Rachels’ essay ‘Doing Without Free Will’. He argues that nothing is lost even if we don’t have free will. We are not robots, we have thoughts and feelings and emotions and reasons for what we do. We can still be rational agents. If we want a certain future it makes sense to act to try and bring it about. Any effort to decide presupposes actual options, we can aim at an outcome and work towards it. Crucially, people are responsible – but the justification is different – blaming must be a way to influence conduct, not simply revenge. Rachels cites two levels on which people can be held responsible:

1) Responsive Level – bad act as result of own desires/choices
2) Reflective Level – unlucky and needs to be influenced for the better because choices influenced by forces beyond his control

Truman Capote
So yes, Dick and Perry are absolutely responsible for what they did, but they are also undoubtedly influenced by many other factors which society could help to change. They were not rational agents at the time of their crime, but are still guilty if not evil. What Capote does is expose their humanity, opening up the possibilities for ethical debate and potential penal reform. The narrative style is ingenious because he removes himself from it, instead focusing completely on each character, giving the story of the family, the story of the killers, with reference to many different perspectives. The result is something real, chilling, affecting, and deeply, deeply important. 


  1. interesting,but I was looking for quotes...

  2. I mean your references are enough. Helps me make connections and interpretations in my own

  3. This was very helpful. I liked it and helped me clarify my thinking about this book.

  4. I really enjoyed your analysis on this thought-provoking novel. I agree with many of the points you made. Thanks for sharing.