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In Cold Blood | Symbols

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Capote uses four primary symbols in In Cold Blood, which serve as integral parts of the plot and also present his point of view on capital punishment, the American Dream, mental illness, and the concept of freedom.

The Death Penalty

The death penalty symbolizes a growing tendency in American brutality both in those who perpetrate violence and those who punish it. In the early 1960s in Kansas, the death penalty is the sentence given for murder, as Kansas state law allows for parole to be given after only 15 years served of a life sentence.

Capote's thoughts on capital punishment are clear, for In Cold Blood vividly describes gruesome deaths by hanging. Although a prison guard states victims don't feel anything after their neck snaps, other witnesses to hangings hear gasps for air and see signs of struggle in the victims. The book's title reflects both how the Clutter murders were carried out and the concept of capital punishment as state-sanctioned murder. As Capote says, "four shotgun blasts ... all told, ended six human lives"—those of the Clutters and their two killers.

The Clutter Family

The Clutter family symbolizes the American Dream of a stable family life, and everything good and wholesome about 1950s' rural America. The Clutters are the last people anyone expects to fall prey to harm. Bonnie Clutter, despite her depressive nature and odd manner, is a woman deeply loved by her friends and generous to others. Herb Clutter, a model employer who treats his workers fairly and well, is committed to his family and his community. Kenyon Clutter, although a loner, is an intelligent, creative, and sensitive boy. Nancy Clutter, an outgoing and popular girl, will do anything for anyone; she is the "town darling."

The Clutters also symbolize everything missing in Dick Hickock's life, and the frustration and disillusion in Perry Smith's. Their success and wholesomeness prompt Hickock's greed and Smith's rage, both impulses that lead to the murder of the family.

Prison

In Cold Blood begins with the two perpetrators coming out of prison on parole, yet immediately joining up to commit a serious crime. Prison is a symbol of deviance and a system in which criminal tendencies are perpetuated rather than reformed. Even Floyd Wells, who is let out of prison early with a reward for admitting to having told Dick Hickock about Herb Clutter, ends up committing more crimes and returning to prison, the last time and for a long haul. Each person in the novel sentenced to prison comes out a more hardened criminal.

Yellow Bird

Perry Smith dreams of the yellow bird whenever he faces dire or desperate situations. The bird first appears to him when he is a child, suffering terrible abuse in the orphanage where his mother left him. The yellow bird not only protects Perry but also exacts vengeance on the people who hurt him. Perry is described as a "boy-man" at the end of the novel, and the yellow bird is a relic of childhood he holds on to as he grows up, a symbol of protection, safety, and caring.

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