Hanging in Cold Blood: An Exploration of Capote's Potrayal of Perry Smith and its Impact on Capital Punishment

by Ayesha AlShared

Introduction

            Truman Capote’s nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood (1965), was highly-acclaimed as an intriguing retelling of a true crime that is, according to Capote, completely factual: “Capote is an experimenter, an adventurer. His newest experiment is In Cold Blood, a unique book, for it is the first non-fiction novel, a precise documentary, in many ways brilliantly composed” (Vogue, 1965). His nonfictional novel documents, or rather narrates, the murder of a Kansan family: the Clutters. The criminals, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, murdered the four members of this family: the mother Bonnie Clutter, the father Herbert Clutter, and their children Nancy and Kenyon Clutter. As the narrative unfolds, Capote’s focus shifts towards Perry Smith, allowing the reader to gain insight into his background and childhood, and in doing so arguably restores the humanity of a murderer. Towards the end of the book, both Perry Smith and Dick Hickock receive the death penalty and are hanged. Inevitably, questions about capital punishment arise and precisely whether the death penalty in itself is in cold blood.

 

Summary

            In “The Last to See Them Alive,” the first part of In Cold Blood (1965), the narrator begins by describing Holcomb, a small town in Kansas, America. This town is home to the Clutter family, who reside in “the river family farm.” Herb Clutter is a prominent citizen of Holcomb. His wife, Bonnie, is described as a neurotic woman afflicted with a certain mental illness. Nancy Clutter, on the other hand, is portrayed as not only a beautiful “Southern belle” (Capote, 1965, p. 8), but also a multi-talented accomplished young woman: a great cook and baker, “a straight-A student, the president of her class…a skilled rider, an excellent musician” (Capote, 1965, p. 18). Kenyon is a tall boy whose interests at this age revolved around “guns, horses, tools, machinery, even a book” (Capote, 1965, p. 39), but not girls (Capote, 1965).

In this chapter detailing the events that transpired the Saturday of the Clutter’s murder Capote switches between the activities of Perry and Dick and the Clutter family, building suspense and conveying almost a sense of inescapability leading towards the ensuing crime. Perry and Dick, upon the former’s insistence, stop at a hospital in hopes of finding black stockings from nuns to wear during the crime but fail to buy any. Outside Garden City, the closest big town to Holcomb, they stop at a gas station where Perry remains in a bathroom for a long time, leaving Dick worried as he thinks Perry is being hesitant. They then drive to the Clutter’s residence. Sunday morning, the Clutter family is found murdered (Capote, 1965).

“Persons Unknown,” the second chapter, is about what happens after the crime. Perry and Dick leave to Mexico, where they operate a fishing boat, but eventually return when they are out of money. In Holcomb, the search for the criminals continues with the investigators Alvin Dewey, Harold Nye, Roy Church, and Clarence Duntz heading the case. In the third chapter, “Answer,” Floyd Wells, a former cellmate of Dick, contacts the investigation team giving them the answer they’ve been looking for. Floyd, previously working for Herb Clutter, had told Dick about a safe in the Clutter’s house. Dick had told Floyd that he plans on robbing the safe and leaving no witnesses. Ultimately, Dick and Perry are captured and are questioned. Dick confesses that it was Perry who killed the entire Clutter family. At first, Perry’s testimony contradicts with Dick, but then Perry concedes that it was him indeed who murdered them all and confesses to spare Dick’s mother (Capote, 1965).

            The final chapter, “The Corner” details the criminals’ trial and ends with their execution. Perry is incarnated in the female’s cell in the Undersheriff’s house where Capote claims that Perry befriends Mrs. Meier, the Undersheriff’s wife who lives there with her husband. During the trial, Perry and Dick are convicted and sentenced to death. They move to the Kansas State Penitentiary to wait for their execution on Death Row. On April 4, 1965, about 6 years after the Clutter family murder and after years of appeals and delay, they are finally hanged. Perry, before his execution, according to Capote, apologizes for what he has done (Capote, 1965).

