The author opens the story with the introduction of the Clutter family. Events before the crime are enumerated to depict the way of life of the victim family. From Capote’s descriptions, one can form a comparison of how the rich and the poor generally live in the U.S. in the mid 1900s. The Clutter family provides a picture of a decent and good life, while those of Dick and Perry, the murderers, present a life doomed to misery.
Behavioral pscyhologists claim that a person reacts to the stimuli found in the society, whether positive or negative. This is confirmed by the character of Perry, who seems to be confused and lost due to the negative incidents in his past, specially those concerning his family. Through a careful analysis, one would realize that of the two murderers, Perry has more reasons to be led astray than Dick. The latter, coming from a simple yet complete family does not have much reason to turn out the way he has. In the account, he is even pictured to have bonding moments with his father and brothers, watching basketball on TV.
The other character, Perry Smith originates from a dysfunctional family with divorced parents and siblings who fell apart since his childhood. Perry’s excruciating experiences of feeling unwanted provide audience with a strong reason to understand and even sympathize with him. In fact, we can claim that even Capote himself had more sentiments with Perry than with Dick, as he devotes one part of the book to the former. In this consideration, it is more meritorious to focus on the comparison between Perry and the Clutter family in order to arrive at the disparity between the poor and the rich.
The Concerns of the Rich
In order to arrive at a good analysis, one needs to take a look at the members of the Clutter family. The Clutters are well-respected in their hometown, Holcomb, Kansas, where they maintain a farm called River Valley Farm, growing some fruit-bearing trees and sheep. The father, Herb Clutter, is a forty-eight year old man who is well-built and strong. He has a degree in Agriculture, and is very prominent in the whole town, being the leader of many organizations in the community. He is a devout Methodist and neither tasted wine nor smoked cigarettes. In fact, this is the only thing the townsfolk could ever say against him, for he would not accept a farm employee who drinks especially inside his compound. Although prominent, he is not very rich. Perhaps the best assets he has are the respect people attribute to him, and friends who at the very end are very willing to clean up at the murder scene, where blood of the family has shed.
As Capote notes, the wife of Herb, Bonnie Clutter has been sick psychologically for years before the murder happens. Her health is Herb’s only “serious cause for disquiet.” (7) Bonnie acquires this sickness through depressions and withdrawal from the world. Capote writes that while Herb mingles with different people outside their home, Bonnie keeps herself in her room, which signifies her incapability to keep up with the prominence of her husband. But Bonnie is not usually like this. In her conversation with Jolene, a young girl whom Nancy teaches, she expresses that she “had a lovely childhood” (26) and was provided by her “Daddy and Mama” precious little things one can have as a child. Looking closely, one could note that Bonnie must have been too sheltered from pain as a child. As such, the sacrifices of being a mother overwhelm her to the point that she loses balance. She withdraws not to the comforts in life, rather to the worries it might give her.
This is why she fears being questioned, does not want to meddle in Herb’s affairs, for she fears “unendurable torment” (28) of committing mistakes. Turning away from all responsibilities, she often pretends not to hear, possibly even pretends to be sick, and shuns her husband with replies of “I can’t, I don’t know. Please.” (29)
Like their mom, the Clutter sisters have been well-provided for. However, they seem to be more self-composed, as the two elders, Eveanna and Beverly already live apart from the family. Eveanna, the eldest, is already married, while Beverly is graduating student, and is about to marry. Nancy is pictured as a sociable young girl who occupies her time with teaching small girls how to bake apple pies. Only Kenyon, the son, seems to share the mood for solitariness of his mother, as the boy is pictured to always confine himself to mechanical works of his own.
In general, the Clutter family has very little worries. The wealth of the family has kept them secure and stable, not ever minding where to seek the next meal they ought to eat. Unlike the poor people in the streets, they are well-sheltered, and the kids are educated. Their everyday routine is composed of daily activities in the garden, or lovely chores at home such as baking pies and wandering around.
