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By Yana Iossel March 24, 2015

The Morality of a Crime Committed In Cold Blood

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.

Known for the iconic Breakfast at Tiffany’s,  Truman Capote is not often thought of as a pioneer in non-fiction novels. With his work co-authoring the 1963 adaptation of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw entitled The Innocents, Capote explored the deep subjectivity of the film’s protagonist— a governess faced with two children who are either possessed or manipulating her without mercy. 

Capote’s In Cold Blood, a documentary-style novel, leaves readers with as many, if not more, questions as aroused at the beginning of the novel, and leaves the audience with an unshakeable sense of uneasiness. It can thus be seen that In Cold Blood undoubtedly follows conventions so commonly found in the gothic narrative, but further perturbs readers by adding an element of reality to the novel, making Truman Capote’s work chillingly uncanny. 

Like so many works in the American gothic genre, Capote suggests that an underlying violence is prevalent in American society. Violence is not unique to America, however. In fact, the idea of a society completely free of violence has always been quixotic.  What is undoubtedly one of the most popularized and translated ancient texts, the old Testament itself includes a magnitude of stories focused on death and destruction. The story of Cain and Abel, in the book of Genesis, is a story of morality. It is used to show the inherent violence in humanity while simultaneously teaching the divine repercussions of murder. The Clutter case bears similarity to the story of Cain and Abel because it is a story of the animalistic base of the human condition; greed, jealousy, and murder. 

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some     of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and         his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. […] Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him. (New International Version, Gen. 4.2-4.9).

Much like Cain, Dick and Perry held a sense of entitlement. Despite having never done anything to warrant the wealth and amount of respect the community felt towards the Clutters, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith felt as though they were deserving of what the Clutters held. Both Dick and Perry become aggravated at the sight of someone who is more privileged than them, using violence as a means of coping with the jealousy. When in refuge in Florida, Dick encounters an elderly man in a wealthy compound with an attractive woman and becomes infuriated. ‘“Why should that sonofabitch have everything, while he had nothing? Why should that "big-shot bastard" have all the luck? With a knife in his hand, he, Dick, had power”’ (Capote, 201). Insecure with their social status, the perpetrators of the Clutter crime envy those that are more fortunate than them, and their jealousy manifests into violence. 

 Violence is rudimentary, and yet seen as abject by society.  In the aforementioned story of Cain and Abel, God turns Cain into a pariah, whereas Dick and Perry are sentenced with capital punishment (Genesis, 4.10).  As is common in the gothic narrative, that which is abject is repressed or destroyed by society. When regarding the abject nature of murder, those that committed the crime are cast away by society because hegemonic norms dictate that murder is reprehensible. 

In American society violence is repressed, the result of institutional forces that oppress but remain frustratingly invisible or overwhelming. Dick and Perry live through impulsivity. They allow the id to dictate their lives, for they fulfill their own desires constantly through drinking, hiring multitudes of prostitutes, stealing, forging cheques, and by murdering not only the Clutters but various stray dogs as well. Their repeated engagement in acts which society dictates must be repressed creates a collective uncanny in all those that hear of the crimes. Dick and Perry are a physical manifestation of that which is repressed by society. They allow their animalistic nature to run rampant and thus commit the illogical act of killing a family of four with seemingly no motive. Dick and Perry are that which a repressed society looks down upon. 

The residents of Holcomb and the surrounding society turn Dick and Perry into abject beings because of the crime they committed, and yet there’s still a lingering fascination towards them. The crime caused a media frenzy- so much so that Truman Capote decided to write a book about them. 

Though the resident of Holcomb and the Americans that followed the news of the case wanted to distance themselves from the murders, they too felt an indescribable desire to know more. When the Clutter residence was first opened to the public after the murders, the auction held on the estate drew residents from the entire state of Kansas. “Earlier in the year Mr. Clutter's Japanese neighbor, Hideo Ashida, had auctioned his farming equipment and moved to Nebraska. The Ashida sale, which was considered a success, attracted not quite a hundred customers. Slightly more than five thousand people attended the Clutter auction” (Capote, 171). Though deeply perturbed by the event, the residents of Kansas still did not hesitate to buy the Clutters’ belongings. The morbid fascination towards the crime results from the residents projection of themselves in the Clutter murder. 

Furthermore, when the bodies were first discovered the town was in a collective state of shock and yet the initial reaction from the residents of Holcomb was to immediately guess who the criminals were. Each resident had a different hypothesis as to who the murderers were and yet what ran common between all the conjectures was that it was undoubtedly someone from Holcomb. “Another reason, the simplest, the ugliest, was that this hitherto peaceful congregation of neighbours and old friends had suddenly to endure the unique experience of distrusting each other; understandably, they believed that the murderer was among themselves” (Capote, 55).  Their distrust towards each other further demonstrates that they believe each is capable of allowing their repressed violence to surface. 

They no longer trust each other because the illogicality of the crime causes the residents of Holcomb to further question their morality. What further perturbs the reader is that there is no real motive to the crimes. Neither Dick nor Perry felt strong personal feelings of contempt towards the Clutters. Though perhaps spawned by the jealousy they felt from their longing to achieve the Clutter’s status, they held no personal vendetta against the Clutters. In his confession, Perry states:

Just before I taped him, Mr. Clutter asked me - and these were his last words - wanted to know how his wife was, if she was all right, and I said she was fine, she was ready to go to sleep, and I told him it wasn't long till morning, and how in the morning somebody would find them, and then all of it, me and Dick and all, would seem like something they dreamed. I wasn't kidding him. I didn't want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat (Capote, 156).

It implores individuals to define what causes man to return to his animalistic state and no longer repress his murderous instincts.

As defined by Freud, the uncanny is “that class of the frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (Freud, 195). In Cold Blood evokes such prominent feelings of the uncanny because it explores the human psyche in a way that had previously never been done before. It allows the audience to view the murderer’s psyche and explore the mind of a killer. In humanizing rather than demonizing Dick and Perry, the reader is ultimately placed into the same situation as the residents of Holcomb by being forced to question the stability of their own morals.

About the author

Yana Iossel is a student in Dawson’s Psychology profile. She joined Reflections because friends of hers that had been through its different classes had given them all rave reviews, and she was intrigued to see whether or not they were right. (They were).

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