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By Carole‐Anne Williams March 24, 2015

Fiction in Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”:  How do we know what we know?

This essay is part of a series entitled The American Gothic: A TRANS– Discourse. Click the link for a description of the series and links to all the essays.

In Cold Blood was the first “non fiction novel” and it caused a lot of controversy, when it was written, as to how much of the book was “non-fiction” and how much was “novel”. I argue that it is a work of fiction loosely based on the murder of the Clutter family, not non-fiction. The concept of the text prevents it from being the absolute truth: Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood by interviewing everyone involved in the murder, piecing together a narrative with quotations from everyone he spoke with. He writes In Cold Blood as a novel, with detailed dialogue between characters and omniscient narration, but his base information is flawed because of the subjectivity the people he interviews, as well as Capote’s own subjectivity and bias when it comes to the murderers, with whom he became very close. In Cold Blood is therefore Capote’s interpretation of the events as a whole and not an objectively written account of what occurred and, as such, cannot be counted as non-fiction.

Capote writes In Cold Blood with an omniscient narrator, giving the readers an insight on what the characters are thinking at all times. This structure automatically makes large portions of the book fiction because Capote is claiming to know the thoughts of real people who exist outside of the text. This is shown when the detectives track down Perry’s only living sister, Barbara Johnson, living in San Francisco, for any leads on his whereabouts. Capote writes about the encounter and how scared Mrs Johnson was that Perry would find her, 

“She shut the [photo album] and switched on the television, but it did not console her. Suppose he did come? The detectives had found her, why shouldn’t Perry? He need not expect her to help him; she wouldn’t even let him in. The front door was locked, but not the door to the garden...When Mrs Johnson bolted the door, she had in mind the dead as well as the living.” (Capote 187)

 Capote paints a very detailed scene but this can’t have happened in real life; at least not exactly how Capote describes it to be. He has created a scene based on what Mrs Johnson told him about that event but he is not all knowing nor was he present for while it happened so what he writes is his interpretation of what occurred. 

This is the real core of the text that defines it, the idea that it is Capote’s interpretation of the events that transpired in Holcomb after the murder of the Clutter family, not an objective recounting of the events that transpired. It is Capote’s search for meaning in a random act of extreme violence. Capote takes the place of the typical protagonist of the American Gothic tale who is attempting to interpret his or her surroundings and arrange them in a way they can find order and reason. Everybody’s interpretation is different and not one can be accepted as the truth by itself, this means that we can’t just accept Capote’s interpretation of events as fact and be done with it. 

Capote’s bias starts to show as he tries to create order and reason for the murders. He does this in two ways: first by understanding who the Clutters were and then by understanding the killers and why they did what they did. Because of Capotes subjectivity as well as the subjectivity of the townspeople, both of these portrayals do not accurately represent the people involved and makes the book extremely subjective rather than an objective explanation of the events that occurred.

Capote’s subjectivity becomes an important factor again when he is describing the murderers. The accuracy of the book is once again challenged by Capote’s obvious bias towards Perry, one of the murderers.

One of the obvious ways that Capote’s bias towards Perry is shown in the book is how much of the novel is dedicated to Perry’s back story and thoughts compared to the other murderer, Dick. It is as though Capote is trying to justify Perry and his actions meanwhile placing the blame for the murders more heavily on Dick. Capote recounts Perry’s terrible childhood as one of four children of nomadic rodeo champions who were violent alcoholics and desperately poor. He writes of the neglect and loneliness Perry suffered, in detail, as his family members died one by one, “ [Perry said,] ‘over the years, that was all I had left me. Jimmy a suicide. Fern out the window. My mother dead. Been dead eight years. Everyone gone but Dad and Barbara”’ (Capote 138). These drawn out descriptions sway the reader in their opinion of Perry and make him into a victim the reader sympathizes with. Dick, on the other hand, has very little of the book devoted to him but what there is, isn’t good. He grew up in a happy, if not wealthy, family that was functional, so he doesn’t have Perry’s excuse of a terrible upbringing. Dick runs over dogs for fun, cheats on his first and second wife and has pedophilic tendencies that have, on several different occasions, resulted in him molesting young girls. There is also the fact that he is not bothered by the murders they committed. We see this in a conversation that takes place a few days after the murders, when Dick and Perry are on the run, 

Perry said, “I think there must be something wrong with us. To do what we did. […] There’s got to be something wrong with somebody who’d do a thing like that.” 

“Deal me out, baby” Dick said, “I’m a normal.” (Capote108)

 In this passage, Capote does two things: first he makes the suggestion that Perry feels guilty for what they did and then he shows that Dick doesn’t care at all, making him more of a monster. This is not necessarily the truth because, later in the book, when Perry is speaking to a reporter he admits that he is not sorry for the murders, and doesn’t, “feel anything about it. I wish it did. But nothing about it bothers me a bit.” (Capote 335) Capote’s bias influences the way he writes about Perry, often trying to play down his unsympathetic traits, to make him a sympathetic character and paints Dick as the worse of the two. This interferes with the factuality of the text.

Capote creates a new kind of writing is his book, In Cold Blood but the book itself is not an accurate account of the Clutter murders in Holcomb, Texas on the night of November 29, 1959.  It is rather Capote’s interpretation of the events that occurred before and after the crime from interviews with the people involved and the murderers. The way Capote structures the book, by recreating scenes and dialogue based on what he understood in interviews as well as the omniscient narration both depend too heavily on Capote’s interpretation of the relationships between characters and of the entire event.  Because of Capote’s bias and the compounded subjectivity, he is no longer telling the true story of the Clutter murder case but his own interpretation of what happened to try to find meaning in the crime. Although it cannot be counted as complete non-fiction, the message in the book about underlying American violence is still powerful and Capote’s attempt to understand what motivated the killers raises interesting questions about what lies in humans that could drive them to such a brutal murder- one that has no apparent motive.

About the author

Carole Anne Williams is a studying health sciences at Dawson College. She loves literature and the Reflections course she took at Dawson was allowed her to broaden her knowledge and provided a great learning experience.

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