Theme of American Dream in Capote's In Cold Blood

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The belief of the American Dream was common in the late 1950s. It describes aspirations for recognition, social order, and accomplishment of dreams, no matter the person’s origin or status in society. Truman Capote introduces this view of the American Dream when narrating the novel ‘In Cold Blood’. He suggests that Hickock and Smith’s incompetence to fulfill their ideal of the American Dream is what prompted them to murder the Clutter family, who were supposedly symbolic of this dream. Herbert Clutter was a religious man, a self-made success with a flourishing farm, and was strongly admired by his employees. His four children were well-liked and recognized in the community as well, and his wife was a member of the local garden club. Capote claimed that she suffered from depression, nonetheless, she was devoted to her faith and was recognized as a good wife and mother. The Clutters were a textbook standard of the 1950’s post-war American Dream. Smith and Hickock developed from backgrounds that were the contradiction of this idealized dream. Smith had been raised first by abusive parents, then in cruel orphanages and foster homes. He was desperate to obtain this American Dream and attempted his hand at treasure hunting out west before converting to a life of crime, disappointed and agitated that his intelligence and willingness to strive in average jobs got him no closer. Perry Smith’s childhood was appalling and unfortunate, as he underwent terrible abuse at the guidance of family members and other caretakers. He never had a real opportunity in life and went through it without getting anything he desires. Hickock, unlike Smith, was raised in a similarity of this coveted dream, in a middle class, steady family. However, he wanted more. He was bothered by the common means of achievement and believed they were demeaning him, so he started writing bad checks. He met Perry in prison, who shared his agony over the failure to rise above their states in life. Out of prison, they eventually developed a scheme to rob the Clutters. The Clutters represented everything Smith and Hickock wanted out of life.

The theme of ‘In Cold Blood’ is the American Dream and its destructions on account of greed. It is conveyed to readers through many literary elements, especially symbolism. One significant symbol in the novel is the silver dollar at the Clutter’s. When Smith and Hickock arrived at the Clutter’s home, they suspected to find a safe with at least $10,000 in it. They were frustrated when they did not find a safe and realized that there was very little money in the home. Smith noticed a purse in Nancy’s room with a silver dollar inside of it. After unintentionally dropping it, Smith explained, “I had to get down on my knees. And just then it was like I was outside myself. Watching myself in some nutty movie. It made me sick. I was just disgusted. Dick, and all his talk about a rich man’s safe, and here I am crawling on my belly to steal a child’s silver dollar. One dollar. And I’m crawling on my belly to get it.” He felt as if he had constantly had to lower himself and beg for things that weren’t worthy of his effort. Perry’s outrage over the silver dollar and everything it expresses led Perry to murder Mr. Clutter before he even realized what he has done. After Smith is arrested, he noticed some two gray tomcats that walk around the Courthouse Square in Garden City. In the evening, they searched in the grilles of the cars that are parked at the hotels in search of dead birds. “Using their paws as though they are surgical instruments, the cats extract from the grilles every feathery particle.” Later, when Perry observed the cats from the window in his cell, he expressed how difficult it was for him to see them begging for scraps, “Because most of my life I’ve done what they’re doing. The equivalent.” Like the tomcats, Perry has constantly felt like an unwanted scavenger.

When considering those portrayed as living the American Dream, the Clutter family comes to mind. However, when considering why these characters were capable to succeed, while others like Perry Smith and Dick Hickock did not, the novel provides some possible explanations which can be perceived as being linked to the central theme. The most significant one is greed. Dick, who wanted ‘a regular life’ with a business of his own, a house, a horse to ride, a new car, and ‘plenty of blond chicken’, appeared to have turned to crime due to greed. His mother describes that he and his wife ‘lived too high,’ and ‘kept buying stuff they couldn’t know how to afford.’ And since Dick is capable of working but believes that none of the payments offered to him are enough, his decision to turn to crime is suggested to begin entirely from greed, rather than any factors outside of his control. Dick’s greed led to the misfortune “that, all told, ended six human lives”. Perry’s difficult childhood further seemed to have made it challenging for him to succeed. With a history of abuse and instability, Perry did not get the education that he believed would allow him to make a success of his life.

“Everything Herb had, he earned – with the help of God. He was a modest man but a proud man as he had a right to be. He raised a fine family. He made something of his life.” But that life, and what he’d made of it – how it could happen, Erhart wondered as he watched the bonfire catch. How was it possible that such effort, such plain virtue, could overnight be reduced to this – smoke, thinning as it rose and was received by the big, annihilating sky?” As you might have sensed from the previous quote, the Clutter family is displayed as having attained the American Dream. Two things are clear. Firstly, Mr. Clutter’s success is attributed to his hard-working nature and persistence. In the form that the Clutters represent the American Dream, the focus is on good moral values, as the following quote shows: “Feeling wouldn’t run half so high if this had happened to anyone except the Clutters. Anyone less admired. Prosperous. Secure. But that family represented everything people hereabouts really value and respect, and that such a thing could happen to them – well, it’s like being told there is no God. It makes life seem pointless.” Dick and Perry’s actions demonstrate why some people might fail at achieving their goals, especially when factors like greed begin to cloud their judgment. From the quotes presented, we see how the Clutter family was able to achieve the American Dream through Mr. Clutter’s hard work and strong moral values. However, their murders cause people to question this dream in a corrupt society.

