In Cold Blood

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In Cold Blood Part 1 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Mid-November, 1959. The setting: Holcomb, Kansas – a tiny town of 270 inhabitants situated at the crossroads between the fertile plains of the Midwest and the dusty ranges of the High West. The town has several principal landmarks: the post office, Hartman’s Café (run by Mrs Hartman), Holcomb School, the Teacherage (where the several of the town’s teachers live), and the Holcomb School. Normally a sleepy, quiet town, the silence is broken in the early hours of the morning by “four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.”
Prior to the murder of the Clutter family, Holcomb is characterized by its innocence (there are few crimes, the town is family-oriented, etc.). Holcomb is also seemingly a place where farmers and ranchers can, through hard work, achieve the American Dream. The sudden shattering of this dream is dramatized by the quick cut to the shotgun blasts and the description of their carnage.
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Experience 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” thanks to his work ethic and Methodist temperance. Herb is a successful man and a prominent citizen of both Holcomb and nearby Garden City. He is the father of four children: Eveanna (the mother of a 10-year-old boy), Beverly (a nursing student who will soon be married), Nancy (16, “the town darling”), and Kenyon (15, a studious but athletic boy).
Through his hard work, Herb appears (to us and to those around him) to have achieved the American Dream; he is a successful businessman, he has a wife and children, and he’s well liked among his peers. He’s also a staunch Methodist, and Herb seems to connect his religious faith with his worldly success.
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
Herb’s wife, Bonnie Clutter, is introduced. She is a “nervous” woman who throughout her life has suffered from “little spells.” She has recently gotten word from a doctor that a spinal surgery might relieve her depression, and there is new hope in the household as a result. In an effort to prove that change is coming, Bonnie dons a new dress, fixes her hair, and puts in an appearance at Nancy’s school play.
In terms of mental health, Bonnie stands in stark contrast to Herb. Her mental health problems have made her act in ways that, according to those around her, seem abnormal. Bonnie’s mental health issues complicate the Clutters’ “achievement” of the American Dream. Even though the Clutters seem successful, they privately harbor their own problems.
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon
Nancy begs to be allowed to stay out late after the play, and her father – softened by his daughter’s 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, driven by her boyfriend Bobby Rupp. Bobby and Nancy have been dating for three years, and Herb is concerned that their relationship is far too serious. He encourages Nancy to break things off with Bobby, given that the Rupps are Roman Catholics – to Herb’s mind, Catholics and Methodists simply cannot marry.
According to Herb's religious beliefs the relationship between Nancy and Bobby is not normal, even though no one else in the town seems to have a problem with their relationship, which signals that on a societal level they’re not doing anything wrong. What's normal and what isn't can be complicated. Being "religious" isn't so simple either, as different religions can be so different (at least in Herb's view) that they can't mix.
Themes
Christianity Theme Icon
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon
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Herb ends up sleeping in, given that he went to bed far too late. He wakes up alone – his wife is sleeping upstairs, in Eveanna’s former bedroom. It is revealed that Herb and Bonnie haven’t slept in the same bed for several years. The house he lives in – which he designed himself- is large and well appointed. Mr. Clutter drinks a glass of milk (no coffee – he disapproves of all stimulants, and of alcohol as well) and heads to the livestock corral accompanied by the family dog, Teddy.
Herb and Bonnie’s sleeping arrangement is emblematic of their troubled, “abnormal” marriage. It’s also illustrative of the failed dream of their marriage – they seem like they have achieved the dream of a successful marriage, but, secretly, the dream has failed. Herb’s Methodist temperance continues to shine through in his actions – his disapproval of coffee is clearly tied to his Methodist beliefs, and his light appetite might be tied to these beliefs as well.
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon
Herb’s backstory is touched upon in this scene, detailing how he worked his way up from an assistant to the Finney County agricultural agent to a full-fledged county agent. Herb ultimately dreamed of running his own farm, so he quit his job in order to start River Valley Farm. Naysayers dismissed Herb’s “university notions” of running a farm, but his experiments were ultimately a success – “partly because, in the beginning years, [Herb] labored eighteen hours a day.”
To the casual onlooker, it might well seem that Herb has achieved the American Dream: he’s a self-made man who has the privilege to pursue his happiness. Herb’s extremely hard work seems to have paid off, given that his farm is prosperous, he’s a landowner, and he has a family. Interestingly, Herb’s “abnormal” notions of running a farm ultimately resulted in his success.
