Capote's In Cold Blood: Themes & Analysis

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  • 0:01 Capote's Nonfiction Novel
  • 1:07 Theme: The American Dream
  • 2:06 Smith and Hickock
  • 3:16 Theme: What Is Normal?
  • 4:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Meredith Spies

Meredith has studied literature and literary analysis, holding a master's degree in liberal arts with a focus on depictions of femininity vs masculinity in literature and art.

In this lesson, we will explore the major themes in Truman Capote's nonfiction novel, 'In Cold Blood,' which is a true story about a 1959 family murder in Kansas. After the lesson, test your understanding by taking a short quiz.

Capote's Nonfiction Novel

In Cold Blood is a nonfiction novel by Truman Capote that tells the story of the 1959 Clutter family murders, by Perry Smith and Dick Hickock in Kansas. It was published in 1966, and is considered one of the first nonfiction novels of the modern era.

Capote pioneered the true crime genre of nonfiction with In Cold Blood. He traveled to Kansas before Smith and Perry had even been captured in order to write about the murders, being fascinated by the crime and it's impact and the possible motivations of the killers. He took with him his friend Harper Lee (who wrote To Kill a Mockingbird) and they interviewed hundreds of local residents. He eventually formed a strange friendship with the killers while they were in jail (their arrests occurred six weeks after the murders).

Capote and Lee amassed thousands of pages of notes, and he spent six years working on the novel, which was an immediate hit when it was published. Some critics and readers questioned Capote's friendship with Smith and Hickock, and wonder if it in any way influenced the tone of the novel, if not his depictions of their motivations.

Theme: The American Dream

The idea of the American Dream was quite prevalent in the late 1950's and describes a striving for recognition, social order, and achievement of dreams, no matter the person's birth or position in society. Capote refers to this view of the American Dream when relating the events of the Clutter murders. He implies that Hickock and Smith's inability to achieve their ideal of the American Dream is what drove them to murder the Clutter family, who were apparently representative of this dream.

Herbert Clutter was a religious man, a self-made success with a prosperous farm, and was well respected by his employees. His four children were well-liked and respected in the community as well, and his wife was a member of the local garden club. Capote claimed that she suffered from depression, though some people who knew her dispute this. Nevertheless, she was devout in her faith and was considered a good wife and mother. The Clutters were a textbook example of the 1950's post war American Dream.

Smith and Hickock

Smith and Hickock came from backgrounds that were the antithesis of this idealized dream. Smith had been raised first by abusive parents, then in abusive orphanages and foster homes. He was desperate to achieve this American Dream, and tried his hand at treasure hunting out west before turning to a life of crime, disappointed and distraught that his intelligence and willingness to work hard in ordinary jobs got him no closer.

Hickock, unlike Smith, was raised in a semblance of this coveted dream, in a middle class, stable family. However, he wanted more. He was annoyed by the normal means of achievement and felt they were beneath him, so he began writing bad checks. He met Perry in prison, who shared his misery over the inability to rise above their stations in life. Out of prison, they eventually formed a plan to rob the Clutters.

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