            Throughout In Cold Blood (1965), Capote creates a complex characterization of Perry. As a child, Perry lived in an unstable atmosphere in which his father abused his mother. Later on in his life, he is moved to different orphanages and homes. His mother was an alcoholic who choked on her own vomit and his sister and brother both committed suicide. Perry was lonely and had almost no friends except those he met whilst incarnated and an Indian logger. He joins the army but does not get promoted and when he returns he gets into a motorcycle accident. His appearance, due to the accident, is unusual. He looks disproportionate and has short legs and small feet. His legs are in constant pain and he becomes an aspirin addict after this injury. All in all, Capote manages to conjure up a sense of sympathy to a certain extent for Perry through his portrayal of him  (Capote, 1965).

 

Thesis

            Although In Cold Blood (1965) is a nonfictional novel, the details Truman Capote chooses to present, and how he presents them, affects the reader’s response. This paper explores Capote’s portrayal of Perry Smith, its relation to the dynamic of an anti-hero in American literature, and how this portrayal affects the public reception of the criminals and of capital punishment.

 

Literature Review

            “The Criminal as Hero in American Fiction” (1983) by Teresa Phelps discusses the portrayal of criminals as heroes or antiheros in American literature and surveys certain novels and characters. The article includes a section titled “New Journalism” in which In Cold Blood (1965) in particular is analyzed. Specifically, the depiction of Perry Smith as a form of hero is examined. This section touches on the main concern of this paper; Perry’s depiction as hero and the effects of which.

            Reading America: New Perspectives on the American Novel (2008) edited by Elizabeth Boyle and Anne-Marie Evans is a collection of essays tackling different American classic novels and offering fresh perspectives on them. The essay of interest is Chapter 3 under the heading of “The Novel and Politics”: “Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood in the Atomic Age” by Ilse Schrynemakers partly discusses Perry Smith’s criminal deviance and how it is depicted as a result of childhood trauma. Furthermore, Capote’s characterization of the criminals, and of Perry in particular, and his humanization are explored.

The Development of the Antihero in the American Novel: 1883-1962 (1965), a thesis by Roger D. Harms, reviews the emergence of the antihero character in American novels and in doing so explores the concept and presents the characteristics of an antihero. This is a useful resource as many of the features of an antihero presented are applicable to Perry Smith. Although the essay covers a time period prior to the publication of In Cold Blood (1965), it is still relevant in that it describes and explains the concept of the antihero to literature that is geographically pertinent.

            In Praise of Antiheroes: Figures and Themes in Modern European Literature, 1830-1980 (1991), a book written by Victor Brombert, is a beneficial resource in providing general insight and background on, as well as in-depth analysis of, the figure of an antihero as a modern literary phenomenon. The author, although concedes that his “aim is not to define a single type [of antihero], but rather to explore a wide-spread and complex trend in modern literature” and that “no single description or definition will do” (Brombert, 1999, p.1), still offers a valuable exploration of antiheroic model(s) through surveying and close-reading influential antiheroic literature such as the seminal Notes from Underground by Dostoevsky. While this book deals with specific pieces of literature, and Europeans ones specifically, it nonetheless provides key context for the understanding of an antihero.

            "Reading Death Sentences: The Narrative Construction of Capital Punishment" (1996) by Christopher J. Meade discusses narrative works and their relation to the death penalty. The author views In Cold Blood (1965) as a pro-death penalty narrative. I disagree; however, the article nonetheless offers insight on the power of literature in shaping society’s opinion on capital punishment and on how narratives can be effective in doing so. Additionally, Meade offers an extensive analysis on the types of narratives relating to the death penalty and explains how an author could be successful in writing a text that is opposed to the death penalty via her narrative. In the same vein, Robert J. Kelly’s “Mapping the Domains of Crime: The Contributions of Literary Works to Criminology” (1991) describes how works like In Cold Blood (1965) stir public concern on social and criminal issues such as the death penalty. “Documentary Narrative as Art: William Manchester and Truman Capote” (1971) by Donald Pizer similarly discusses the narrative form and its consequences in the portrayal of murderers and specifically explores how the narrative affects the characterization of Perry Smith. These three aforementioned pieces are valuable to the aim of this paper as they directly tackle the work in question, Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965), and its connection to capital punishment.