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon
Herb greets the farm’s “sole resident employee,” Alfred Stoecklein. Alfred begs off work, given that his baby is sick. Mr. Clutter grants him a day off, and offers to help Alfred in any way he can. Herb then wanders down to the river, where he has planted a small orchard of fruit trees – “his attempt to contrive…a patch of the paradise, the green, apple-scented Eden, he envisioned.” He walks by the river and recalls the happy early days of his marriage, when he used to picnic there with Bonnie and the children.
Herb’s Christian generosity is showcased in his benevolent attitude toward Alfred. Given that he cherishes his fruit orchard to a surprising degree, it seems that Herb harbors private fantasies. He longs for something that his current life doesn’t give him – marital happiness, perhaps, given that he fantasizes about the early days of his marriage. This could also be seen as an example of a fall from innocence, given that Herb is contrasting the innocent early days of his marriage with the troubled, “experienced” marriage he now has.
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Experience 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 tail between his legs when he spots their rifles. The hunters offer to pay a fee to hunt on the farm. Herb gives them leave to hunt for free. “I’m not as poor as I look. Go ahead, get all you can,” he says.
Herb’s generosity toward the pheasant hunters is another example of his Christian values. It’s also a sign that he’s achieved the American Dream – he’s so prosperous, he can afford to lose a few pheasants. The arrival of the hunters and Herb's words to them also foreshadows the family’s murder.
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
Perry Smith is sitting in the Little Jewel Café in Olathe, Kansas. He’s drinking a root beer, smoking a cigarette, and studying a map of Mexico. He recently arrived in Olathe with all his worldly belongings: a cardboard suitcase, a guitar, and two boxes filled to the brim with letters, souvenirs, and books. He’s waiting at the café for his partner in crime, Dick Hickock, to arrive, so they can discuss the plans for a robbery (a “score”). Perry muses over the map, fantasizing about becoming a treasure hunter in the tropics. Perry pays his bill and rises to leave, revealing his short stature. He stands outside to wait for Dick. While he waits, he idly dreams about becoming a musician at a nightclub in Vegas, a notion that Dick ha dismissed in the past. (Perry admires this about Dick, thinking him to be practical and “totally masculine.”) His reveries are abruptly shattered when Dick pulls up in a car.
Perry fantasizes about the life he could have in Mexico. His unfulfilled dream tantalizes him, and it strengthens his resolve to work with Dick. Perry dwells in a world of unfulfilled fantasies - fantasies of becoming a treasure hunter, fantasies of becoming a performer at a nightclub, etc. He considers Dick’s seemingly down-to-earth nature—Dick's dismissal of his (Perry's) dreams— to be an example of Dick’s “normal” masculinity.
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon
Nancy Clutter receives a phone call from Mrs. Clarence Katz, who wants Nancy to help her daughter, Jolene Katz, learn how to make a cherry pie. Nancy, a “champion cherry-pie maker,” would love to help Jolene out, but her schedule is overbooked. She goes to her father’s office to see if she can get out of her 4-H meeting, 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 can teach Jolene how to bake a pie.
Nancy seems to be well on her way to achieving the American Dream much in the way her father did – her hard work has made her an important figure in the community, even at the tender age of 17.
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Nancy goes to her room and changes her clothes, putting on her favorite gold watch. Her best 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 again asked her to break things off with Bobby. Nancy feels awful about disobeying her father. “I just want to be his daughter and do as he wishes,” she says. She then muses that the source of her father’s grouchiness has nothing to do with Bobby. Sue, who knows Nancy very well, asks if Bonnie’s the source of the trouble. Nancy brushes this suggestion off, but secretly wonders whether Sue might be right.
Nancy’s conversation with Sue reveals her anxieties about her parents’ mental health. Nancy is alarmed by Herb’s strange behavior; she worries that her father harbors his own mental health struggles, given that he might be smoking, as smoking would also signal a weakening of his Methodist temperance. Although to outsiders the Clutters may seem like they’ve achieved the American Dream, this scene offers yet another example of how their family dynamics are actually much more complicated (as are everyone's!).
