In Cold Blood

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Proprietor of River Valley Farm, husband to Bonnie Clutter, and father of Eveanna Jarchow, Beverly English, Nancy Clutter, and Kenyon Clutter. Murdered by Perry Smith and Dick Hickok. Herb is a devout Methodist, a hard worker, and a valued citizen of Holcomb, Kansas. A university-educated man, he pulled himself up by the bootstraps to become a prosperous farmer and rancher. By all appearances normal, Herb seems to harbor some secret unhappiness. His marriage is by all accounts troubled.

Herb Clutter Quotes in In Cold Blood

The In Cold Blood quotes below are all either spoken by Herb Clutter or refer to Herb Clutter. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Vintage edition of In Cold Blood published in 1994.
Part 1 Quotes

At the time, not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.

Related Characters: Perry Edward Smith, Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickok, Herb Clutter, Bonnie Clutter, Nancy Clutter, Kenyon Clutter
Page Number: 5
Explanation and Analysis:

In Cold Blood opens by describing a serene and pastoral town in which salt-of-the-earth Kansans raise families and livestock in a religious and warm community. Capote sets up this image of paradise only to dash it with the description of the shotgun blasts. In a way, this opening mirrors the experience of reading the whole book; Capote repeatedly presents readers with idyllic scenes of American life and traditionally successful characters only to tell us afterwards that everything is darker and more complicated than it initially appears.

This quotation also sets in motion the unspooling of the plot. By revealing that four shotgun blasts ended six lives, Capote tells readers from the start that the two killers are doomed as well. This foreshadowing (or prolepsis, as it would be more accurately described) makes the dreams and aspirations that the two killers express throughout the remainder of the book seem hopeless and even tragic. In this way, Capote has primed the readers for one of the major themes of the book: that the American dream seems always out of reach. 

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Always certain of what he wanted from the world, Mr. Clutter had in large measure obtained it…[H]e wore a plain gold band, which was the symbol…of his marriage to the person he had wished to marry…She had given him four children – a trio of daughters and a son.

Related Characters: Herb Clutter, Bonnie Clutter, Nancy Clutter, Kenyon Clutter, Eveanna (Clutter) Jarchow, Beverly (Clutter) English
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

This quotation is an example, like the opening of the book, of Capote building up a character only to later dash the reader's expectations. In this description, Herb Clutter seems to embody the achievement of the American dream. He knew what he wanted and he got it; he's married, and he has lovely children and a successful farm. In this moment, readers get the sense that Herb must have been idyllically fulfilled by his rich life. Because we already know that he was murdered, this description seems tragic, but we don't know yet that it is also misleading. In the pages that follow, Capote reveals that Herb had his dissatisfactions; his marriage, for one, was not as perfect and fulfilling as it initially appeared. Capote's project in this book is, in large part, to instruct readers that appearances do not always--or even often--correspond to reality. The life and death of Herb Clutter is one of the most potent examples of this that the book provides.

Part 2 Quotes

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?

Related Characters: Herb Clutter, Bonnie Clutter, Nancy Clutter, Kenyon Clutter
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

In this moving passage, Herb Clutter's friends have come to his farm to clean the crime scene and burn all the items that were ruined by blood. Here, Andy Erhart, who watched Herb work his way up from humble origins to professional and familial success, feels hopeless before the bonfire because of what it symbolizes to him. To Erhart (who is, in some sense, a proxy for the reader), Herb did everything right--he worked hard and achieved his goals. Erhart doesn't understand, then, how it could all be taken from Herb so quickly and senselessly. To Erhart, the bonfire is a physical manifestation of the slippery nature of the American dream. While it might seem permanent once you have achieved it, the bonfire reminds us that the American dream is a house built on sand. As so much of the American dream rests on the accrual of material possessions, the literal burning of those possessions is a potent symbol of the destruction that has occurred. 

Nancy wore her dress of cherry-red velvet, her brother a bright plaid shirt; the parents were more sedately attired, Mr. Clutter in navy-blue flannel, his wife in navy-blue crepe; and – and it was this, especially, that lent the scene an awful aura – the head of each was completely encased in cotton, a swollen cocoon twice the size of an ordinary blown-up balloon, and the cotton, because it had been sprayed with a glossy substance, twinkled like Christmas-tree snow.

Related Characters: Herb Clutter, Bonnie Clutter, Nancy Clutter, Kenyon Clutter
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

In this eerie passage, Nancy's friend and boyfriend are viewing the bodies of the Clutter family at the funeral home. Their appearance is described in an almost absurdist way--they are each carefully dressed in beautiful clothes, but their heads (where each was shot) are encased in huge swabs of cotton that "twinkled like...snow."

Here, Capote is drawing out an image that points to the contradictions and absurdities of the American dream. There is something aspirational in the fancy clothes that the Clutters wear, but, as their cotton-encased heads show, they have nothing left to aspire to. In a way, this isn't so different from the way Capote views the relationship of the living to the American dream--that it is essentially unachievable. The image also plays with Capote's theme of normality. The Clutters seem like completely normal, successful Americans if we were to judge by their outfits, but their grotesquely encased heads indicate that something deeply abnormal is happening. Capote is always doing this--throughout the book he points to the fact that no matter how normal or idyllic a person or situation seems, it is always more complicated. 

Part 3 Quotes

Perry Smith killed the Clutters…. It was Perry. I couldn’t stop him. He killed them all.

