An analysis of various passages from Truman Capote's novel In Cold Blood
Capote's Combination of Journalism and Novel
Section 1: The Last to See Them Alive
“The chill of oncoming dusk shivered through the air, and though the sky was still deep blue, lengthening shadows emanated from the garden’s tall chrysanthemum stalks; Nancy’s cat frolicked among them, catching its paws in the twine with which Kenyon and the old man were now tying plants” (Capote 40).
Capote has likely been in the place where this scene occurs, and therefore knows what it looks like. Using this experience his is able to describe the “chrysanthemum stalks.” Depending what time he was at this location, he may also be accurately describing the shadows and the color of the sky. However, the chill shivering is an occurrence he likely was not there to experience. Additionally, he likely never saw Kenyon and the old man, and their interactions with Nancy’s cat. Capote uses his idea of a situation, likely described to him in an interview, to aid in his use of imagery in this passage. He combines his observations and interviews as a journalist with his imaginative ability as a writer to make the reader feel as though they are present in this moment, although he himself was not. Capote’s use of imagined imagery in this passage allows the story to flow like a novel because it develops the setting. Development of the setting is important in any good novel, and Capote realizes that this is no different in narrative nonfiction. While Capote was not actually there to feel the shiver of the cold or to see the cat frolicking, he recognizes that this description is necessary. He uses the information he has from interviews and observation to create a description of the setting that sets up the scenario in the same way a fiction author would for a fictional situation.
Section 2: Persons Unknown
“Perry, baby,” Dick said, “you don’t want that burger. I’ll take it.”
Perry shoved the plate across the table. “Christ! Can’t you let me concentrate?”
“You don’t have to read it fifty times” (Capote 89).
It is highly unlikely that Capote was present for this conversation between. It is also improbable that either Dick or Perry remembered their exact wording during this conversation and could have reiterated it to Capote. So, Capote uses imagined dialogue based on the information he has acquired through his interviews to portray the scene. Using this imagined dialogue helps the story to flow in the same way as a fictional novel because it allows the reader to understand the situation as it actually was, not in the formal way described to lawyers or investigators. Additionally, this imagined dialogue gives the reader insight into the relationship between Dick and Perry, thus developing their characterization. This passage allows one to understand how Dick and Perry would interact in a more casual situation in which they are not committing a crime. In this passage, the reader sees how Dick uses his power over Perry in any situation, not only in their murderous ventures.
Section 3: Answer
“But secrets are an unusual commodity in a town the size of Garden City. Anyone visiting the sheriff’s office, three under-furnished, overcrowded rooms on the third floor of the county courthouse, could detect an odd, almost sinister atmosphere. The hurry-scurry, the angry hum of recent weeks had departed; a quivering stillness now permeated the premises. Mrs. Richardson, the office secretary and a very down-to-earth person, had acquired overnight a dainty lot of whispery, tiptoe mannerisms, and the men she served, the sheriff and his staff, Dewey and the imported team of K.B.I. agents, crept about conversing in hushed tones” (Capote 190).
In this passage, Capote uses the element of imagery to develop the context of the situation and the setting. Capote can describe the “sinister atmosphere” and “tiptoe mannerisms” because throughout his research he has observed these things. The “quivering stillness” he describes is yet another example of how he is using imagery. Capote’s description of these things is his opinion because he is describing them the way he perceives them. Therefore, this passage is not purely journalistic. Capote uses imagery in this passage to develop the setting in the same manner as in a typical fiction novel. By including this passage and writing it in this manner, Capote helps his readers to understand the environment in which the agents worked. This helps one to better understand the situation these agents were in as well as the nature of the case itself. By including the imagery in this passage, Capote helps to characterize the agents in the story, Dewey especially. He helps the reader to understand the hurried, frantic environment in which Dewey spends most of his time, thus allowing the reader to understand Dewey’s characterization.
Section 4: The Corner
“The topmost branches of a snow-laden elm brushed against the window of the ladies’ cell. Squirrels lived in the tree, and after weeks of tempting them with leftover breakfast scraps, Perry lured one off a branch onto the window sill and through the bars. It was a male squirrel with auburn fur. He named it Red, and Red soon settled down, apparently content to share his friend’s captivity.”
Capote was not present to witness Perry’s many attempts at luring a squirrel into the cell, and therefore can not describe it with complete accuracy. Through thorough interviews, Capote is able to publish his interpretation of this event. Capote compiles what he has learned in his interviews with Perry to describe a scene which serves to develop Perry’s character. The scene depicts Perry as a caring, gentle, person whom animals enjoy being around. While what Capote reports may be mostly true, it is still portrayed in a light which develops Capote’s desired characterization for Perry Smith. Similar to how fiction authors use short and seemingly insignificant anecdotes to develop their characters in a certain way, Capote uses his interpretation of this real event to help his readers understand Perry as a gentle, kind human being. The way Capote portrays Perry in this passage is an example of how Capote uses facts he has discovered through interview to achieve the same things a fiction author would with stories they invent.
A New Kind of Reporting
“Having looked, the astonished officers summoned the county coroner, a gentleman who was also impressed by young Andrews’ callous nonchalance, for when the coroner asked him what funeral arrangements he wished to have made, Andrews replied with a shrug. “I don’t care what you do with them”” (Capote 314).
