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In Cold Blood | Study Guide

Truman Capote

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In Cold Blood | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In the beginning section of In Cold Blood, The Last to See Them Alive (Part 1) how is the omniscient third-person narrator used to build suspense?

In Cold Blood's omniscient third-person narrator knows everything about the characters and the world in which the story is set. Starting in the first section, The Last to See Them Alive, and continuing throughout the book, scenes of what is happening in Holcomb—with the Clutter family, the townspeople, and eventually the investigators on the Clutter case—alternate with scenes involving the two killers. The suspense is created by the information the narrator chooses to share or withhold. The first section begins on the last day the Clutters are alive and shows all their activities and interactions. These scenes alternate with scenes that show the actions and conversations of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock as they prepare for the big "score" and to "blast hair all over them walls," but do not mention the killers' targets by name. The reader is left to make the connection between the victims and their murderers.

In In Cold Blood, The Last to See Them Alive (Part 5) why does the author skip the actual murder and tell the reader about the aftermath instead?

The author delays revealing the confessions by Perry Smith and Dick Hickock and their detailed descriptions of the murders until later in the novel to create dramatic tension. After the corpses of Herb, Bonnie, Nancy, and Kenyon Clutter are discovered by friends, neighbors, and local authorities, the focus shifts to the characters who last saw the Clutters alive and how word spreads through small, tight-knit Holcomb. This approach provides the reader a sense of the far-reaching effects the crime had on Holcomb's residents. It also allows the reader to share the villagers' anxiety, terror, and shock at the senselessness and brutality of the crime.

In In Cold Blood, The Last to See Them Alive (Part 1) what does the phrase "four shotgun blasts that ... ended six human lives" reveal about the author?

The quote "four shotgun blasts that ... ended six human lives" reveals that Truman Capote was affected by both the brutality of the Clutter murders—each member of the family was shot in the head—and by the death penalty, which ended the lives of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock in a way he found equally brutal. To Capote and many others who were at the trial or spent time with the two death row inmates, the death penalty was a state-sanctioned form of murder. Kansas required the penalty for violent crimes because the state did not enforce a life sentence without possibility of parole. Even if someone convicted of a murder were given a life sentence in Kansas, he or she would, on average, spend only 15 years in prison and then be paroled. People feared a murderer, once paroled and back on the street, could kill again, taking revenge out on family members of murder victims or on those involved in bringing the criminal to justice.

In In Cold Blood, The Last to See Them Alive (Part 1) why do Herb and Bonnie Clutter sleep in separate bedrooms?

Herb and Bonnie Clutter sleep in separate bedrooms because Bonnie Clutter spends most of her time alone, unable to deal with family life because of her depression. She spends much of her time locked in her daughter Eveanna's old room on the second floor of the Clutter house, though she still keeps most of her possessions in the bedroom she previously shared with her husband on the first floor. For the six years prior to the murders, Bonnie has been "an on-and-off psychiatric patient," fine for a short time before she fell prey again to sadness and despair. Although she has become a recluse, frequently bowing out of social situations and not accompanying her husband to community functions, Bonnie also feels her husband and children don't need her. Although the Clutters look like a perfect family, Bonnie is unable to feel happiness and removes herself from the family more often than not.

In In Cold Blood, The Last to See Them Alive (Part 1) how does Herb Clutter's handling of his wife's illness reflect on his character?

Herb Clutter's handling of his wife's illness makes him appear to be an unusually considerate and patient person and an ideal father. The Clutter family as portrayed in The Last to See Them Alive (Part 1) of In Cold Blood appear to be the "perfect" 1950s American family, but Herb Clutter's role as husband is not the norm. Traditional 1950s' gender roles had a wife staying at home full time, taking care of the household and raising the children, while the husband was the primary breadwinner and head of the family. Herb, however, has encouraged Bonnie to spend time away from the family in order to give her time to overcome her depression. After her return, Herb doesn't hire a housekeeper even though he could afford to do so. Instead, he learns to cook and prepares family meals along with Nancy; his "salt-rising bread" is the best in Kansas and his coconut cookies sell out first at charity bake sales. Herb worries about Nancy Clutter seeing too much of Bobby Rupp, takes Kenyon Clutter to his 4-H club meetings, never insists Bonnie Clutter join him in his social and community activities, and allows her to sleep in a separate bedroom. The effect on the reader is to make his murder seem devastating; he is not just innocent but an exemplary person.

