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Death Penalty In Cold Blood Essay Question

  • 1

    Capote, when asked whether he was conscious of “film techniques” in In Cold Blood, responded “not at all.” Why might some consider the book to be cinematic? In what ways is In Cold Blood more like a movie than a novel, and what does this contribute to our overall understanding of the book’s themes?

    The book is arranged as a series of small scenes or vignettes, punctuated by breaks in the narrative resembling “cuts,” which weave together several plotlines. Dialogue is reproduced verbatim, minimizing Capote’s authorial intervention and drawing the reader closer to the action. On top of this, his attention to the physical details of his characters and the spaces they occupy makes the book very visually appealing, in a way that mimics the photographic gaze. In Cold Blood is, in many ways, the story of a community coming of age in modernity, and of the catastrophe that occurs when two worlds collide. It is appropriate, then, that Capote would craft his novel like a film, the quintessentially modern medium. Films, by virtue of their total sensory grasp over their audiences, also invite the identification of their viewers more readily than any other medium; so by utilizing film techniques, Capote manipulates the structures of identification necessary to secure their sympathy for the killers.

  • 2

    What is the role of family in In Cold Blood? Choose two or three characters and compare and contrast how family relationships have shaped or defined them. Does the integrity of a family symbolize something larger in the context of the book?

    For the most part, within the context of Capote's book, the strength of a family seems to stem from and depend on self-determination, social status, and financial security. The Clutters are the strongest family group, and they also hold the highest position on the socioeconomic ladder. Perry, on the other hand, comes from a broken home, which helps to explain his desperate situation in the world. And Dick associates financial security with family, pledging that he will return to his first wife and their children after he has placed himself on solid financial footing. This may be because the two structures determine each other: the integrity of family dictates the strength of the individual to withstand outside pressures, while at the same time one’s ability to conquer the pressures of the world determines how unified one’s family will be.

  • 3

    Despite the fact that Capote spent years with the killers and the residents of Finney County, and developed close personal ties to many of them, he is almost entirely absent from the narrative. Or is he? Are there places where his point of view creeps into the book? What literary devices does he develop to convince the reader that he is present or absent from the story?

    Capote allows himself to appear in the final section of the book, while describing events in which he played a very direct role. Otherwise, the book aspires to present a perfectly objective and disinterested account of the events of the case; Capote’s attention to detail and his ability to reproduce dialogue verbatim gives the book a hyper-real quality, glossing his authorial sleight of hand and allowing the reader to feel as though he or she is experiencing the events firsthand, unfiltered by the author’s point of view. Nevertheless, Capote himself admitted that in spite of the book’s realistic pretensions, it is a highly subjectivized, opinionated account; authors of so-called non-fiction narratives simply control the meaning of the story “by the selection of what you choose to tell.”

  • 4

    What is the role of religion in the book? Are Perry and Dick entirely without religious beliefs? If so, can it be said that they are operating by an alternative moral code? How would you describe this?

    Both Perry and Dick have little tolerance for traditional religion: Dick has never been compelled by a concept of God, and despite being momentarily swayed by the pious Willie-Jay, Perry ultimately cannot forgive the hypocrisy of the nuns who brutalized him as a child. The conceit is that organized religion is a self-serving apparatus of the rich and powerful (or the merely powerful, in the case of the nuns), and that its version of morality excludes the likes of Perry and Dick. The attempted robbery momentarily passes for a kind of higher poetic justice for the tribulations of the robbers’ own lives, but it is quickly transformed into an act that is morally reprehensible by any standard. Still, the book tempts us to sympathize with the killers, and to suspend the normal criteria by which we judge the morality of an act.

  • 5

    Discuss the role of dreams or fantasies in the book. What causes a person to have dreams or fantasies, and how do they influence a person’s course of action? How do these dreams compare with reality?

    For this question, one may choose to focus on Perry’s yellow parrot dream (or his fantasies about treasure hunting, or becoming a famous musician); Dick’s hope of becoming financially solvent and returning as the patriarch of his family; and/or the more implicit fantasy of the “American dream” that the Clutter lifestyle embodies. Perry’s dreams are the furthest removed from reality and thus the most unrealizable (it may be useful to explore why this is so), and it is ultimately he who is driven to the most extreme criminal actions. Dick’s dreams, though more pragmatic, also go largely unfulfilled, and this certainly relates to his criminality. The Clutters, by contrast, have attained everything to which they have aspired, and this underpins their upstanding lifestyle. For this essay, one might explore the relationship between personal wish-fulfillment and the ability to live a normal life within the boundaries of acceptable society, and/or the extent to which dreams determine one’s life circumstances and vice versa.

  • 6

    Discuss the role of gender in the relationship between Dick and Perry. How does each man conform to, or deviate from, traditional gender norms? How does each man use the other to define his own gender identity? Does gender – and in particular, masculinity – symbolize something larger in the context of the book?

