Irony in In Cold Blood: Dramatic, Situational & Verbal

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 examples of dramatic, verbal, and situational irony from Truman Capote's nonfiction crime novel about the Clutter family murder, 'In Cold Blood.'


Have you ever been driving along on autopilot when, all of a sudden, a car pulls out in front of you? Grateful that you weren't in an accident, you are now on high alert for other surprises. Authors use irony for the same reason. When the unexpected happens, readers pay closer attention. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is a nonfiction story, meaning that the ironic elements occur naturally, but the author uses descriptors and places emphasis on certain events so that the irony is evident as the readers learn about the victims, the criminals, and the court proceedings surrounding the murder of the Clutter family. In this novel, there are three types of irony: dramatic, situational, and verbal. Let's examine examples of each from the novel.

Dramatic Irony

Dramatic irony occurs when the reader knows some information that the character does not. Because of this lack of information, the character says things or makes decisions that would be different if they knew the whole story. Throughout most of the first chapter, the reader knows that the Clutter family is about to be murdered. Some readers may have heard the true story before picking up the book; others figure it out because the author keeps switching back and forth between the Clutters and the murderers who are preparing for the kill.

On the night of the murders, Nancy Clutter was busy '…having dried and brushed her hair and bound it in a gauzy bandanna, she set out the clothes she intended to wear to church the next morning: nylons, black pumps, a red velveteen dress - her prettiest, which she herself had made. It was the dress in which she was to be buried.'

This is dramatic irony because Nancy believes she is preparing her wardrobe for church, but the reader knows she is preparing for her funeral.

Situational Irony

Situational irony is when the opposite from what is expected to happen is what occurs. The home invasion that led to the Clutter's murder was in itself an example of situational irony. Dick brought Perry on for what was supposed to be a 'big score' that was a 'cinch.' Perry explains, 'Dick drew me a diagram of the Clutter house. He knew where everything was - doors, halls, bedrooms. He said one of the ground-floor rooms was used as an office, and in the office there was a safe - a wall safe. He said Mr. Clutter needed it because he always kept on hand large sums of cash. Never less than ten thousand dollars.' Ironically, when they arrive, there is no safe and only about $40 cash in the whole house.

Another example of situational irony is that it was Dick that planned the robbery and drilled into Perry that there would be 'no witnesses,' yet when it came down to it, Dick didn't have any interest in killing the Clutters. It was Perry that ended up killing the entire family.

Verbal Irony

Verbal irony is when what someone says or otherwise communicates is the opposite of what they mean. Sarcasm is a form of verbal irony. As the prosecuting attorney says his final words to the jury, he warns them that '…some of our enormous crimes only happen because once upon a time a pack of chicken-hearted jurors refused to do their duty.'

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