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon
Perry gets into Dick’s car – a black 1949 Chevrolet. Dick is still wearing his blue mechanic’s jumpsuit. He checks the back seat to see if his guitar is still there, and spots a twelve-gauge shotgun, along with a flashlight, a fishing knife, a pair of leather gloves, and hunting vest packed with shotgun shells. Perry asks if the vest is for the robbery, and Dick confirms that it’s part of the plan. “’A cinch,’ said Dick. ‘I promise you, honey, we’ll blast hair all over them walls.’” Perry corrects his grammar – he’s a stickler for grammar.
This is the first instance of Dick referring to Perry as “honey.” It seems that their time in prison has given them a bond of intimacy that is akin to a kind of familial (or marital) bond (calling into question the normality of their admittedly odd union). The use of the word “honey” in the context of a conversation about killing an innocent family also brings up the concept of evil – Dick is using awfully casual language to discuss a heinous act. Dick’s unrealized dream of how the Clutter robbery will occur is evident here as well. Perry’s penchant for grammar stems from his dream of being perceived as an intellectual.
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Evil Theme Icon
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon
They drive to Dick’s place of work, Bob Sands’ Body Shop, and tune up the Chevy. Dick reveals that he was late because his father was at home – newly released from prison, he’s currently living with his parents (one condition of his parole). Dick doesn’t want his parents to catch on to his lie: he’s told them that he’s going on an overnight trip to Fort Scott with Perry in order to collect money from Perry’s sister. They finish tuning up the car at noon.
Dick’s ties to his family are in conflict with the “familial” bond he shares with Perry. In other words, his “normal” family is at odds with the “abnormal” familial bond he shares with Perry.
Themes
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon
A cherry pie sits cooling on the counter at the Clutters’ house. Jolene is overjoyed, and Nancy is pleased that she was able to help. Jolene wants to eat the pie right away, offering pieces to Bonnie and Nancy. They refuse – Nancy has to go help tutor another neighborhood girl, and Bonnie has one of her headaches. Nancy has to leave, so Bonnie agrees to keep Jolene company until her mother comes to pick her up. Jolene feels nervous in the presence of “strange” Mrs. Clutter. They chat about Nancy, and Jolene mentions that the home economics teacher at school has spoken highly of her: “‘Nancy Clutter is always in a hurry, but she always has time. And that’s one definition of a lady.’” Mrs, Clutter agrees, wanly, saying, “All my children are efficient. They don’t need me.”
“Normal” Nancy is in stark contrast to “strange” Bonnie in this scene. Jolene’s comment also highlights what the world perceives as Nancy’s “normal” femininity. Bonnie’s mental health issues are also on display in this scene. Her depression has led her to believe that her children don’t need her – in spite of the fact that they’re clearly still children, and that they therefore still need parental guidance and support, no matter how grown-up they might seem.
Themes
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon
Bonnie takes Jolene into the dining room, where she keeps an assortment of miniatures on display. She mentions that Herb travels “a great deal,” and that he always brings back “tiny things” from his travels. She unfolds a tiny paper fan from San Francisco and shows it to Jolene. “’Little things really belong to you,’ she said. ‘They don’t have to be left behind. You can carry them in a shoebox.’” Fragments of Bonnie’s past are revealed – her history of postpartum depression, the various failed treatments for “nervousness.” One of these treatments involved Bonnie moving away to a new city and starting a new life. She loved it, but returned home out of guilt; she felt it was “unchristian.” In spite of her many failed treatments, Bonnie trusts that God would have mercy on her. Her mother arrives, and Bonnie gives Jolene the fan.
It’s implied, in this scene, that Bonnie has taken these small objects with her during various hospital stays. Bonnie’s tiny, perfect objects are emblematic, perhaps, of her own unfulfilled dreams – her desire to have something really belong to her, something that won’t leave her behind. The constraints of Christianity are evident in this scene as well. Even though Bonnie’s mental health improved when she was living on her own, her Christian belief that she was being unfaithful to her husband just by being away from him ultimately led her to abandon happiness. This also suggests that Bonnie's trouble is with Herb—that in some way he stifles her.
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
Bonnie, alone in the house, decides to go to back to bed – “the bed she so rarely abandoned that poor Mrs. Helm had to battle for the chance to change its linen twice a week.” She retreats to her room upstairs, which is sparsely furnished. The windows are always shut. Bonnie thinks back on her time as a mother, and feels that she has let her family down. She changes into a nightgown, gets into bed, and begins reading the Bible.
