Thus far, the logic above is sound, yet difficult to convey, especially to high school students. To make this analysis fruitful have students construct a character chart for In Cold Blood. Put the following four characters -- Dick Hickock, Perry Smith, Alvin Dewey, and Truman Capote -- vertically, in the left-hand margin of the page. Title the first vertical column "Perceived truth", Title the second vertical column "Evidence", and title the third vertical column "Characterization". What follows is an analysis and suggested breakdown of the characters of Dick Hickock, Perry Smith, Alvin Dewey and Truman Capote. As a classroom lesson, you could present the chart, give each group or team a particular character, and have them present that information to the class. Or you could go through each character one-by-one, stopping at each column and allowing students time to research, process, and write their answers. Or, do the first set of analysis together then have the students split into three groups to illuminate the remaining highlighted characters.
Richard Eugene Hickock
The first vertical column is Perceived truth. Richard Eugene Hickock, Dick, is absolutely certain that there will be a large sum of money in Mr. Clutter's house, approximately $10,000 contained in a safe. He has gathered this information from a fellow inmate in the State penitentiary. Dick is so certain that the money is in the Clutter household that he drives across state lines against probation, steals his mother's car, writes bad checks (with the hope of paying them back with the Clutter money), forcibly enters the Clutter home, and ties up the four person family, only to discover the safe is non-existent. Dick Hickock so firmly believes what his inmate friend has told him is true that he bases an intricate crime and, ultimately, his life upon this information. He is a victim of perceived truth. Represent this knowledge under Dick's heading making sure to use concrete examples from the novel.
When Perry Edward Smith, recounts the events at the Clutter home under interrogation he lends further insight into the psyches of Dick and himself. Dick's stubbornness is codified. It is almost impossible to closely read Dick's character without including Perry. Thus, use Perry's analysis here to learn about both Dick and Perry.
Unlike Dick, Perry is much less resolved to accept the truth from others if it contradicts his perceptions. In other words, he was unable to let go of his perceptions before accepting another's. Perry is more sensitive to the reality of others, considers it, and bases his future actions and reactions upon it. Being friends with Dick then is almost too easy, for Dick's predictability is frustratingly obvious. However, Perry lacks a stable home, a family, and friends, therefore he allows headstrong Dick to control his actions, despite his skepticism. Represent this knowledge under Perry's heading, again using the novel for support.
Perry's intuitive knowledge and Dick's stubbornness are apparent in Perry's confession. When Dick questions Mr. Clutter where his safe is Capote writes Perry's testimony, "Mr. Clutter says, 'What safe?' He says he don't have a safe. I knew right then it was true. He had that kind of face. You just knew that whatever he told you was pretty much the truth." (Capote, 237) At this point, Dick will not believe the man as Perry does. Dick's character prevents him from seeing the nuances of humanity, or possibly he decides to ignore them. "But Dick shouted at him, 'Don't lie to me, you sonofabitch! I know goddam well you got a safe!" (Capote, 237) As Dick continues to question Mr. Clutter, three times, Perry, assure in his first impression, disconnects the phones in the house, and begins to search for items that would salvage the misconceived heist. Perry is a victim to Dick's sense of truth. It is only when Dick attempts to "verify" the truth that Dick is able to overcome his preconceptions. Ultimately, Dick and Perry are hung because of Dick's unwarranted trust. Add this information to what already exists under Dick and Perry's headings.
Dick is a character who is confident in his perceptions, rarely questioning whether what he is doing is right or wrong - honest or dishonest. Have students look for more examples, which prove this as one of Dick's character traits. What other traits do they notice as they further deconstruct Dick's character? Have the students represent their findings and conclusions in the Dick's second vertical column, Characterization.
Perry Edward Smith
Perry Smith is gifted in reading the perceptions of others - he is intuitive. As stated earlier he feels satisfied, and correctly so, that Mr. Clutter is telling the truth and sees Dick's insistence on further harassing Mr. Clutter as a waste of time. As he continues to describe the murders during Dewey's interrogation, he appears much more creditable, and the reader believes him when he states his fear that Dick will sexually abuse Nancy. His powerful intuition is once again correct as he returns upstairs to protect Nancy, Dick is in her room, yet Perry ends this encounter before any real perversion occurs. Because Perry lacks courage in himself and this often trumps his intuition, it leaves him victim to Dick's weakness, foolishness. Perry is intelligent, thoughtful, and caring. He is also sensitive, honest, but at times denies his own strong sense of intuition. Include this information under Perry's heading.