Related Characters: Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickok (speaker), Perry Edward Smith, Herb Clutter, Bonnie Clutter, Nancy Clutter, Kenyon Clutter
Page Number: 230
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the book, Dick is portrayed as the more cold-blooded of the two killers due to his lack of remorse and kindness. When presented with an evidence photograph of a bloody footprint and told of all the murder charges he is facing, Dick does not keep to his word that he and Perry will tell the same story to police interrogators, and instead he blames the killings on Perry. This further cements the reader's negative opinion of Dick, as he is essentially attempting to sacrifice his friend, who he dragged into the killings in the first place, in order to spare his own future. While Perry represents a nuanced and even banal vision of evil (he commits an evil act because Dick tells him to, and feels some remorse after), Dick is a much more polar version of evil. Dick is shown as cruel, manipulative, and lacking empathy in a way that almost points to psychological pathology. 

Part 4 Quotes

As the auction progressed, and Mr. Clutter’s worldly domain dwindled, gradually vanished, Paul Helm, remembering the burial of the murdered family said, “It’s like a second funeral.”

Related Characters: Herb Clutter, Paul Helm
Page Number: 270
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote approaches the fragility and emptiness of the American dream in two ways. First, it is similar to the previous quote in which Herb's friends are burning their bloodstained belongings and are reminded of how quickly a hard-won life of success can be taken away. In this way, the quote speaks to the fragility of the kind of life that people tend to consider enduring and stable. In another way, this quote addresses the materialism of the American dream. Capote is concerned in this book with the disconnect between appearance and reality, and one of the main ways in which people project success and status in America is through their belongings. In saying that the auction of the Clutters' belongings was like "a second funeral," Paul Helm is equating their belongings to their personhood in a way that seems perverse. This quote speaks to the ways in which devoting a life to material acquisition (as encouraged by the American dream) can devalue individuality and personhood. 

Soldiers don’t lose much sleep. They murder, and get medals for doing it. The good people of Kansas want to murder me – and some hangman will be glad to get the work. It’s easy to kill – a lot easier than passing a bad check. Just remember: I only knew the Clutters maybe an hour. If I’d really known them, I guess I’d feel different. I don’t think I could live with myself. But the way it was, it was like picking targets off in a shooting gallery.

Related Characters: Perry Edward Smith (speaker), Herb Clutter, Bonnie Clutter, Nancy Clutter, Kenyon Clutter
Related Symbols: Death Row
Page Number: 291
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the story, Perry is beginning to unravel psychologically, so his words cannot be considered reliable. However, in a sense, this passage seems to be one of the most honest in the book. It would have been easy for Perry to play up his moral conflict (evident in his efforts to make the Clutters comfortable before their deaths, his questioning whether he and Dick are normal if they're capable of an act like that, or his thinking of Nancy Clutter on her birthday) and earn the sympathy of his Christian friend, but instead he presents himself in a pretty unforgiving light. This is another example of Perry's brand of evil being complex--Perry admits that he would have felt remorse if he'd known the Clutters, but says he is not sorry since he didn't know them, which seems sociopathic. However, this assertion is contradicted by the fact that by the time this quote occurs we've just found out that Perry tried to take the blame for the murders to spare Dick's family shame, indicating that Perry does have some empathy for people he doesn't know. Perry also makes a moral comparison between the Clutter murder and the acts of soldiers and executioners, and questions whether one can make a meaningful distinction between them. Essentially, this quote indicates that Perry cannot understand the depths of his own moral confusion, and he seems weary of trying. 

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Herb Clutter Character Timeline in In Cold Blood

The timeline below shows where the character Herb Clutter appears in In Cold Blood. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1: The Last to See Them Alive
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
Flashback to two days earlier. We’re introduced to Herb Clutter – the “master” of River Valley Farm. Herb is middle-aged, but “in first-rate condition”... (full context)
Christianity Theme Icon
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon
...success in the play, as well as his wife’s good spirits – gives her permission. Herb gives Nancy a scolding later that night, given that she returns home two hours late,... (full context)
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Christianity Theme Icon
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Herb ends up sleeping in, given that he went to bed far too late. He wakes... (full context)
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Herb’s backstory is touched upon in this scene, detailing how he worked his way up from... (full context)
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Christianity Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
Herb greets the farm’s “sole resident employee,” Alfred Stoecklein. Alfred begs off work, given that his... (full context)
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Christianity Theme Icon
Five pheasant hunters from Oklahoma appear, and they approach Herb. Teddy runs at them but, gun-shy, he quickly puts his head down and tucks his... (full context)
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
...scheduled for that day. While in his office, she notices a peculiar smell of tobacco. Herb gives her leave to skip 4-H, and Nancy tells a relieved Mrs. Katz that she... (full context)
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon
...friend Susan Kidwell calls on the phone. Nancy reveals to her that she’s worried about Herb – she suspects that he’s been smoking cigarettes. She also mentions that Herb has once... (full context)
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Christianity Theme Icon
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
Herb and Kenyon attend the 4-H Club meeting in Garden City, a town of eleven thousand... (full context)
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
...Mr. Clutter write a check for a new life insurance policy. Mr. Johnson jokes about Herb’s infamous habit of never carrying cash. Herb boasts about his daughter’s impending marriage, and comments... (full context)
Christianity Theme Icon
Evil Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
...mouth has been taped shut. She, too, has been shot in the head. Kenyon and Herb are found in the basement, in separate rooms. Both are tied, have their mouths taped,... (full context)
Part 2: Persons Unknown
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Four of Herb’s closest friends go to the Clutter home in order to clean up. As they burn... (full context)
Part 3: Answer
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Floyd Wells, a former employee of Herb’s and a current inmate at Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing (imprisoned for stealing lawnmowers, in... (full context)