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In ‘In Cold Blood’, Capote uses the theme of the American Dream and its destructions on account of greed. Capote shows the American Dream might not only motivate people to work hard, but to also corrupt people and destroy lives when it leads to greed. Truman Capote introduces this view of the American Dream when narrating the novel ‘In Cold Blood’. He suggests that Hickock and Smith’s incompetence to fulfill their ideal of the American Dream is what prompted them to murder the Clutter family, who were supposedly symbolic of this dream. Herbert Clutter was a religious man, a self-made success with a flourishing farm, and was strongly admired by his employees. His four children were well-liked and recognized in the community as well, and his wife was a member of the local garden club. Capote claimed that she suffered from depression, nonetheless, she was devoted to her faith and was recognized as a good wife and mother. The Clutters were a textbook standard of the 1950’s post-war American Dream. Smith and Hickock developed from backgrounds that were the contradiction of this idealized dream. Smith had been raised first by abusive parents, then in cruel orphanages and foster homes. He was desperate to obtain this American Dream and attempted his hand at treasure hunting out west before converting to a life of crime, disappointed and agitated that his intelligence and willingness to strive in average jobs got him no closer. Perry Smith’s childhood was appalling and unfortunate, as he underwent terrible abuse at the guidance of family members and other caretakers. He never had a real opportunity in life and went through it without getting anything he desires.

Hickock, unlike Smith, was raised in a similarity of this coveted dream, in a middle class, steady family. However, he wanted more. He was bothered by the common means of achievement and believed they were demeaning him, so he started writing bad checks. He met Perry in prison, who shared his agony over the failure to rise above their states in life. Out of prison, they eventually developed a scheme to rob the Clutters. The Clutters represented everything Smith and Hickock wanted out of life. The theme of ‘In Cold Blood’ is the American Dream and its destructions on account of greed. It is conveyed to readers through many literary elements, especially symbolism. One significant symbol in the novel is the silver dollar at the Clutter’s. When Smith and Hickock arrived at the Clutter’s home, they suspected to find a safe with at least $10,000 in it. They were frustrated when they did not find a safe and realized that there was very little money in the home. Smith noticed a purse in Nancy’s room with a silver dollar inside of it. After unintentionally dropping it, Smith explained, “I had to get down on my knees. And just then it was like I was outside myself. Watching myself in some nutty movie. It made me sick. I was just disgusted. Dick, and all his talk about a rich man’s safe, and here I am crawling on my belly to steal a child’s silver dollar. One dollar. And I’m crawling on my belly to get it.” He felt as if he had constantly had to lower himself and beg for things that weren’t worthy of his effort. Perry’s outrage over the silver dollar and everything it expresses led Perry to murder Mr. Clutter before he even realized what he has done.

After Smith is arrested, he noticed some two gray tomcats that walk around the Courthouse Square in Garden City. In the evening, they searched in the grilles of the cars that are parked at the hotels in search of dead birds. “Using their paws as though they are surgical instruments, the cats extract from the grilles every feathery particle.” Later, when Perry observed the cats from the window in his cell, he expressed how difficult it was for him to see them begging for scraps, “Because most of my life I’ve done what they’re doing. The equivalent.” Like the tomcats, Perry has constantly felt like an unwanted scavenger. When considering those portrayed as living the American Dream, the Clutter family comes to mind. However, when considering why these characters were capable to succeed, while others like Perry Smith and Dick Hickock did not, the novel provides some possible explanations which can be perceived as being linked to the central theme. The most significant one is greed. Dick, who wanted ‘a regular life’ with a business of his own, a house, a horse to ride, a new car, and ‘plenty of blond chicken’, appeared to have turned to crime due to greed. His mother describes that he and his wife ‘lived too high,’ and ‘kept buying stuff they couldn’t know how to afford.’ And since Dick is capable of working but believes that none of the payments offered to him are enough, his decision to turn to crime is suggested to begin entirely from greed, rather than any factors outside of his control. Dick’s greed led to the misfortune “that, all told, ended six human lives”.

Perry’s difficult childhood further seemed to have made it challenging for him to succeed. With a history of abuse and instability, Perry did not get the education that he believed would allow him to make a success of his life. “Everything Herb had, he earned – with the help of God. He was a modest man but a proud man as he had a right to be. He raised a fine family. He made something of his life.’ But that life, and what he’d made of it – how could it happen, Erhart wondered as he watched the bonfire catch. How was it possible that such effort, such plain virtue, could overnight be reduced to this – smoke, thinning as it rose and was received by the big, annihilating sky?” As you might have sensed from the previous quote, the Clutter family is displayed as having attained the American Dream. Two things are clear. Firstly, Mr. Clutter’s success is attributed to his hard-working nature and persistence. In the form that the Clutters represent the American Dream, the focus is on good moral values, as the following quote shows: “Feeling wouldn’t run half so high if this had happened to anyone except the Clutters. Anyone less admired. Prosperous. Secure. But that family represented everything people hereabouts really value and respect, and that such a thing could happen to them – well, it’s like being told there is no God. It makes life seem pointless.”

Dick and Perry’s actions demonstrate why some people might fail at achieving their goals, especially when factors like greed begin to cloud their judgment. From the quotes presented, we see how the Clutter family was able to achieve the American Dream through Mr. Clutter’s hard work and strong moral values. However, their murders cause people to question this dream in a corrupt society. In ‘In Cold Blood’, Capote uses the theme of the American Dream and its destructions on account of greed. Capote shows the American Dream might not only motivate people to work hard, but to also corrupt people and destroy lives when it leads to greed.

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