 

Response

Perry the Victim

            Perry Smith is a complicated character that Capote does not fail in conveying his complexity. As the narrative progresses, the reader learns more about him and about his history specifically. Capote succeeds in depicting Perry as a victim in more than one way. He is a victim of a traumatic childhood that in turn leads to mental conditions as he grows up and additionally his current situation is painted to be an outcome of all this, almost as if it is fated. The author’s language itself helps express Perry’s troubled past. For instance, referring to Perry the narrator says, “After all, it was ‘painful’ to imagine that one might be ‘not just right’ – ‘maybe a thing you were born with.’ Look at his family! Look at what happened there! His mother, an alcoholic, had strangled to death on her own vomit…[His sister] jumped out of a window…And there was [his brother Jimmy] who had one day driven his wife to suicide and killed himself the next” (Capote, 1965, p. 110-111). When Perry admits that there is something wrong with him, Capote offers a confirmation by shifting the reader’s attention towards Perry’s background. Moreover, both the use of exclamation marks and the diction used, such as “strangled to death” and “jumped out of a window,” affect the reader and stir sympathy towards Perry.

            Moreover, Capote inserts an article published in The American Journal of Psychiatry (July, 1960), convincing the reader, by appealing to psychopathology, that Perry is indeed a victim of mental illness resulting from his disturbed childhood (Capote, 1965, p. 299- 302). For instance, part of the article reads, “[M]urderers who seem rational, coherent, and controlled, and yet whose homicidal acts have a bizzare, apparently senseless quality” are “predisposed to severe lapses in ego-control which makes possible the open expression of primitive violence, born out of previous, and now unconscious, traumatic experiences” (as cited in Capote, 1965, p. 298-299; emphasis added). These descriptions seem befitting of the murder Perry committed since the murder is depicted as a “senseless” motiveless act and since Perry is portrayed as having previous “traumatic experiences”. The insertion of this article is suggesting that what is described applies to Perry. Capote also mentions the testimony of Dr. Jones during the trial, who restricted by the M’Naghten Rule, could only provide a yes or no answer to the question of whether Perry Smith knew right from wrong during the time of the murder. He gave no opinion but had he been allowed to elaborate would have said, as Capote claims: “Perry Smith shows definite signs of severe mental illness. His childhood…was marked by brutality and lack of concern on the part of both parents. He seems to have grown up without direction, without love, without ever having absorbed any fixed sense of moral values” (Capote, 1965, p. 296-297). On the same note, Schrynemakers explains how childhood experience is related to Perry’s criminality, “John Locke’s views about humankind’s mental state being “a blank slate on which external impressions are inscribed by experience” meant that biographical details about perpetrators, “the influence of environment on character development,” became supremely important for understanding criminality (p. 48)…Truman Capote positions the childhood experience of Perry Smith…as responsible for his deviance” (Schrynemakers, 2008, p. 49). Positing Perry Smith as a victim of “brutality” and “severe mental illness” renders a sympathetic view of him.

Furthermore, Capote, through his narrative technique, makes it seem as if Perry’s actions were the unavoidable consequence of his past and illness. “Capote sequences the narrative so that each action seems an inevitable outcome of a previous thought and action…the narrative juxtaposes the movements of the killers with those of the Clutters” (Schrynemakers, 2008, p. 49). Pizer (1971) agrees that Capote’s narrative technique “implies that a shaping destiny controls all life despite our unawareness of that destiny as it fulfills itself” and that the parallel structure, of for example, the Clutters and the murderers in Part I of the novel, creates an effect, namely, “the inexorable coming together of two groups or units separated spacially but fated to converge” (p. 113). Similarly, Stolarek states that some critics “regard the Clutter murders as the logical, all the more rational consequence of sociological and psychological forces that had gained momentum throughout many years (Reed 107). In this respect one is led to believe that Capote represents Hickcock and Smith as corruptions and moral perversions of decent and respectable men brought about by destitution, ill-treatment and violence that reached back for more than one generation” (Stolarek, n.d., p. 197). Through Capote’s manipulation of the narrative technique, the form of the novel reflects the idea of fate through the parallel narrations of criminal and victim that ultimately converge. In this way, Perry is viewed as a victim of a tragic childhood and consequently mental illness that inevitably leads to his crime. He becomes a victim of fate.