    Each man uses the other as a foil for his own self-conception: Dick feminizes Perry in order to maintain his own masculine identity, while, unaware of this, Perry looks to Dick for affirmation that he, too, is “hard,” or “the masculine type.” Perry’s more effeminate qualities, as reflected in Dick’s perception of him – his superstitions, his sensitive and thoughtful disposition – are balanced by the fact that he summons the courage and rage to carried out all four murders. On the other hand, Dick’s masculine bravado is revealed to be a way of compensating for deeper insecurities and feelings of sexual and social inadequacy, which are symbolically manifested in his inability to carry out the murders. For Dick and Perry, masculinity is connected to independence, self-determination, and security, while femininity connotes dependency, ineptitude, and instability.

  • 7

    Just before he is hanged, Perry finally apologizes for the crime; however, critical accounts suggest that Capote embellished this part of the novel for dramatic effect, and that the real Perry said nothing of the sort. What do you make of this apology? Discuss why Capote might have invented this segment. Is it faithful to the representation of Perry that the book has crafted up to this point? Does you feel it helps to clarify his character, or makes him more ambiguous? Does knowing that Capote embellished Perry's character in this way cast doubt on the story as a whole?

    This essay may choose to deal with the larger problem of Capote’s reportage in In Cold Blood. Certainly the apology is inconsistent with the characterization of Perry that we see up to this point (recall the episode with Don Cullivan, in which Perry claims to have no remorse for the killings). The apology, rather, seems to be a last-ditch effort to make Perry into a sympathetic character, which partly reflects the author’s personal feelings about him. This essay may focus on other ways in which the reader has been made to feel sympathy for the killers, and reflect on whether this sympathetic portrayal constitutes an objective “truth,” or whether it is a manipulation of fact to serve Capote’s authorial (and personal) agenda. Do you think the nonfiction novel captures more of the truth than a regular journalistic piece, or do you feel that it is more one-sided? If Capote’s version is not the unadulterated truth, discuss how such truth might be attained.

  • 8

    In undertaking his research in Kansas, Capote’s original aim was to document the psychological impact of the killings on the residents of Holcomb, only afterwards shifting his focus to Perry and Dick. Describe this impact as it becomes expressed over the course of the book. How does Capote directly and indirectly articulate a change in the community? To what extent are the residents of Holcomb responsible for a change in the general milieu, and to what extent are they affected by the goings on around them?

    For this essay, it will be useful to focus on the scenes that don’t revolve around the investigation and the main characters (Perry, Dick, and the detectives), for example, the scenes in Hartman’s Café, or involving Susan Kidwell and Bobby Rupp. Several of the book’s secondary characters – Myrtle Clare, Mrs. Ashida, Susan, and Bobby, among others – personify the diverse reactions of the townspeople as a whole to the murders. By studying these characters, it may be possible to form an overarching thesis about the impact of the crime on the surrounding community. It will also be important to observe the way that townspeople symbiotically feed one another’s reactions to the crimes. Finally, one should pay attention to how the murders are not always the direct cause of unrest, but rather a catalyst or excuse to express sentiments and fears that have already been brewing in the community.

  • 9

    What is the function of sexuality in the novel? Choose three characters and discuss how sexuality operates with and against their values, their sense of themselves, and their personal aspirations. In particular, how does sexuality interact with the concept of family? Are they at odds with one another?

    Dick and Perry place a high premium on “normal” sexuality in the context of the book, which carries with it the connotation of reproduction, childrearing and family, as well as the accompanying virtues of self-determination and socioeconomic stability. In fact, sexual “normalcy” becomes so overstated that it belies the homoerotic undertones of their relationship, as well as Dick’s sexual deviance when it comes to young girls. Sexuality is dangerously poised as, on the one hand, an agent of family and wholesome living, and on the other hand, an avenue of deviance, degeneracy and criminality. As well, Herb Clutter’s ambivalence about Nancy’s relationship with Bobby is stated to be a matter of religion, but we might read against the grain of the text and argue that it has more to do with the specter of sexuality that Bobby introduces into Nancy’s otherwise wholesome life. In a larger sense, raising a family carries with it the dangerous requirement of sexuality, which compromises (or else, exposes a measure of hypocrisy in) the holistic ideology of the Clutters and the virtuous Holcombites.

  • 10

    Does the book make a distinction between what is legal and what is moral? Discuss how the book handles the relationship between law and morality with respect to one of the following: the death penalty; the insanity defense (M’Naghten vs. Durham rule); Perry’s reckoning with organized religion.

    Capote skillfully manipulates the reader’s sympathies against the simple rule of law and/or the dictates of organized religion, showing how neither of these entities adequately responds to the moral exigencies of the Clutter murders. He challenges the death penalty, attempting to demonstrate the hypocrisy and inhumanity of this ruling (as another kind of murder in itself). He also disputes the simplistic M’Naghten rule, by concluding that Perry was not truly in control of his mind at the time of the killings. With regard to organized religion, Perry’s early encounter with the nuns at the orphanage demonstrates a certain moral ineptitude on the part of organized religion, which causes Perry (and by association, the reader) to turn away from the church and God in search of alternative moral pursuits, ones related to philosophic reflection and personal self-betterment.

