In Cold Blood Sensory Imagery

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will examine sensory imagery and how Truman Capote uses it to turn the true story of the murder of a Kansas family into the dramatic novel, 'In Cold Blood.'

Imagery Definition

If you wanted someone else to know what it was like to experience life from your point of view, you would most likely start by describing your surroundings. Truman Capote incorporates imagery into his 1965 masterpiece crime novel In Cold Blood to engage the reader in this true story about the murder of the Clutter family in the rural Kansas town of Holcomb. Imagery describes word choices that are specifically selected to make the reader feel as if they are experiencing the story firsthand. There are seven types of imagery: olfactory, gustatory, organic, tactile, kinesthetic, auditory, and visual. Let's learn more about imagery in this novel.


Olfactory imagery describes how something smells. In the novel, agent Harold Nye of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation describes the woman who is working at the reception desk in the Las Vegas hotel where one of the accused murderers, Perry Smith, was staying before the murders. Nye notes: ''She was carrying a can of Miller High Life beer; she smelled of beer and tobacco and recently applied nail varnish.'' This is an example of olfactory imagery because the reader can visualize this character based on their own experiences with people who smell like beer, tobacco, and nail varnish.


Gustatory imagery tells about how something tastes. When Perry's sister, Barbara, describes what life was like on the road when their parents were part of the rodeo circuit, she says: ''Berries or stale bread soaked in sweet condensed milk was often all they had to eat. Barbara Johnson remembered that once the family had lived for days on rotten bananas, and that, as a result, Perry had got colic; he had screamed all night, while Bobo, as Barbara was called, wept for fear he was dying.'' Living in a truck with your family of five doesn't sound pleasant, but with gustatory imagery, the reader develops a broader sense of what it actually ''tastes'' like to live that way.


Organic imagery is used to describe emotions. In the novel, organic imagery is used when describing the events surrounding the suicide of Perry's brother, Jimmy. Barbara describes Jimmy's relationship with his wife: ''...what Jimmy had felt for her was beyond normal love; it was passion--a passion that was in part pathological...jealousy imprisoned him.'' We've all had heartbreaks, but the organic imagery that surrounds Jimmy's love for his wife describes dysfunction that marred all of Perry's family.


Tactile imagery describes physical, rather than emotional feelings. Perry has been in nearly constant pain since his motorcycle accident. The narrator describes one incident in which ''his leg pains flared up, flashed through his body....'' Tactile imagery gives the reader some idea of the shooting pain that Perry lives with.


Kinesthetic imagery describes movement. For example, as Perry waits at the laundromat in Kansas City while the other accused murderer Richard (Dick) Hickock passes some hot checks, Perry imagines all of the terrible things that might be happening. The narrator writes: ''He stood at the curb retching like a drunk with the dry heaves.'' The description of Perry's retching movement indicates the degree to which his health and well-being are affected by his fear of the unknown.

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