 

“He wasn’t the worst young man I ever saw”

            Capote may have used the reactions and testimonies of other people that have interacted with Perry regarding him to offer a less biased view of the criminal and to demonstrate to the reader that Perry has indeed earned the sympathy of those around him. Phelps states, “Through Capote's use of reactions from people like Dewey, the reader comes to see Perry less as cold-blooded murderer and more as a hapless victim undone by life. The enormity of the Clutter murder fades into the background as the spotlight, and the reader's sympathies, focus on Perry Smith” (1983, p. 12). For instance, when Perry was jailed in the Undersheriff’s residence, Mrs. Meier, his wife, sympathizes with Perry:

Well- it must be a terrible experience— to be stared at by a horde of strangers, to have to walk among them, and them knowing who you are and what you did…I didn’t want those fellows going to bed on an empty stomach; seemed to me they must be feeling bad enough without that…I asked [Perry] if he had any special dish he liked; if he did I’d try and fix it for him the next day…I promised to make him some [Spanish rice], and he smiled kind of, and I decided—well, he wasn’t the worst young man I ever saw. (Capote, 1965, p. 252-253)

This was a man who murdered four members of a family, and yet the sympathy prompted by Mrs. Meier for Perry is undeniable. The compassion manifested in her testimony perhaps reflects what the reader ought to feel about Perry. At first, the reader is shocked at her reaction, but arguably through the course of the novel succumbs to the same feelings.

Likewise, the reaction of Marie, Dewey’s wife, towards Perry is presented. When examining a mug shot of Perry shown to her by her husband, she thought that Perry’s eyes were “with their moist, dreamy expression, rather pretty--- rather, in an actorish way, sensitive” (Capote, 1965, p. 164). Furthermore, Perry’s sensitivity is echoed elsewhere in the novel when the narrator mentions “music that moved Perry to tears” (p. 202).

            Similarly, Alvin Dewey’s sympathy for Perry strongly helps the reader in sympathizing with the criminal for Dewey is portrayed as a symbol of justice and if he himself feels for Perry than why shouldn’t we: “[Dewey] 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 towards one mirage to another” (Capote, 1965, p. 246). Phelps reiterates, “In the book itself, Capote shows how the reader should react to Perry Smith.  Al Dewey, the chief investigator from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, has relentlessly sought the Clutter murderers.  Yet shortly after his first interrogations of Perry and Dick and the subsequent confessions, Dewey is drained of anger and instead feels pity” (1983, p. 12). A sympathetic image of Perry as a victim is painted when, after his hanging, the narrator states in reference to Dewey:

But Smith, though he was the true murderer, aroused another response, for Perry possessed a quality, an aura of an exiled animal, a creature walking wounded, that the detective could not disregard.  He remembered his first meeting with Perry in the interrogation room at Police Headquarters in Las Vegas -- the dwarfish boy-man seated in the metal chair, his small booted feet not quite brushing the floor.  And when Dewey now opened his eyes, that is what he saw: the same childish feet, tilted, dangling.  (Capote, 1965, p. 340-341)

            Capote uses the powerful image of Perry’s dangling feet that reminds the reader of his deformity (due to his accident) and in turn elevates the sense of sympathy felt towards him. The choice of vocabulary such as “exiled animal” and “wounded creature” emphasizes Perry’s tragic childhood and highlights its tragic outcome: the crime and consequentially his execution. Also, likening Perry to a boy, a child, (“boy-man”) undeniably reinforces this sense of compassion.

 

Perry the Antihero

“Of all the principals, Capote's main focus falls on Perry Smith, who emerges as the book's ‘hero’”  (Phelps, 1983, p. 11).

 

            The Oxford English Dictionary defines antihero as: “One who is the opposite or reverse of a hero; esp. a chief character in a poem, play, or story who is totally unlike a conventional hero” (“Antihero”, 2014). In one sense, Perry is an antihero in that he is the “chief character” of the novel In Cold Blood (1965): “As we follow Perry and Dick in Parts II and III, Perry becomes more and more the focus of our attention” (Pizer, 1971, p. 115). Hence, in a superficial sense, Perry is an antihero because “[t]he antihero, like the hero, has complex notion of being both unheroic and protagonist. If the protagonist does not comply with the traditional heroic traits, according to some views, then he is called antihero” (Kadiroglu, n.d., p. 8).

