Theme is a pervasive idea presented in a literary piece. Themes in In Cold Blood, a masterpiece of Truman Capote, are aplenty. The book deals with the difficult issue of racism, as well as the dark sides of human nature such as killing and robbing for greed. Some of the major themes in In Cold Blood have been analyzed below.
Themes in In Cold Blood
The American Dream
The pursuit of the American Dream plays a central role in the book. On the one hand, are the sophisticated and well-to-do Clutters who live in affluence that makes others envy them. On the other hand, there are those who live on the fringes of society and try to get what the Clutters have. The American dream of Herb Clutter is almost fulfilled by his hard work. His success was envied by a few people in his community. The people living on the fringe are like Dick Hickock and his co-planner, Perry Smith, represent those members living on the fringes of society. They are impulsive and mentally ill, and when they realize the Clutters have no large stash of money in their house, they see their dreams of ill-gotten wealth go up in smoke, they kill the Clutters in anger.
Morality is another major theme of the novel In Cold Blood. The novel shows two habitual criminals, Dick and Perry, who are paroled only to commit another heinous crime. The major motive of their family massacre is to get money. Whereas Perry becomes violent, Dick becomes heartless and cold. Both invade the private property of the Clutters and kill them in cold blood. The assessment of the morality of the action can be seen from Perry’s qualms about his action whereas Dick seems quite normal despite having committed a heinous crime. However, Capote paints Perry as a somewhat moral being despite committing two murders, and Dick as an example of immorality, having no remorse for his actions.
Mental illness and its impacts on human actions is another major theme of the novel In Cold Blood. Capote presents two seasoned criminals who demonstrate that although someone may appear outwardly “normal,” he could be facing acute psychological issues. Victim Bonnie Clutter, too, suffers from mental illness; in her case, depression. On the other hand, Dick Hickock is engaged in criminal activities on account of the damage to his brain in an accident. That is why his parents do not blame him; they rather blame that accident which has caused him deep psychological issues. Perry Smith, too, has schizophrenia and comes from a family of violent people, both of which play a part in the criminal actions he undertakes.
Suspense is another major theme of this nonfictional novel. The writer has adopted a narrative reporting method in such a way that the readers are always on their toes, wondering what is coming next. This type of objective or seemingly objective writing creates suspense using literary devices such as flashbacks and foreshadowing. For example, Capote uses the first section to tell about the Clutter family but omits the part where Dick and Perry enter the home. He gives details of each member of the Clutter family, and relates interviews with the investigator and the criminals that give the entire scenario, including the motive of the killing, but exclude the details of how they killed all of them. The main point for suspense is the hanging of the criminals and the sympathy that the readers feel for one of them.
Fear is another major theme of the novel, as Capote draws the reader into experiencing the same fear many of the central characters experience throughout. The author has beautifully woven the story by interviewing the fear and emotion of the residents of Holcomb, showing the activities of the Clutters and recording the voice of Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, the major criminals. Also, the description given by Perry Smith about the murder shows that even the Clutters were not fearful of such a heinous crime specifically up to the point of robbery. However, when Perry cuts throats and approaches other family members, they beseech him to spare them.
Family, including family life and familial love, is another major theme of the novel In Cold Blood. The first example is that of the Clutters. They not only signify the decency in Holcomb, but they also show the realization of the American Dream. Most local residents look up to them for traditions and trendsetting. On the other hand, Perry and Dick represent broken family systems that produce people more inclined toward criminality.
The effect of social status is another major theme of this nonfiction novel. Perry and Dick are envious of the Clutters’ social status and believe they can achieve this same status only through wealth. That is why when Perry hears that the Clutters have a large amount of money, he weaves a plan with Dick to rob the family and use the money to improve their own social status. Therefore, this status and status conflict forced them to commit this heinous crime.
Ego or self-image is another minor theme of the novel. Both Perry and Dick have an enlarged sense of self-importance, but also care a great deal about how others perceive them. For example, the end of the novel shows that Perry is a sensitive person and does no digest criticism easily. The rivalry between the two, too, is a result of ego-formation.
Sexuality is another theme that runs parallel to various other themes in this novel. Hickock has married twice, yet these marriages fail to satisfy his desire for sex. However, Smith finally succeeds in persuading him that he should not rape his victim, Nancy Clutter.
Perry and Dick plan the crime, to murder the Clutters, at the beginning of the story. Their common plan to gain the ‘American dream’ is unfulfilled. Perry struggles because of his abusive past and a middle-class lifestyle. He also shows remorse for his actions. On the other hand, Dick doesn’t feel guilty about the murder. The readers understand Herb Clutter as a hardworking man who had planned his future and dreamed of a secure life. However, his plans are thwarted by the killers, Perry and Dick.