How is Herb Clutter's aversion to stimulants in In Cold Blood, The Last to See Them Alive (Part 1) an example of dramatic irony?

The description of Herb Clutter being neither a smoker nor drinker who "opposed all stimulants"—and ate spartanly—suggests a man who had high moral standards. Herb was not impulsive; rather, he was in control of himself and all he did. His morals are an example of dramatic irony, in which the audience knows something the characters do not, because they are in sharp contrast to those of his killers. Herb Clutter's desire for purity extended to his children and even his workers; the first thing he would ask a job applicant was if they are a drinker. Although he was a good and generous boss, if he found a worker had alcohol on his breath, he would dismiss the person. Herb Clutter's standards were very high when it came to being in possession of one's faculties and in control of one's desires; he demanded this of himself and of those around him. Tragically, this facet of Herb Clutter's personality did not save him in the end from Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, who had no ability to control their impulses and little to no sense of right from wrong.

In In Cold Blood, The Last to See Them Alive (Part 3) why does the reader see only the beginning of Dick Hickock's letter to Perry about the "perfect score"?

The reader sees the opening of Dick Hickock's letter to Perry Smith, but not the details of what Floyd Wells told Dick about the Clutter house and the supposed existence of a safe holding a large amount of cash. The reader doesn't even learn about Wells until after the Clutters have been killed and the murderers are on their way to Mexico. In this part of the book, Capote establishes a technique he uses throughout the novel: revealing information as the investigators on the Clutter case discover it. This works to heighten suspense and draw the reader in, making the reader feel almost a part of the investigation itself. Waiting to reveal the details of the safe and what was supposed to be in it—as well as Dick and Perry's anger at finding there was neither a safe nor any real money at the Clutter house—heightens the reader's sense of the unfairness and utter senselessness of wiping out an entire family.

In In Cold Blood, The Last to See Them Alive (Part 1) how is the encounter with hunters used to foreshadow what's to come?

As Herb Clutter walks past his orchard on Saturday, the day before the murders, trespassers appear and Teddy, the Clutters' dog, rushes up to them and starts barking. Suddenly Teddy cowers, "his head dropped, his tail turned in" because these men—who were pheasant hunters from Oklahoma—carry guns. Teddy, although "a good sentry, alert, ever ready to raise Cain," is terrified of guns. Teddy's fear foreshadows the frightening event to come for the Clutters, which involves men and guns. The pheasant hunters ask Herb Clutter if they can pay a fee to hunt on his land. Clutter tells them he is not as poor as he looks and allows them to hunt as they wish, saying, "Go ahead, get all you can." Herb's statement also foreshadows Perry Smith and Dick Hickock's arrival at the Clutters' home, when the killers will "get all they can": the family's money and their lives.

In In Cold Blood, The Last to See Them Alive (Part 2) why is it important to know that Perry Smith has constant pain and is addicted to aspirin?

After his legs were broken in five places in an accident, Perry Smith becomes addicted to aspirin because of his constant leg pain. Chronic pain can lead to other problems, such as depression, emotional upset, hopelessness, irritability, and bursts of anger. Perry's personality is later described by a psychiatrist as paranoid schizophrenic, but chronic pain could have added to his emotional instability. An aspirin sensitivity might also have contributed; it could cause an individual to become confused and hyperactive, to suffer hallucinations, and to experience instances of memory loss. Bed-wetting is a symptom of an aspirin addiction. Although Perry attributes his weak kidneys to a poor diet as a child, it is possible that his aspirin use also contributes to his chronic bed-wetting, further undermining his lack of self-esteem.

In In Cold Blood, The Last to See Them Alive (Part 3) what does Dick Hickock mean by a "score" in his letter to Perry Smith?

Dick Hickock uses the term score in his letter to Perry Smith, which the reader first learns of in The Last to See Them Alive (Part 3). By stating this would be the "perfect score," Dick means they will be able to steal a lot of money quickly and easily, in one stop. However, this is an even more "perfect score" for Dick because he plans to have Perry, the "'natural killer"—whom Dick believes is sane but lacks a sense of right and wrong—carry out the murders of the Clutter family. To Dick, having Perry do the killing will mean no witnesses could be left behind to link either of them to the crime. Dick will net big money quickly without having to do any of the dirty work.

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