A theme underlying all antiheroes, according to Harms, is that of alienation. This characteristic is what’s especially applicable to the character of Perry Smith. Throughout the novel, we are reminded that Perry had been lonely with no friends except for Willie-Jay, whom he met in prison, and the sole Indian logger. In In Cold Blood (1965), the narrator says, “[B]ut who ever gave a damn about [Perry]? His father? Yes, up to a point. A girl or two—but that was a long story. No one else except Willie-Jay himself” (Capote, p. 45). Perry does not reunite with his only friend and is left “dizzy with anger and disappointment” (Capote, 1965, p. 45). Harms states, “The anti-hero is a complex character; he is alone, yet he is not always sure just why” (1965, p. 6). This conception of being alone is pertinent to Perry Smith.  Referring to Nye, one of the members in the investigation team handling the Clutter murder case, upon inspecting some possessions of Perry Smith, the narrator says, “[I]t was valueless stuff even to a clue-hungry detective…[The possessions] gave him a clearer impression of the owner and his lonely, mean life” (Capote, 1965, p. 178; emphasis added).

            Additionally, Harms asserts, “Hoffman pictures [the antihero] as an isolated intelligence, associated with no system of values, with little prospect of salvation, looking hopelessly upon the wasteland” (p. 6, 1965). After the crimes committed by Perry Smith, and because of the mention of his rejection of religion, it is clear that he has no concrete system of values, and as Dr. Jones says in the novel, Perry grew up “without ever having absorbed any fixed sense of moral values” (Capote, 1965, p. 297; emphasis added). Although Perry does not submit to a fixed sense of values, he does nonetheless have certain values he lives up to. This particular detail makes Perry an antihero as he is seen as an individual who despite his deviance has redeeming traits. For instance, Perry condemns rape and views it to be an act alien to his values. In more than one instance, Perry prevents Dick from the crime of rape, “hadn’t they almost had a fist fight when quite recently [Perry] had prevented Dick from raping a terrified young girl?” (Capote, 1965, p. 202). Perry similarly says, referring to Dick’s intention to rape Nancy Clutter, “I suspected Dick was plotting something, something I wouldn’t stand for” (Capote, 1965, p. 242; emphasis added). Perry is portrayed as an individual who ironically has values he stands for. This notion also echoes the idea that the murder committed by Perry was the natural outcome of his troubled childhood and illnesses as opposed to a premeditated act out of sheer criminality. It could be argued that Perry is antihero because he was framed by ‘fate’ into committing these murders. After all, Perry himself says that he didn’t know why he did it, why he committed the crime, and admits, “I remember hoping there was nobody home” (Capote, 1965, p. 236). In the same vein, the murder could be viewed as “a psychological accident, virtually an impersonal act” (Capote, 1965, p. 245), which reinforces the notion of him being a victim that is also a hero—or rather an antihero.

            The antihero encapsulates an “extreme self- consciousness, disillusioned questioning…confrontation of nothingness…destructiveness and self-destructiveness…whole trend towards the dissolution of values and forms” (Kadiroglu, n.d., p. 13). The self-consciousness of Perry Smith is displayed to the reader even on the level of appearances, in one instance the reader is told that Perry does not like to swim as he is self-conscious of his injured leg: “Dick wore bathing trunks, but Perry, as in Acapulco, refused to expose his injured legs—he feared the sight might "offend" other beach-goers—and therefore sat fully clothed, even wearing socks and shoes” (Capote, 1965). Both “destructiveness and self-destructiveness” are exemplified in the very murder committed by Perry. Additionally, Perry is portrayed as inferior and deviant due to his status as criminal and this arguably makes him an antihero as “[t]hrough time the hero has diminished in stature from a god-like man to one who is inferior to the average man, as measured by cultural standards” (Harms, 1965, p. 2)

            All in all, it is the focus on Perry as the chief character in the novel, his paradoxical values, his being a victim of fate, and his alienation that make him an antihero. This rendering is successful due to the way Capote portrays Perry as illustrated in the above sections.