Unlike Dick, however, Perry questions himself and his actions and often regrets not trusting his unusually strong intuition. When giving his statement Perry closes by saying, "Right there, in those few seconds before we ran out to the car and drove away, that's when I decided I'd better shoot Dick. He'd said over and over, he'd drummed it into me: No witnesses. And I thought, He's a witness. I don't know what stopped me. God knows I should've done it. Shot him dead. Got in the car and kept on going till I lost myself in Mexico." (Capote, 245) Had Perry killed Dick would he have successfully escaped, for its only Dick's continuous check forgery on his mother's account that locates them. At another point in his confession, Perry suggests a disconnection from his reality. It is obvious that Perry is capable of murder, he just murdered a family of four, yet he refrains from killing Dick, "I don't know what stopped me."
In the same fashion, Perry is unable to explain why he slits Mr. Clutter's throat. The following quote is the best example in terms of investigating Perry, and Perry and Dick's relationship. Perry says "After, see, after we'd taped them, Dick and I went off in a corner. To talk it over. Remember, now, there were hard feelings between us. Just then it made my stomach turn to think I'd ever admired him, lapped up all that brag. I said,
'Well, Dick. Any qualms?' ….. I said, 'All right, Dick. Here goes.' But I didn't mean it. I meant to call his bluff, make him argue me out of it, make him admit he was a phony and a coward. See it was something between me and Dick. I knelt down beside Mr. Clutter, and the pain of kneeling…But I didn't realize what I'd done till I heard the sound. Like somebody drowning." (Capote, 244).
This statement explains his resentment against Dick, his ban from the state of Kansas insinuating his lack of a home or a sense of belonging, and his anger at himself for trusting Dick instead of himself. With these things in mind he is almost unable to control his rage. Thus, another character trait of Perry's is blind rage. This text and the ones prior demonstrate Perry's perceived truth and his characterization and should be represented in the appropriate columns. However, the novel is filled with justification for these generalizations; use the novel and evidence in a fashion best suited for the classroom.
Alvin Dewey, the lead prosecutor, is constantly questioning what he perceives to be true. As a way of showing this, Capote includes a small tale of his race to become Finney County Sheriff. Capote writes, "when practically every vote had been counted and it was plain as plain he'd won, he said- I could have strangled him -- said over and over, 'Well, we won't know till the last return.'" (Capote, 213) In part, making the truth as verifiable as possible is his job. He must so convince eleven jurors that Perry and Dick are guilty of murder that he must make certain every known detail leads in that direction. With this in mind, he hopes to coerce the murderer, Dick and Perry, into confessing their crime. As a way of ensuring their confession Dewey sets up a code of silence, as Dick and Perry are arrested for parole violations there is to be not one hint that they are also prime suspects in the Clutter murder. He is cautious and sneaky, trapping the murderer in delusion and using that to expose the truth.
These facts help in characterizing Dewey's perception of truth. He lulls Perry and Dick into a trap using perception to his advantage. If, while being integrated, Dewey suprises the parole violators with the Clutter murders they will be caught off guard and reveal telling evidence which will make clear whether they are the killers or not. Regardless of what he believes to be true, he requires thoroughly convincing evidence to fully accept his premonitions. Thus, Dewey could be characterized as cautious, scientific in his reasoning, and skeptical, yet daring and sneaky. Also, by the nature of his profession, his opinions are only justified when the general public shares them with him. He has a constant awareness of his peers. He must not only convince himself of the truth, but also eleven jurors. Use these factual examples and analysis to fill in Alvin Dewey's section of the character chart.
Truman Capote is the most intricate character in terms of perceived truth. He is not only the author of In Cold Blood but also the narrator. Therefore it is important to consider his audience and his intentions. Truman Capote is already a well-established, wealthy author (not a journalist), most famous for his fantastic novel Breakfast at Tiffany's. He enjoys his fame and his eccentricity and hopes, as we stated earlier, to make a significant contribution to New Journalism. It is safe to characterize him as confident, intelligent, and aware of the impact of his literature. He is also guilty of pride, yet his pride is supported with success such as Breakfast at Tiffany's. His presence was already discussed when dissecting Perry's reading of his father's parole letter. But further examples are productive.
The first evidence of Capote's presence is in his subject matter. He has chosen to write on the Clutter murders with no knowledge of the town of Holcomb, Kansas. He has neither murdered anyone, nor studied law formally. He has also never been a journalist, establishing himself as a writer of fiction however realistic it might seem. He chooses to follow the crime in a chronological fashion. He begins with a description of setting, introduces supplementary characters and approaches the conflict slowly and deliberately, stretching out the first of the novel's climaxes, Perry and Dick's murder of the family. He refrains from describing the murders from his point of view and uses the words and reactions of the town of Holcomb to progress the plot.