Eveanna’s bedroom, where Bonnie sleeps, is emblematic of the failure of Bonnie and Herb’s marriage – it’s a place that, for Bonnie, harbors memories of failed dreams (the dream of being a “normal” mother, the dream of being mentally healthy, etc.) Even though her Christian beliefs have hindered her in the past, she finds comfort in reading the Bible.
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon
Having finished tuning up the Chevy, Dick and Perry spend the next hour “sprucing up” in the body shop’s bathroom. Both men are rather vain, and they take care with their respective appearances. Both men strip down to their briefs, revealing a motley assortment of tattoos. It’s revealed that Dick’s face is slightly crooked due to a car accident. Unclothed, Perry’s own disfigurement is on full display – his legs and lower body are twisted and scarred due to a serious motorcycle accident. The accident left him with chronic pain, and is addicted to aspirin as a result. Dick decides they’ve spent enough time primping. (“’O.K., beauty. Put away the comb,’ Dick said.”) They dress and go to the car.
Dick and Perry’s physical “abnormalities” are illustrated in this scene. Tattooed, scarred, and twisted, their bodies are in stark contrast to the Clutter family’s “normal” appearance. In a manner that can be considered both jocular and intimate, Dick calls Perry “beauty” (once again drawing attention to their abnormally intimate relationship). Their primping could also been seen as an attempt to capture some semblance of normality before committing their crime, and possibly as an attempt to chase after the dream of a normal appearance.
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon
Herb and Kenyon attend the 4-H Club meeting in Garden City, a town of eleven thousand people that boasts a golf course, a number of churches, a small zoo, and the “World’s Largest FREE Swimpool.” Herb gives the Mrs. Hideo Ashida and her children a ride home, and during the drive Mrs. Ashida mentions that she and her husband might be moving away. Herb is alarmed. Mrs. Ashida explains that her husband thinks their lives might be better in Nebraska. She then asks Herb for advice regarding a Christmas present for her husband – should she give him three gold teeth? Herb approves. Mrs. Ashida makes the comment that she can’t imagine Herb ever being frightened of anything.
Garden City’s innocence is illustrated in this scene: it’s a gentle place with little crime. It’s also a prosperous place where the American Dream seems to thrive, a religious place (given the number of Christian churches), and a place that could be considered highly "normal." Herb seems to have a strong emotional attachment to Mrs. Ashida, given how startled he is that she might leave town. Mrs. Ashida is impressed by Herb’s apparent “normal” masculinity – to her, he seems powerful and fearless.
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
Dick and Perry reach the large town of Emporia, Kansas in order to pick up supplies for the robbery. While in a department store, Perry argues that the duo should wear women’s stockings over their faces in order to hide their identities – and, ostensibly, so they can avoid having to murder anyone. When it’s determined that they can’t get black stockings at the store, Dick reassures Perry that nothing can go wrong with their plan.
Perry, who is often referred to as “feminine,” has no qualms with wearing women’s stockings on his face. Dick, on the other hand, has problems with it! This could be seen as an example of Dick asserting his “normal” masculinity. Dick’s fantasy of how the robbery will go is also evident in this scene.
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon
Kenyon, alone in the basement den, is at work on a hope chest as a wedding present for his sister Beverly. Although quite tall and athletic, Kenyon is an introverted boy, and not yet interested in girls. Kenyon goes outside to work on his mother’s flower garden, where he finds Paul Helm. Mr. Helm inquires about a car in the driveway; Kenyon speculates that it belongs to Mr. Johnson, the insurance agent. Nancy, soaking wet from a dip in the river, comes riding up on Babe. Mr. Helm takes his leave; it is the last time he will see the Clutter children alive.
Kenyon’s “abnormal” tendencies (his introversion, his apathy toward girls, etc.) stand in contrast to his sister’s gregarious, “normal” nature. This the last Paul Helm sees of the two children – when he thinks back on this moment, he sees it as a moment of innocence before the fall.