 

Capital Punishment and In Cold Blood

            How a sympathetic portrayal of criminals affects their reception amongst society is difficult to ascertain on a specific micro level, however, we know that viewing those criminals as people, i.e., restoring their humanity, influences attitudes towards capital punishment. Literature has the power to impact the public’s opinion on matters such as the death penalty, and this was the case with In Cold Blood (1965). Kelly affirms, “[L]iterature competes well with criminology for an audience. Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965)…excited more public concern about capital punishment than the numerous criminological studies of it, and may have had a greater impact on social attitude towards the death penalty than all of the scientific research” (1991, p. 53). Capote’s novel “develop[s] shocking, but nonetheless sympathetic, portraits of the killers” (Kelly, 1991, p. 54). Perry, as aforementioned, has been sympathetically portrayed by Capote, which ultimately affects the reception of capital punishment.

            The humanization of criminals in literature helps the public sympathize with them and form an anti death penalty sentiment. For example, Meade suggests that in order to create a narrative that successfully opposes capital punishment restoring the humanity of guilty criminals is necessary,  “If the defendant is portrayed as a full human being, with a personality that does not fit within the ‘murderer’ stereotype, a viewer can identify with the guilty defendant on death row. Thus, even if the viewer believes that murderers in general should be executed, she may very well feel that this particular defendant should be spared” (Meade, 1996, p. 758). This applies to Perry Smith as his humanization is seen through first his victimization and second the responses of those around him and the sympathy engendered towards him. For example, the narrator in In Cold Blood states, “But when the crowd caught sight of the murderers…it fell silent, as though amazed to find them humanly shaped” (Capote, 1965, p. 248; emphasis added). Additionally, Perry’s personality is heavily developed and his characterization thorough so in that sense one can say that “he does not fit within the ‘murderer’ stereotype” as his character is constituted by many other features such as, for instance, his love for words, and his tendency to compile quotations he likes. These idiosyncratic traits paint an image of Perry other to a murderer.

 

Killing the Native American

            Another factor to be considered in relation to the rendering of Perry Smith as victim in a certain sense and its effects on capital punishment is the fact that he is a son to a Native-American woman. Recalling part of his childhood in a Salvation Army children’s shelter, Perry says, “They hated me, too. For wetting the bed. And being half-Indian. There was this one nurse, she used to call me ‘nigger’ and say there wasn’t any difference between niggers and Indians” (Capote, 1965, p.132). Perry then goes on to describe how he was tortured by this nurse as she ducked him in a tub full of ice until he turned blue. Although this is a direct quotation from Perry Smith, the insertion of the anecdote of the suffering that was inflicted on him merely because of his race after the mentioning of his Native American roots is significant. The paragraph directly prior to this anecdote outlines what happened to his mother “Flo Buckskin” who “was a professional rodeo performer”, a “once sinewy, limber Cherokee girl” (Capote, 1965, p. 131). Thus, the reader may possibly draw a link between his Native American roots and his dysfunction. Marubbio (2006) presents similar ideas in her discussion of the film In Cold Blood (1967) as she argues that Perry’s mother was rendered in a racist manner through portraying her indirectly as the cause of Perry’s misfortune. She suggests, “[The scenes’ placement] prevents their dispelling the conclusion that the Cherokee woman Flo is the root of Perry’s mental dysfunction and the ultimate cause of the Clutters’ murder.” On the other hand, reminding the reader of Perry’s Cherokee mother may prompt another response; historical guilt related to the historical violence suffered by Native Americans and their genocide. As David E. Stannard (1993), author of American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World, says,  “The destruction of the Indians of the Americas was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world” (p. x). Hence, the fact that Perry Smith, who during his childhood was tormented because of his Native American heritage, was ultimately hanged by white officials may be reminiscent of the European settler’s wiping out of Native Americans. This reminder may in turn influence the rendition of Perry Smith and incite sympathy for him for his ancestors were routinely murdered and it almost a repetition of this violence in his execution. As aforementioned, Meade states that a narrative is successful in engendering an opposition to the death penalty when the reader is driven to make an exception for the character in question: if an exemption is felt “even if the viewer believes that murderers in general should be executed, she may very well feel that this particular defendant should be spared” (Meade, 1996, p. 758). Thus, the reader may feel that Perry Smith in particular should be spared for his Native American heritage is a reminder of agony and suffering endured by this racial group.