  • SPOILER WARNING: These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points, if you have not read the book.


    Title:In Cold Blood
    Author: Truman Capote
    Page Count: 343
    Genre: Nonfiction – True Crime
    Tone: Bleak, Sobering

    Questions composed by MPPL Staff:

    1.    Did anyone look up the French epigraph at the beginning of the book? Francois Villon, “Ballade des Pendus,” translates to:

    Human brothers who live after us,
    Do not have (your) hearts hardened against us,
    For, if you take pity on us poor (fellows),
    God will sooner have mercy on you.

    What do you think Capote meant, using this as the epigraph?

    2.    Why do you think Truman Capote introduced the town first, then the Clutters and then the murderers?

    3.    Do you like Mr. Clutter and his family when you meet them?

    4.    What is your first impression of Perry and Dick?

    5.    What about the Clutters? Did you feel like you knew them?

    6.    On page 37, Dick boasts that nothing can go wrong. Was he prepared or naïve?

    7.    When you read a quote like “Ain’t that what I promised you, honey – plenty of hair on them-those walls?” (p. 37) What does it make you feel towards Dick?

    8.    How does Capote build suspense in In Cold Blood?

    9.    Capote goes back and forth in chapters between the Clutters and the murderers. Then Capote goes back and forth from the police and the murderers. Why? Was this an effective way to tell a story?

    10.    What did you think of Capote’s use of direct quotes?

    11.    Did this read like other nonfiction books you’ve read? Why or why not?

    12.    What does the term “nonfiction novel” mean?

    13.    Do you think Capote gave a fair amount of time to all characters involved?

    14.    Who seemed like the worse criminal, Dick or Perry? Do you think that had anything to do with Capote’s writing style?

    15.    Perry admits to thinking that they are “wrong,” but Dick continually calls himself a “normal.” (p. 109) What do you think this says about each of the men?

    16.    Who do you pity in this story?

    17.    Does it change your opinion of Perry to know that he was a veteran (page 128) or to know that he was sexually abused (p. 133)?

    18.    How did the police get their big break in the case?

    19.    Do you think Floyd Wells felt bad about telling Dick about the Clutter family?

    20.    What did you think of Dick’s family’s reaction to hearing that he was a murderer?

    21.    When Dick and Perry are caught, who breaks to the cops first? Why?

    22.    Was there a specific moment that scared you with either criminal?

    23.    If a horrible crime happened in your town, would you talk to a dedicated writer about it?

    24.    Was there a passage of this book that was harder to read than others?

    25.    Do you believe that the farmhand Stoecklein didn’t hear the four gunshots next door?

    26.    What did you think of the insurance man’s reaction to hearing of Mr. Clutter’s death? (p. 71)

    27.    What did you think of Dick and Perry’s reactions to murdering four people? (p. 73 – 74, p. 91)

    28.    Nye says, “Nobody would kill four people for fifty bucks,” (p. 87). Do you think this is true today? Do you think it was true then?

    29.    What did you think of Josie and Wendle Meier? Josie showed calm and caring. Could you have showed that to either Dick or Perry? Would you have?

    30.    Don Cullivan, an old Army buddy of Perry’s, comes to visit. Why?

    31.    Perry changed his statement to say he murdered everybody. Why?

    32.    Do you think there is a difference between reading a true crime book and reading a violent fiction book? Do you feel different while reading one as compared to the other?

    33.    Was there a section that moved slower than others?

    34.    Did you like where the book stopped at? Would you have wanted its ending to have come sooner?

    35.    Do you think Capote did this town good or a disservice by writing In Cold Blood?

    36.    Do you believe in the death penalty?

    37.    Do you think Dick and Perry “got what they deserved?”

    38.    Perry didn’t believe in the death penalty, he said, “I think it’s a helluva thing to take a life in this manner. I don’t believe in capital punishment, morally or legally.” (p. 340) How did this strike you?

    39.    What did you think of each man’s last words?

    -Perry p. 340
    -Dick p. 339

    40.    Do you think Capote believed in capital punishment? (Answer found here.)


    Other Resources:

    Truman Capote Wikipedia entry
    Lit Lovers’ book discussion guide
    Kansas Center for the Book discussion questions
    George Plimpton interview with Truman Capote
    Paris Review interview of Truman Capote
    List of catalog materials helpful to discussion*
    Original New York Times article that inspired Truman Capote to write In Cold Blood


    If you liked In Cold Blood, try…

    Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
    Columbine by David Cullen
    The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer







    And! Please speak with one of our friendly reference librarians about finding original articles from 1966 about the Clutter family killings in our Chicago Tribune Historical database. The pictures alone make the articles good handouts for book discussion groups.

    *These are most helpful when you use the index at the back of the book to search for In Cold Blood.

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