The first full description of the murders comes from the mouths of the defendants themselves. In this way, Capote has attempted to keep the crime as objective as possible. But he has chosen to leave the confessions until the 3rd quarter of the book, imbuing the crime and the criminals with personalities and emotions. Subjectivity, and therefore the narrowing of fact and fiction, should also be made known to the students at this time. Authors choose what to include, in what order, and in what format. By making certain choices and using certain words, Capote has made a murder likable, distorting perceptions of morality and persuading the reader to agree with his bias. As readers we find it hard when Perry confesses not to feel at least a tinge of sympathy. Capote's motivation is to soften the killings, to make them seem acts carried out in pain rather than preconception, further persuading readers to hope for Perry's redemption. Objectively Perry is a savage, guilty of four counts of first degree murder, but through Capote's subjectivity he is a hurt child questing for his place and comfort in a society which has abandoned him. But the key to such generalizations is Capote's method.
Capote's mastery of the novel, powerfully presents the truth, or veils it. Rather than focusing on the brutal murder, Capote paints a portrait of Perry, shifting the focus off the murders and onto a man consumed by pitfall. After Perry finishes his testimony with his eerie premonition that Dick would be his downfall, Capote uses Alvin Dewey to express his message, "Sorrow and profound fatigue are at the heart of Dewey's silence…but the confessions, though they answered questions of how and why, failed to satisfy his sense of meaningful design. The crime was a psychological accident…. Nonetheless, he found it possible to look at the man beside him without anger -- with, rather, a measure of sympathy" (245-6) Whereas Alvin Dewey must do his job, that of seeing these men to their execution, for murder is a crime publishable by death, Capote must also do his. In a twisted way Capote neither wins nor loses in this dilemma. He aids Perry and Dick in an attempt to spend more time with them, securing them an expensive and strong defense team, and then, when his novel needs a conclusion he retracts his aid. Capote, possibly more than any other character reveals his core, what drives him and what he lives on. Yet this core is enigmatic. Allow students to develop their own interpretations of Capote, what he perceives to be true, who he is (characterization), and the evidence, both biographically and textually, as support.
In this vein, the novel In Cold Blood was recently developed into an award-winning movie, which is tellingly named
. The premise for the film is the novel In Cold Blood and its nonfiction plot - the killings of Mr. and Mrs. Clutter, Nancy Clutter, Kenyon Clutter, and later the executions of Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. However, the title of the film suggests it is more about the author. It is important to ask students why a film about the Clutter murders in Kansas epitomized in a book called, In Cold Blood, would be titled
? Through the eyes of these artists, Capote seems to be the unifying figure and main character, and thus a piece of journalism has turned more into a look at the author, his opinions, and actions rather than an objective presentation of facts. If a teacher wishes to, a reading of the novel could invite the following thesis question-- "What is Truman Capote's effect on the outcome of the Clutter murder trial?"
With the analysis of Dick Hickock, Perry Smith, Alvin Dewey, and Truman Capote complete, the students might have one page with four characters and three vertical columns, Perceived Truth, Characterization, and Evidence. Or they might develop these charts into a four-page document, with a character on the top of each page, followed by three completed categories -- Perceived Truth, Evidence, and Characterization. The permutations of this assignment and what to do with the results are vast. One possibility is to have the students pick a character, use the information they have gathered and write a five paragraph character analysis. A second alternative is to have the students write resumes and cover letters for the characters with invented occupations and companies to submit them too. A third possibility is to have the students write on a piece of paper who they would ask if they wanted the truth. Collect the votes and award one of the characters the honesty award. Lastly, you could have the students use their character charts to write an thesis paper answer the question, "How important is the idea of truth to the novel, In Cold Blood?"
The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien -- Three Versions of the Same Story
Capote's In Cold Blood is one of the cornerstones of New Journalism, and is classified contemporarily as narrative non-fiction or true crime. Further narrowing the gap between fact and fiction is Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, a novel classified as fiction. Reread the foreword containing John Ransom's Diary to recall that this is a novel canonized for its "truthfulness" and a "statement of actual things by one who experienced them to the fullest." (Ransom's Andersonville Diary). The coupling of these two novels, one non-fiction and one fiction, both of which are aware of their bias as a tool of realism rather than subjectivity, create a possible question for students at the end of this unit could be -- Which novel, in your opinion, is a more accurate portrayal of the "truth"?