The Troubles of Perry
Compared to Herb or the rest of the family, Perry circulates in a lonesome world. Coming from a dysfunctional family with divorced parents and dispersed siblings, Perry feels sorry for himself that he had to live apart from his parents. As a young child, he shares the affection that Bonnie describes when he and his father used to share good times together. The two big boxes of memorabilia show Perry’s sentimentality and a tendency to cling to the past. However, unlike Bonnie who has all the support of her loved ones, Perry has to stand on his own and decide for himself when he grows a little older. During his late teens he even joins the merchant Marines and is exposed to war. This is probably where he learns violence from. Nevertheless, this decision shows his sense of responsibility, which makes him a little better than Bonnie.
In terms of responsibility, Perry can be compared to Herb. Both men love to do things for others. Only, Herb will only work for the good and never for evil. In contrast, Perry seems to have the inclination to please others. Tracing from his roots of being left alone by his parents, Perry must have hated the scene of being left alone. This is why he does things for Dick even though he thinks they are wrong. Many times he thinks of leaving, of pretending not to be there. In his account, he claims to have second thoughts, such as:
“And I thought, Why don’t I walk off? Walk to the Highway, hitch a ride. I sure Jesus didn’t want to go back in that house. And yet—how can I explain this? It was like I wasn’t part of it. More as though I was reading a story. And I had to know what was going to happen.” (240)
The same lines tell us how confused Perry is during the time they are doing the crime. This is why Capote sympathizes with him for he can sense that Perry has some good left in him. In fact, Dewey, the head detective, senses this too; the “ironic, erratic compassion” (241) Perry has for others as they find a mattress where Herb lies on in his death. In addition, the lines above tell us that the old Perry who used to decide for himself and is always after the good of others transforms to be a criminal in order to maintain the companionship he shares with Dick.
The fear of being alone (a sign of schizophrenia) probably threatens Perry for it is through this that he has lost his parents and his two siblings, who committed suicide. In his father’s letter, the old man reveals that his “troubles with [Perry’s] mother made him afraid of marriage somewhat.” (128)
The Clear Disparities
Compared to the Clutter children, Perry is far from being sheltered and cared for. He finishes only the third grade, and is exposed early to violence when he suffers from the punishment of the nuns in the orphanage. Although he thinks he is talented, Perry lacks the confidence of Nancy, because he lacks approval from those he loves, mainly his family. In his father’s letter, he reveals good characteristics of Perry only to take pride in raising him or to reveal a measure of himself. Most of his statements are self-pleasing, thus:
“Perry is like myself a great deal. He likes Company of decent type—outdoors people…As I do. I’m a jack of all trades so to speak, master of few and so is Perry. I showed him how to make a living working for himself as a fur trapper, prospector, carpenter, woodsman…I know how to cook and so he does.” (128)
More than knowing his son Perry, the father knows no one but himself and associates with him characteristics he is not sure Perry actually possesses.
Barbara, his only sister who has remained alive, does not even visit him when he is in prison for five years. This shows her shame for what Perry has done. As such, the truth that his loved ones do not accept and feel proud of him has made Perry hate himself and recognize more his weaknesses. This in turn has made him too conscious of his mistakes, but weak at the same time, for he does not know what to prioritize. Nevertheless, in his statement with Mrs. Meier, it is evident that the self-conscious and kind Perry overcomes the ruthless and obstinate one as he utters, “I am embraced by shame.” (308).
The influences of his society, from his parents, the nuns in the orphanage, the marines, up to the stealing companions Perry encounters all contribute to his tragic fate. While Barbara’s message that we are responsible for what we do for we are given a mind to think and reflect, it still remains difficult for some to lead a good life when certain family issues remain unsettled. In Perry’s case, it was this inability to accept reality at an early age, and at the same time the poverty that he has to go through that compel him to conform with those who do not reject him, with those who make him feel that his weaknesses are too small to notice.
The sufferings brought about by the lack of basic needs—proper shelter, food, affection, etc. have made a clear disparity between Perry and the Clutters. While the latter wakes up to a sumptuous smell of apple pies and a healthy smell of fresh flowers, the former takes aspirin and cigarette as his breakfast. At the same time, the right to obtain proper education, which society has denied him contributes to his inefficiency to think rationally.
The disparities established between the characters confirm society’s need for people who would make efforts to support and guide those who have been led astray by their fate. Mainly, as we have seen in the story, while the rich has a share in social responsibility, it is the poor who make their lives poorer. In which case, the government, the community and the individual should work closely to improve the situation.
Capote, Truman. “In Cold Blood.” NY: Vintage Books, 1994.