In Cold Blood: Quotes About the American Dream

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Millie van der Westhuizen

Millie is currently working in tertiary education, whilst completing her master's degree in English Studies.

The American Dream is a common theme in literature and media, including Truman Capote's 'In Cold Blood.' Live the American Dream from the contrasting perspectives of the Clutters and Dick and Perry through their quotes in Capote's novel. Updated: 01/05/2022

The American Dream

The American Dream: the belief that anyone in the United States, regardless of their background, can improve their social standing through hard work. But what does Truman Capote's In Cold Blood suggest about this ideal? Well, one way of approaching this question is to look at quotes from the novel.

Consider, for example, the following quote from after the Clutters' murders. In what ways did Mr. Clutter's life represent the American Dream? And what are the implications of his death?

'''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.' But that life, and what he'd made of it—how could it happen, Erhart wondered as he watched the bonfire catch. How was it possible that such effort, such plain virtue, could overnight be reduced to this—smoke, thinning as it rose and was received by the big, annihilating sky?''

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  • 0:04 The American Dream
  • 1:03 The Clutters
  • 2:45 Dick and Perry
  • 4:39 Contrasting Perspectives
  • 5:24 The American Dream in…
  • 5:55 Lesson Summary
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The Clutters

As you might have sensed from the previous quote, the Clutter family is presented as having achieved the American Dream. Consider, for example, what Capote is telling us about Mr. Clutter in the following extract:

''The son of a farmer, he had from the beginning aimed at operating a property of his own...the upstart's experiments succeeded—partly because, in the beginning years, he labored eighteen hours a day. Setbacks occurred—twice the wheat crop failed, and one winter he lost several hundred head of sheep in a blizzard; but after a decade Mr. Clutter's do-main consisted of over eight hundred acres owned outright and three thousand more worked on a rental basis—and that, as his colleagues admitted, was 'a pretty good spread.'''

From this extract, two things are clear. First, Mr. Clutter's success is attributed to his hard-working nature and persistence. We also see how the American Dream is linked to material wealth. However, in the form that the Clutters represent the American Dream, the focus is more on good moral values than material wealth, as the following quote shows.

''Feeling wouldn't run half so high if this had happened to anyone except the Clutters. Anyone less admired. Prosperous. Secure. But that family represented everything people hereabouts really value and respect, and that such a thing could happen to them—well, it's like being told there is no God. It makes life seem pointless.''

The fact that the Clutters, despite their virtues, lost their lives, causes the community to question the value of such virtue in a society where others can destroy it ''not out of vengeance or hatred. But for money.''

Dick and Perry

In reflecting on Perry Smith and Dick Hickock's ambitions, the connection between material wealth and the American Dream becomes more problematic, however. Consider, for example, the following quote about Perry's ideals.

''Since childhood. . . a longing to realize an adventure his imagination swiftly and over and over enabled him to experience: the dream of drifting downward through strange waters, of plunging toward a green sea-dusk, sliding past the scaly, savage-eyed protectors of a ship's hulk that loomed ahead, a Spanish galleon—a drowned cargo of diamonds and pearls, heaping caskets of gold.''

Capote characterizes Perry as someone who hoped to succeed through good fortune. However, as is clear from this later extract, these dreams never materialize and Perry finds himself in the same position he was in as a child.

''Things hadn't changed much. Perry was twenty-odd years older and a hundred pounds heavier, and yet his material situation had improved not at all. He was still (and wasn't it incredible, a person of his intelligence, his talents?) an urchin dependent, so to say, on stolen coins.''

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