Capote violates the traditional idea of journalistic objectivity in this passage in the way he portrays Andrews. To describe Andrews’ nonchalance as “callous” is to portray him in a negative way, something one should avoid doing to remain objective. Capote italicizes the “I” in the statement “I don’t care,” showing his interpretation of Andrews’ tone in this passage. This italicization perhaps serves to demonstrate Andrews’ self-centeredness, yet another negative trait which one should avoid portraying in order to achieve near-perfect objectivity. This negative portrayal of Andrews demonstrates Capote’s attitude toward Andrews’ personality. The apathetic, self-centered image Capote creates of Andrews serves to present a clear distinction to the reader between Perry and other murderers. Perry is portrayed in other passages as caring, even compassionate. This passage serves to distinguish Perry from other murderers, making him seem more human than others. To portray Andrews’ in a way so drastically different than Perry, to portray Andrew’s as so “callous” and to portray Perry as so gentle, is to portray each with bias. Capote makes one seem, in a sense, more human than the other, a clear violation of journalistic objectivity.
“The crime was a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act; the victims might as well have been killed by lightning. Except for one thing: they had experienced prolonged terror, they had suffered. And Dewey could not forget their sufferings. Nonetheless, he found it possible to look at the man beside him without anger—with, rather, a measure of sympathy—for Perry Smith’s life had been no bed of roses but pitiful, an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage or another” (Capote 245-6).
In this passage, Capote discusses the murders as if Perry could not be blamed for them. He describes them as an “impersonal act” to make them seem as if anyone could have committed them. Furthermore, he describes Perry’s life as “an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage or another.” Such a statement serves to create sympathy for Perry, a goal contrary to that of journalistic objectivity. With this passage, Capote’s goal is to show how Perry should not be seen as a ruthless killer, showing how even one of the most important detectives on the case felt sympathy for him. This passage serves to detach Perry from the murders he committed using a description of Perry’s background that should cause one to pity him. For readers, the impact of this violation of objectivity is to sway them towards a perspective that is kind toward Perry.
“This here’s my first.”
“Yeah. How’d you like it?”
The reporter pursed his lips. “Nobody in our office wanted the assignment. Me either. But it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Just like jumping off a diving board. Only with a rope around your neck.
“They don’t feel nothing. Drop, snap, and that’s it. They don’t feel nothing.”
“Are you sure? I was standing right close. I could hear him gasping for breath” (Capote 339-40).
This passage is not objective because it clearly favors the argument against the death penalty. Capote, who likely does not directly quote the casual conversation between the guard and journalist, describes witnessing capital punishment to be like hanging oneself. Even when the other side of the argument is presented, it is quickly met with skepticism. The clear favoritism of one argument is a violation of objectivity because an objective writer should allow their reader to make up their own mind, and not try to sway their beliefs one way or the other. By portraying capital punishment so negatively, Capote is essentially telling his readers that what happened to Dick and Perry was unfair. This passage may cause the reader to feel more sympathetic toward the murderers if they agree that their punishment is not just. To achieve such a connection between reader and character is the goal for a writer, so in this blend of journalism and narrative, Capote sacrifices objectivity for the sake of emotional movement within his readers.
To Acquire Sympathy
The purpose of Truman Capote’s novel In Cold Blood is to make his readers feel sympathetic toward Perry. Perry Smith is portrayed throughout the novel as a character who has had a tumultuous past and is constantly belittled by his partner, and is therefore deserving of the reader’s sympathy.
The first way in which Capote attempts to create sympathy for Perry is through the description of his past. Capote tells us that Perry lived in an orphanage run by abusive nuns when he was a child. Perry says the nuns would “fill a tub with ice-cold water, put me in it, and hold me under till I was blue” (Capote 132). This picture of Perry as an abused orphan causes one to feel sympathy toward him just as they would toward any other abuse victim. Capote uses this detail from Perry’s past to portray him as though he has been the victim throughout his life. Additionally, Capote writes that out of Perry’s family of six people, “One sister Bobo married, and… his father is all that is living” (Capote 130). This detail, combined with his experiences as an orphan show Perry as a lonely person, isolated from love and familial care.
Perry also is lacking care in his adult life. Dick, the person he spends most time with and needs to depend on most, is constantly belittling him as a demonstration of power. Some of Perry’s most valuable possessions are the maps and other documents he has accumulated from his various travels. When Dick sees Perry’s prized boxes of these documents, he says, “You carry that junk everywhere?” (Capote 14) This statement belittles both the possessions Perry values, and his choices regarding those possessions. First, Dick refers to Perry’s things as “junk,” even though they are some of Perry’s most valued possessions. Dick knows how much Perry cares about these documents and still chooses to call belittle their value. Next, Dick is annoyed by the fact that Perry carries these things “everywhere.” Dick knows that Perry cares a lot about these things, and that they have been his one constant in life. Yet, he still makes it seem dumb for Perry to keep his most valuable possessions by his side.
Capote emphasizes the fact that Perry has not received sufficient love throughout his life to demonstrate to the reader why they should be sympathetic toward him. He provides ample detail about Perry’s tragic past to show how developmentally he has not received necessary care. He also demonstrates Perry’s belittlement in his relationship with Dick Capote combines these things to present Perry as a character with a tragic life, who for this reason requires the reader’s sympathy.