Themes
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
Dick and Perry, still on the hunt for black pantyhose, are parked outside of a Catholic hospital on the outskirts of town. Dick goes in to check and see if there’s any black hose for sale, and Perry waits in the car, citing a superstitious belief that nuns are bad luck. While in the car, Perry reflects on his real reason for returning to Kansas – the hope that he might be reunited with Willie-Jay, the prison chaplain’s clerk who, in prison, had been Perry’s “real and only friend.” Willie-Jay had tried in vain to convert Perry to Christianity, and had also warned Perry to beware of his violent temper. Dick, meanwhile, dismissed Willie-Jay as a “faggot.” Once paroled, Perry discovered that Willie-Jay had disappeared (it’s implied that Willie-Jay wants to start a new life, free of ties to his former life as a prisoner), leaving Perry no choice but to join up with Dick. Perry is shaken from his musings when Dick returns to the car empty handed.
Perry’s conflicted feelings toward religion are on full display in this scene. On the one hand, he refuses to go into the Catholic hospital on the grounds that nuns are bad luck. On the other hand, his closest friend in prison, Willie-Jay, was a strongly religious man, and in many ways Perry seemed to want to emulate his piousness. His friendship with Willie-Jay can be viewed as another failed dream – once out of prison, the two could never be friends, given that Willie-Jay wants a fresh start free of his criminal past. Willie-Jay’s “flawed” or “abnormal” masculinity (i.e. his homosexuality) contrasts with Dick’s staunch heterosexuality. (In many ways, Dick is the anti-Willie-Jay.)
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon
Bob Johnson, the Garden City Representative of the New York Life Insurance Company, watches 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 on his immense luck. He speculates that his fortune will only increase in the years to come. Mr. Johnson places Herb’s check in his pocket and departs.
Herb reflects on how he’s achieved what many consider to be the American Dream, and he supposes that others in his family (his two grown daughters in particular) are achieving it as well. This scene, in addition to being tragically ironic, also offers a sense of innocence before the fall, given that the signing of the insurance policy is an innocent act in an innocent time, and that this is the last Mr. Johnson will see of Mr. Clutter.
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Dick and Perry drive through the night. Perry gazes out at the flat landscape and reflects on how he hates Kansas; seaports are more his speed. Perry starts talking about Mexico – he reasons that he and Dick could rent a boat and go on a trip to Japan. He begins reminiscing about Japan (he was stationed there as a merchant marine), but Dick cuts him off – he seems preoccupied.
Perry views the Clutter robbery as a means to achieve his own version of the American Dream: treasure-hunting in Mexico. Dick’s impatience with Perry’s fantasies first becomes apparent in this scene.
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
The next scene is told from the point of view of Bobby Rupp, during his testimony at the police station following the murder of the Clutters. Bobby recounts his relationship with Nancy. “Always, as long as I can remember, she was pretty and popular.” Bobby recalls his last night with the Clutters (the night of the murder), and says he left their house at 10:30 that evening.
Bobby’s testimony reveals how normal and successful the Clutters seemed to outsiders. Nancy herself always exuded an air of normality – a trait that those around her found attractive. Bobby’s last night with the Clutters is remembered as an innocent time before evil entered their lives.
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
Dick and Perry have a veritable feast at a diner in Great Bend. They take off for Holcomb, and several hours later they stop at gas station on the outskirts of Garden City - Hurd’s Phillips 66. Perry, suddenly wracked with pain in his legs, locks himself in the restroom. He takes some aspirin and inspects the rubber gloves he purchased. Dick waits impatiently in the car.
Perry’s dreams of Mexico are shattered by reality: his legs are crippled and cause him chronic pain, and the gloves remind him that he’s about to commit murder – an evil act that will, for him, prove to be yet another step in his fall from innocence.
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Evil Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
While in the car, Dick worries that Perry has changed his mind about the “score” – something Dick hadn’t expected. Perry had once told Dick that he had killed a black man with a bicycle chain, “simply ‘for the hell of it’,” and Dick had thereafter been convinced that Perry was “that rarity, ‘a natural killer.’” After this revelation, Dick resolved to exploit Perry, and in doing so pretended to go along with his treasure hunting fantasies. Dick longs for a “’regular life,’ with a business of his own, a house, a horse to ride, a new car, and ‘plenty of blonde chicken.’” Perry finally emerges, and they depart. They arrive at the Clutters’ house late that night.
