The American Dream in In Cold Blood

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  • 0:03 The American Dream
  • 0:38 Characters Who…
  • 1:36 American Greed
  • 2:42 Dreams & Illusions
  • 4:13 The American Dream &…
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Millie van der Westhuizen

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

In this lesson, we will be looking at the theme of the American Dream in Truman Capote's 'In Cold Blood.' In order to do this, we will consider which characters achieve it, which don't, and why the novel suggests this might be the case.

The American Dream

The American Dream is the belief that anyone, regardless of their background, can improve their social standing through hard work. Do you consider this ideal a dream or an illusion? And what do you think Truman Capote's In Cold Blood suggests about this ideal?

In order to answer this last question, consider the following questions: Which characters are able to achieve the American Dream? Which characters don't and why? Is it really as simple as just needing to work hard, or is Capote's idea of the American Dream a little bit more complicated than this?

Characters Who Achieved the Dream

When thinking about those depicted as living the American Dream, the Clutter family comes to mind. Mr. Clutter, who started off working for others, was able to eventually afford his own farm and make a success of it, largely because 'he labored eighteen hours a day' and did not allow setbacks to deter him. In the end he has 'a pretty good spread' and has 'raised a fine family,' only to have it destroyed in a single night.

Another character who seems to have achieved the American Dream is Perry Smith's sister, Barbara Johnson, who, despite having a similar background to her brother's, is shown to live in a house with a 'white picket fence', something often associated with the suburban American Dream.

However, when we consider why these characters were able to succeed, while others like Perry Smith and Dick Hickock did not, the novel provides two possible answers, which can be seen as being related to one another. The first is greed. The second is an unwillingness to work for success.

American Greed

Before we think about how Dick's greed leads to the tragedy 'that, all told, ended six human lives', we might think about some of the minor characters who seem to want greater success than they'd already achieved. In this we see that Holcomb's name came from a hog raiser who 'made money' and 'decided that the town ought to be called after him' only to 'sell out' and move to California soon after. Similarly, the Ashidas, 'a family likably high-spirited, yet hard-working and neighborly' are shown to move to another town because the father believes that he 'can do better somewhere else'. Wanting more, however, is not a problem, unless the means of getting it is problematic.

Dick, 'who wanted 'a regular life' with a business of his own, a house, a horse to ride, a new car, and 'plenty of blond chicken',' seems to have turned to crime due to greed. His mother explains that he and his wife 'lived too high,' and 'kept buying stuff they couldn't no how afford.' And since Dick is capable of working but feels that none of the salaries offered to him are enough, his decision to turn to crime is suggested to stem solely from greed, rather than any factors outside of his control.

Dreams & Illusions

Like Dick, Perry seems unwilling to work hard for what he wants. As Perry's sister asks him in a letter, 'Are you willing to work & make an honest effort to attain whatever it is you choose to do?', reminding him that 'nothing good comes easy.' However, unlike Dick, Perry does not initially see crime as the only means of achieving his dreams. Instead, he hoped to find fame as a singer in Las Vegas or good fortune in the discovery of buried treasure. As such, Perry represents a character for whom the American Dream is tied up with illusions, as neither of these things happen.

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