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By Katrina McGaughey March 24, 2015

The American Nightmare

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.

Truman Capote’s 1966 non-fiction novel, In Cold Blood, explores the lives of two men and the social conditions that lead them to become criminals. Capote argues that the American Dream is problematic because it suggests that America is a country where any person is free to thrive. One of the murderers, Perry, fails to transcend the conditions of his upbringing, only able to acquire wealth through criminal activity. Capote’s presentation of Perry thus suggests that the American Dream of the man who rises from rags to riches on his own is impossible. His presentation of the other murderer, Dick, as turning to criminality even though he comes from a good upbringing, complicates and potentially contradicts this argument: it offers an example of a character whose prosperous upbringing does not match his behaviour. By presenting Perry in a subjective way, sympathizing with him much more than Dick, Capote suggests that the American Dream is unrealistic, and fails to address the way that Dick’s story contradicts his own argument. 

A common theme in In Cold Blood is the idea of the American Dream. Dick and Perry come from the dark side of the American Dream and they are trying to seek the perfection that the Clutters have. They are described as criminals that do everything for money, both coming from haunted pasts. It is quite ironic that Dick and Perry would need to kill an entire family to feel as though they have achieved the success every American wants. They believe that they will be able to be successful in the world by being wealthy, yet the way that they seek wealth is to kill the people who have already succeeded in reaching the American Dream. 

Dick and Perry and the Clutters are, however, also quite alike. Mrs. Clutter, for example, is described as having extreme anxiety and depression. Everything about the family is almost perfect, however, “in regard to his family, Mr. Clutter had just one serious cause for disquiet—his wife’s health. She was ‘nervous,’ she suffered from ‘little spells’—such were the sheltering expressions used by those close to her” (Capote 7). This proves that, although the townspeople know about Mrs. Clutter’s bad health, there is more happening in the family than meets the eye. The American Dream is not as much of a dream that the murderers expect, which helps to explain why they only leave the house with less than fifty dollars. 

Capote writes around the theme of nature versus nurture, causing the reader to feel more sympathy for one character than the other. In Part II of the novel, there is a six page manuscript written by Perry’s father in effort to help obtain parole for a crime Perry committed the year before the murder. The manuscript is called “My Boy’s Life”, and although it is written badly due to a lack of education, it describes Perry’s childhood in detail and the reasons why he acts the way he does. At one point, his father writes: “As I see it— Perry has learned a lesson he will never forget. Freedom means everything to him you will never get him behind bars again. Im quite sure Im rite. I notice a big change in the way he talks. He deeply regrets his mistake he told me.” (Capote 129) This shows that Perry’s father has hope that Perry will be better in the future yet Perry still messes it up. Throughout reading the manuscript the reader feels a lot of sympathy for Perry because Capote is giving a true inside view into his past. This proves that Perry is unable to transcend from his bad upbringing and that he must instead take part in criminal activity. 

Throughout the novel, Dick is portrayed to be the “bad” one of the two, even though the two murderers are clearly just as harmful as each other. After the crimes take place, Dick is seen attempting to seduce a young girl while Perry looks on disgust. The scene is described: 

Perry, still reclining under the blue umbrella, had observed the scene and realized Dick's purpose at once, and despised him for it; he had “no respect for people who can't control themselves sexually,” especially when the lack of control involved what he called “pervertiness" - “bothering kids,” “queer stuff,” rape. And he thought he had made his views obvious to Dick; indeed, hadn't they almost had a fist fight when quite recently he had prevented Dick from raping a terrified young girl? (Capote 201)

At this point of the novel, the reader has a lot of sympathy for Perry who is seen as the hero figure after stopping Dick from raping the girl.  These two characters prove that people are either born psychopathic, like Dick, or are brought up in an environment causing them to do bad things, like Perry. Dick’s behaviour does not match his upbringing, thus proving that the American Dream is unrealistic. 

In Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, it is clear that in order to achieve the American Dream, it does not matter how one is brought up. The upbringing of one of the murderers, Perry, is what causes him to commit crime in order to generate wealth and reach the American Dream, while Dick, however, commits crime naturally, despite his safe upbringing. The American Dream is unrealistic mainly because it is almost impossible to obtain wealth through criminal activity and those taking part in it are really living the American Nightmare.

About the author

Katrina McGaughey is a CALL student in the languages profile. She's studying languages to broaden her opportunities and perspectives in the world.

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