In Cold Blood. Question 2 “Nature vs Nurture” Truman Capote’s acclaimed “non-fiction” novel, In Cold Blood explores the concept as to whether killers are born or made, following the brutal murders of the Clutter family in rural Kansas. Capote develops Perry Smith’s horrid, unfortunate upbringing as a key narrative device which serves to illustrate the effect of childhood experiences on adult behaviour. Capote manipulates the reader’s idea of morality, controversially portraying Perry Smith in a sympathetic fashion despite his crimes, in an attempt to explain, if not justify, his actions.
Capote juxtaposes two different perspectives on the crime, emphasising the difference between the victims’ background and that of the crime’s perpetrators. By cataloguing Smith’s earlier misfortunes, to reinforce the negative influences of his past, the novel attempts to explain the complexities of human behaviour, and highlights the pivotal influence of an individual’s upbringing on their adult decisions. At the commencement of the novel, Capote presents the Clutters as the perfect family and Holcomb as the archetypal example of “Small Town America”.
The Clutters are seen to be living the “American Dream” and Capote vividly outlines their comfortable lifestyle and upstanding reputation. Capote positions the audience to see the Clutters as hard working and decent by nature. He consciously introduces the fact that Herb Clutter’s income had increased “four-thousand-per-cent…since the year he married Bonnie Fox” and that in the years following, laboured “eighteen hours a day”. (pg 9 – 10) Capote positions the reader to make a clear link between Herb Clutter’s financial success and the honest, hard work that he applied to achieve this.
This paints a ‘well rounded’ picture of Herb Clutter, describing his persistence and intelligence while using words such as “handsome” and “well-mannered”. The reader sees a person without a flaw, regulated by his own high moral standards and conforming to decent American values. This conspicuous character construction is aimed to position the reader to see the murder of the Clutter’s as random and senseless, and to assume that the killers acted without a motive. Capote foregrounds how well nurtured and morally upstanding the Clutter children are, representing them as sharing their parent’s community values and moral standards. That family represented everything people hereabouts really value and respect, and that such a thing could happen to them – well, its really like being told there is no God. It makes life seem pointless. ”(Pg 40) The sudden death of the family is a shock to the reader, creating an emotional attachment with the characters. This foregrounds the idea that the killers these were cold-hearted monsters. The killers are deliberately depersonalised and described as “persons unknown”, enhancing the idea that they are outsiders who do not share the admirable qualities of their victims.
Their deaths appear as “especially unjust” as it goes against the grain of ‘natural justice’. The Clutters were a morally upstanding family, and were perceived to be “the least likely family to be killed in America” (pg 81, Harold Nye). Capote purposely portrays the killers as “opposite” to the Clutters and suggests that they the must be evil by nature. As the Clutter family symbolises the American dream and decent family values, the reader mourns their death and sees the murder as a threat to the values that they represent.
The Second section of in cold blood, positions the audience to challenge their initial assumptions of Perry Smith and, instead, view Smith in a sympathetic light. Early in this section of the book, Capote foregrounds the tragic circumstances of Perry’s upbringing to provide a stark contrast to the loving family environment enjoyed by the Clutters. Capote describes Perry’s alcoholic mother as never having enough money for food, and the beatings the nuns gave him for wetting the bed are intended to suggest that these experiences have had a dramatic impact on the adult Smith.
Furthermore, it appears as if Smith has suffered at the hands of society, becoming a lost soul without cause, deprived of the inclusion and care that others enjoy. Capotes intention for the reader is to make a link between the cruelty inflicted on Smith as a child and the violent crimes that he committed as an adult. Throughout the novel, Perry repeatedly complains of the pains in his leg. Becoming a metaphor, the pain emphasises not only the deformity and mutilation of Perry’s physicality, but of his moral values and beliefs.
The reader gains a sense of empathy for Perry Smith as Capote’s sensitive representation of him invites the reader to ponder his misfortune. As a result, the reader is prompted to suspend their beliefs and morals, and consider the “unjust” punishment that Perry is receiving. They are inclined to rethink their previous observations that the killer “is born evil” in light of Perry’s unfortunate upbringing. Undoubtedly, through Capotes invited reading, Perry appears to be nurtured into this ‘killer’ role.
Throughout the latter part of the book, the reader is positioned by Capote to view Perry Smith’s execution in mixed emotions. It is implied that he is the victim due to the lack of affection, and misfortunes in his early years. Smith is shown throughout as struggling between two competing impulses. – the capacity for kindness, followed by violence in the blink of an eye. Capote portrays Smith as damaged goods, with his morality clouded beyond reason. “I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft spoken.
I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat. “ (Perry Smith, pg 237. ) Due to this contrast of emotion, the reader is now conflicted as to what they think the average “murderer” is. The warped ethics of Smith forces the reader to reassess their opinion of Smith as the quintessential ‘killer’. The reader understands that Perry wasn’t born naturally evil, but how then, was he able to kill the Clutters? Without a doubt, the reader is forced by Capote to believe that because of Perry’s ‘abnormal’ and disastrous childhood, he was made into a killer.
Reinforcing the idea that the ‘quintessential murderer’ isn’t born evil, Capote questions the appropriateness of capital punishment as a deterrent. It begs the question; would a murderer have committed the crime if they had a more affectionate upbringing? Perry Smith’s “isolation” and “lack of direction” as a child, formed a catalyst for his “distrust” of others and moral decrepitude (pg 289, Dr Jones). Capote uses his book as social criticism, to highlight the nature v nurture debate – who is born evil?
Readers today are desensitised to this type of violence, however in 1959, the time of the “perfect America”, this was a side of American culture that was not written about, let alone discussed. The events portrayed in ‘In Cold Blood’ were all that more shocking as they were a revelation to the ‘average American. ’ Capote’s novel brings to light several questions concerning the everlasting nature verses nurture debate. Especially controversial was the fact that the “American dream” was shattered. The “perfect” Post war, Eisenhower years did not accommodate these killings in it psyche.
Capote forces the reader to sympathise with not only with the Clutters but also with Smith, in a way that entices the reader into questioning whether a killer is born or made. The reader feels privileged against Perry’s never ending cycle of misfortunes with Capote making it clear that this was the reason Smith “was forced” to kill the Clutters. Capote’s invited reading is largely sympathetic to Perry Smith through the use of his selective writing, prompting the reader to question their moral compass and beliefs on the nature and nurture debate.