Like Perry, Dick feels that he has failed to achieve the American Dream. Unlike Perry, his fantasies of life after the “score” are far more akin to the American Dream that the Clutters seem to have achieved. But even though Dick’s dreams might seem more “normal” than Perry’s, for him these dreams are just as unattainable. The notion of Perry as a “natural killer” – one who can commit evil acts without shame – is also introduced.
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Evil Theme Icon
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon
The next morning, Clarence Ewalt drives his daughter Nancy Ewalt, a friend of Nancy Clutters’, to River Valley Farm, so she can go to church with their family. Nancy Ewalt rings the doorbell and there’s no answer. Sensing that something is amiss, she and her father drive to the Teacherage, to see if Susan Kidwell knows what’s going on. After trying to call the Clutters on the phone, Mr. Ewalt, Nancy Ewalt, Susan, and her mother, Wilma, decide to go to the Clutters’ house to investigate. Susan and Nancy are sent into the house and they discover Nancy Clutter’s dead body. They run out of the house, screaming.
This moment signals Holcomb’s "fall from innocence", though it will be noted later that Holcomb is only innocent in its own sense of itself, as horrible crimes have happened in the town before. This fall from innocence is highlighted by the fact that the discovery of Nancy’s dead body is made by two (innocent) teenage girls rather than old (experienced) Mr. Ewalt. Those two girls are also on their way to church.
Themes
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
The police, accompanied by Mr. Ewalt and Larry Hendricks, investigate the house. Upstairs, they discover Nancy’s body – she’s been shot in the head at point-blank range, but strangely enough she’s also been tucked into bed. They then discover Bonnie’s body in Eveanna’s room. Her hands have been tied in front of her, “so that she looked as though she were praying,” and her 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, and have been shot in the head. Mr. Clutter, however, also had his throat cut, and Kenyon had his head propped up with pillows. The only clue is a bloodstained footprint.
The Clutters have been brutally murdered, but it seems that care has been taken to make them comfortable before they were killed. This apparent contradiction complicates the idea of what an evil act is – it seems evil acts can, at least in this case, involve tenderness. The fall from innocence continues in this scene. Bonnie’s prayerful stance seems to imply that she was praying to God when she was killed. This could be seen as a subtle critique of her faith.
Themes
Christianity Theme Icon
Evil Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
Holcomb’s mail carrier, Mother Truitt spies ambulances at River Valley Farm while she’s waiting for the mail to come in by train. She rushes back to the post office, where her daughter, Mrs. Myrt Clare, works as the town’s postmistress. Mrs. Clare makes a phone call and discovers that the Clutters have been murdered. Mother Truitt reacts with grief and horror. Her daughter is cavalier about the killings, saying, “When your time comes, it comes. And tears won’t save you.”
As word begins to spread through the town, those who are more “innocent” seem to react more strongly to the news. Oddly enough, old Mother Truitt is more shocked than her tough-minded daughter. Mrs. Clare seems to operate in a world where evil acts are commonplace, even banal.
Themes
Evil Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
News of the Clutter family’s murder ripples through the town, with most of Holcomb’s inhabitants reacting with shock, terror, and disbelief. The hub for news about the murders is Hartman’s Café, where the owner, Mrs. Bess Hartman, has been shaken to the core. Insurance agent Bob Johnson, dumbfounded by the Clutter murders, decides to honor Herb’s life insurance policy, even though he hasn’t yet deposited Herb’s check. Eveanna Jarchow and Beverly Clutter, along with the rest of the Clutter’s extended family, head to Garden City. Mr. Ewalt informs Bobby Rupp of the murders, and Susan comforts Bobby.
Holcomb’s innocence is shattered, given that evil has entered their midst. Bob Johnson shows that he’s a moral (and Christian) man by honoring Herb’s insurance policy (something he could have easily not done, given that Herb’s check hadn’t been deposited yet). Bobby Rupp’s dreams of love and possibly marriage are shattered with the news of Nancy’s death.
Themes
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
Evil Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
Perry sleeps in a motel room in Olathe, Kansas. His boots are soaking in the washbasin; the water is tinted with blood. Nearby, Dick, famished, is wolfing down Sunday dinner with his family. Instead of joining his family in front of the TV, he falls asleep straight after finishing his meal.
The murder of the Clutters seems all the more heinous (and somehow more evil) given how nonchalant Perry and Dick act in the aftermath.
Themes
Evil Theme Icon