            Capote also achieves a sense of opposition to capital punishment through the details of execution and the irony of the title of his book. In the latter part of In Cold Blood (1965) “the state of Kansas (representing ‘society’) becomes the principal agent of death in cold blood because of its insistence upon an-eye-for-an-eye vengeance and because of its inadequate conception of criminal responsibility” (Pizer, 1971, p. 116).  Perry’s own sister illustrates this “eye-for-an-eye vengeance” notion when she says in a letter to her brother, “But if you live without feeling or compassion for your fellowman—you are as an animal—  ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’” (Capote, 1965, p. 142). The judiciary system of Kansan becomes “as an animal” as it seeks retribution as justice: The “pursuers – the murderers – change into the pursued, and…they, the victimisers of a small innocent family, fall prey to, in Capote’s view, the large bureaucratic system of criminal justice in Kansas” (Stolarek, n.d., p. 199). Also, the novel presents “in painstaking detail the ghastly mechanics of execution by hanging…which engender empathy for anyone facing death in this manner”  (Kelly, 1991, p. 54).  The very inhumanness of execution is subtly yet intelligently put forth in the conversation documented by Capote between a reporter and a guard witnessing the hanging of the criminals: “Are you sure [that they don’t feel anything]? I could hear him gasping for breath” (1965, p. 339-340).

It could be argued then that the sympathetic portrayal of Perry Smith affects public reception towards capital punishment and more specifically engenders an opposition towards it.

 

Conclusion

            All in all, in Capote’s nonfictional novel In Cold Blood (1965), Perry Smith, who murdered the entire four members of the Clutter family, is arguably cast into the role of a victim as rendered by the narrator. Perry is a victim of childhood trauma that caused him mental illness, and of fate when these factors of his life lead him to committing a crime that is portrayed as being inevitable through narrative technique. The reactions of people around Perry during and after his detainment show the reader how sympathy can indeed be felt towards him. Additionally, Perry Smith shares characteristics with antiheros in literature as he suffers from loneliness and alienation, and as the novel centers around him. The consequences and result of this specific portrayal of Perry ultimately affects public sentiment towards capital punishment and a sense of opposition is felt towards the death penalty.

 

References

Boyle, E., & Evans, A. M. (2008). Reading America: New perspectives on the American novel. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars.

Brombert, V. (1999). In praise of antiheroes: Figures and themes in modern European literature, 1830-1980. Chicago Ill: University of Chicago Press.

Capote, T. (1965). In cold blood: A true account of a multiple murder and its consequences. New York: Vintage Books.

Dictionary, O. E. "anti-hero, n.": Oxford University Press. Retrieved from: http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.aus.edu/view/Entry/8637?redirectedFrom=antihero&

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            http://www.oed.com.ezproxy.aus.edu/view/Entry/127953?redirectedFrom=nonfiction+novel#eid34605051

Harms, R. D. (1965). The Development of the Anti-hero in the American Novel: 1883-1962: Kansas State Teachers College of Emporia.

Kadiroglu, M. (n.d.). A genealogy of antihero.

Kelly, R. J. (1991). Mapping the Domains of Crime: The Contributions of Literary Works to Criminology. International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 35(1), 45-61.

Marubbio, M. E. (2006). Killing the Indian maiden: Images of Native American women in film. Lexington, Ky: University Press of Kentucky.

Meade, C. J. (1996). Reading Death Sentences: The Narrative Construction of Capital Punishment. NYUL Rev., 71, 732.

Phelps, T. G. (1983). Criminal as Hero in American Fiction, The. Wis. L. Rev., 1427.

Pizer, D. (1971). Documentary Narrative as Art: William Manchester and Truman Capote. Journal of Modern Literature, 105-118.

Stannard, D. E. (1992). American holocaust: Columbus and the conquest of the New World. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stolarek, J. (n.d.). Sociological and psychological aspects of crime in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Rada Naukowa, 193.

 

Ayesha Alshared is an Emirati senior student majoring in English with a concentration in Literature and a minor in Philosophy. She enjoys reading poetry, both Arabic and English, and her interests include cultural studies and  philosophies. Her spare time activities involve practicing yoga and imbibing copious amounts of Arabic coffee whilst reading books she didn’t get around to over the course of the semester. She is also a single mother of a 2 year old cat whom she loves to death. 

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