In Cold Blood Animal Imagery

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

Do you have strong emotional associations with a particular animal, or recurring dreams involving animals? ''In Cold Blood'' has some unusual and intriguing animal imagery. We'll learn about the main examples in the novel and what they reveal about the novel's themes and characters.

Wild and Domestic Animal Imagery in In Cold Blood

Truman Capote's novel features strong contrasting themes of civilized domestic life versus a wild, wandering life, and he gives domestic and wild animals a strong symbolic role in it. His animal imagery both underscores these themes and reveals truths about the characters associated with them. Some animals exist firmly within the domestic sphere, some are entirely wild, and some occupy the border in between. We'll explore the roles of horses, cats, dogs and coyotes, and Perry's dream-savior parrot.

Babe the Workhorse vs. Skeeter the Stallion

Babe, the Clutter family's horse, is easily the most loved, trusted, and domesticated of all the animals in the novel. Significantly, she is an elderly overweight workhorse, bred for farm work, yet is linked with the young and vibrant Nancy. Strong, slow, and obedient, she carries multiple children on her back at once, much as Nancy shares her talents with multiple young girls in her community in one day. Babe evokes Susan Kidwell's happy memories of carefree days spent with Nancy, and her mother envisions Babe carrying Nancy across a field even after Nancy's death. Contrasting with Babe is Skeeter, Kenyon's strawberry (light red) stallion. Stallions are uncastrated male horses used for breeding, and many people associate the word ''stallion'' with ''wild.'' Skeeter is fast, graceful, and can jump fences--but he's also delicate, and dies of heart failure while Kenyon is riding him.

A strawberry red roan horse
A strawberry red roan horse

Domestic vs. Feral Cats

Several cats are mentioned in In Cold Blood, and they form a spectrum of identities from domesticated to wild. Those owned by Nancy and Susan are content, predictable pets, and we see them sleeping or playing at home. At the other extreme are the two gray feral cats mentioned near the end of the novel, who belong to no one and have to forage for dead birds in the grills of cars owned by out-of-towners. Sorrowfully, Perry identifies with these wild cats, feeling that he has lived much the same way they do. At Perry's execution, Detective Dewey, too, thinks of him as ''an exiled animal.'' Dick, with his grinning, Cheshire-like blue cat tattoo, can also be linked with feral cats.

In the middle is Courthouse Pete, the Dewey family cat. He has a somewhat public and even wild life. He wanders freely around Garden City, is notoriously feisty, and gets in fights with dogs, which means he is most likely not neutered. (Neutered cats are less aggressive, and roam less, than intact males.) However, he also steals crab salad from the kitchen table and purrs when Mr. Dewey picks him up from the veterinarian's office. Unlike all the other cats, Pete passes freely back and forth between the ''wild'' and domestic worlds.

An unneutered male tabby cat in Naples, Italy, which might resemble Courthouse Pete
An unneutered male tabby cat in Naples, Italy, which might resemble Courthouse Pete

Dogs and Coyotes

Would you normally associate a domestic dog with a coyote? In In Cold Blood, these two very different species are closely linked, living wild and dangerous lives. Some dogs have normal home-bound lives, but most are associated with freedom, violence, fear, and death. The Clutter family dog, Teddy, is terrified of guns, and at least two free-roaming dogs get in fights with Courthouse Pete. Coyotes are seen in similar contexts. Just as Dick goes out of his way to hit stray dogs with his car, Kenyon and his close friend Bob terrorize the Sand Hills coyotes in an old truck. In looking back on his unstructured youth, Perry reminisces that for periods he ran ''as free & wild as a coyote.'' He and Dick hear coyotes howling when they stop in the prairie to clean up after the Clutter murders, and as a captured prisoner en route through Arizona, Perry counts the bodies of coyotes who have been shot and flung on top of fences.

A coyote in the Penn Dixie Paleontological and Outdoor Educational Center, Hamburg, New York
A coyote in the Penn Dixie Paleontological and Outdoor Educational Center, Hamburg, New York

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