The color-coded boxes under "Analysis & Themes" below (which look like this: ) make it easy to track the themes throughout the work. Each color corresponds to one of the themes explained in the Themes section of this LitChart.
Analysis & Themes
Four of Herb’s closest friends go to the Clutter home in order to clean up. As they burn the Clutter’s bloodstained belongings, one of his friends reflects on his friendship with Herb. “Everything Herb had, he earned – with the help of God,” he says. Watching the smoke rise, he is taken aback by how suddenly the Clutters’ fortune was swept away.
Herb’s friend reflects on how Herb seemed to have achieved the American Dream, and is shocked to see how fragile that dream really was. In spite of this, he still believes that Herb’s life was just as successful as it seemed, and that God was on his side.
Kansas Bureau of Investigation (KBI) agent Alvin Adams Dewey is put on the Clutter case. He’s an experienced investigator and was a personal friend of the Clutters. The other primary investigators in the case are Special Agents Harold Nye, Roy Church, and Clarence Duntz. At a press conference, Alvin reveals the basic facts of the case, and reveals that neither Bonnie nor Nancy had been “sexually molested.” The agents follow a number of leads, but have little luck scraping together clues, discovering a motive, or finding a suspect. One of the only things they learn is this: “Of all the people in the world, the Clutters were the least likely to be murdered.”
The idea that the Clutters were the “least likely to be murdered” highlights how strong and stable they seemed (given that they had seemingly achieved the American Dream), how innocent Holcomb was prior to the murders, and also offers insight into the townspeople’s thoughts on what’s normal (the murder of the oh-so-normal Clutters has, in a way, made it “normal” to be murdered!).
With the exception of Mrs. Clare and a few stray citizens, all of Holcomb is in a panic over the Clutter murders. The hardware store is having trouble keeping locks and bolts in stock, and many of the houses in town leave their lights burning through the night.
The town is no longer an innocent place – the townspeople don’t know who to trust, given that the murderer might be one of their own.
Perry and Dick sit in a café in Kansas City. Perry obsessively reads a front-page article in the Kansas City Star on the Clutter murders. Perry, who has had a history of “hunches,” has a serious hunch that something bad will happen. Dick shrugs this off and orders another burger. Perry presses that they could get caught, bringing up a potential “connection” named Floyd. Dick implies that he’d kill Floyd if he were to squeal.
In spite of the fact that he shuns religion, Perry seems to harbor a somewhat religious belief that evil acts beget consequences. Perry has a hunch that he simply cannot escape the murders – he and Dick will have to pay someday.
Dick questions Perry’s premonitions. Perry shrugs. “[O]nce a thing is set up to happen, all you can do is hope it won’t,” he says. He then recounts a recurring dream in which he tries to pick diamonds from a stinking tree, but knows that the minute he reaches for a diamond a snake will fall from the tree and attack him. Knowing this, he still reaches for a diamond, only to be attacked by the snake. Fearing ridicule, he refrains from telling Dick about the dream’s end, in which he is saved from the snake by a golden parrot “taller than Jesus, yellow like a sunflower,” and then is allowed to ascend to Paradise. The vision of the parrot has visited Perry throughout his life, always in times of need. Having listened to Perry’s telling of the dream, Dick replies, “I’m a normal. I only dream about blonde chicken.”
On one level, Perry’s dream seems to be a retelling of the Biblical story of the Fall of Man, putting Perry in the role of Eve (!), given that he’s the one who is drawn into temptation and plucks diamonds from the tree. The dream seems to parallel his waking fantasies – he may suffer ill fortune while hunting for treasure, but ultimately (Perry hopes) he will be exalted or saved, in this case by the golden parrot. In response to Perry's dream, Dick asserts that his own dreams are “normal,” even though they may be just as unattainable.
The day before the Clutter family’s funeral, Susan and Bobby agree to go to Garden City in order to “see Nancy.” They go to the funeral home and are shocked to see the Clutters dressed in their formal clothes with each of their heads “completely encased in cotton, a swollen cocoon…[that], because it had been sprayed with a glossy substance, twinkled like Christmas-tree snow.”
From the neck down, the Clutters are “normally” attired in their fancy church-going clothes. From the neck up, however, they’re essentially mummified. These “normal” people with “normal” bodies have now been made monstrous, abnormal, and unnatural.
Kansas City. Perry and Dick have been busy – Dick has been writing bad checks all over Kansas City, under the premise that Perry is getting married (they buy and subsequently pawn a suit, a ring, etc.). All this talk of marriage has Perry thinking about his own dashed dreams of marriage – he has always dreamed of meeting a girl who was a “nicely groomed, gently spoken” college graduate. (The only girl he was close to marrying was Cookie, the nurse who tended to him after his motorcycle accident.) Perry envies Dick’s two marriages - things “a man ought to have.”
Perry ponders what’s normal and abnormal in this scene – why has he never had a “normal” romantic life, like Dick? Of course, it will be revealed later, that Dick is a pedophiliac rapist, so once again what looks normal at first glance is revealed to not be. Perry’s unachieved (or unachievable) dream of meeting a nice, college-educated girl weighs on him, and he wonders why the only relationship he’s had has been “abnormal” (a fleeting affair with a nurse).
After a day of pawning, Dick and Perry have made quite a bit of money. Perry is excited – finally, his dream of Mexico will become a reality. Dick, however, seems downcast. Dick worries that his family will have to suffer the consequences of his crimes. Perry reasons that the duo will be able to pay off the bad checks once they reach Mexico, where they will become rich treasure hunters.
Perry is excited that he now has the chance to live his dream of treasure hunting in Mexico, but Dick worries that leaving the country will quash his dream of ever leading a “normal” life (one that includes being a dutiful, law-abiding son).
It’s three in the morning at the Dewey household and the phone is ringing off the hook; the Deweys have been flooded with shoddy leads and false confessions. Alvin, awake, ruminates on new developments in the investigation, and wonders why the murderer(s) took the time to treat the Clutters with simultaneous tenderness and violence. (Why put Kenyon on a mattress box, with pillows under his head? Why tie Nancy up, only to tuck her into bed?)
The Clutter case has caused Alvin to reassess his ideas about how an evil person commits evil acts. How, he wonders, can a person who does an evil thing (murder) also simultaneously act with tenderness?
Having loaded the Chevy with stolen goods and all of Perry’s worldly belongings, Perry and Dick cross into Oklahoma. Perry is relieved, but Dick is uneasy – in escaping to Mexico, he is leaving behind his sons, his ex-wives, and his immediate family. He hasn’t said goodbye to any of them, for fear that it would arouse suspicion.
Dick continues to dream of a “normal” family life, and he worries that leaving the country will deprive him of this. His worries about his family stand in stark contrast to his apathy toward the Clutters.
Only days after the funeral, Beverly weds Vere English in a lavish celebration. They chose to marry early, given that all of their relatives were already in town for the funeral. The day the last of the Clutter clan left Garden City, Bonnie’s brother Howard Fox ran a letter in the Garden City Telegram asking that the locals not seek the death penalty for the murderers. “[L]et us forgive as God would have us do,” he writes.
Beverly and Vere’s premature wedding seems to be an effort to assert that their dreams of success have not been shattered and that they can still be “normal.” In spite of this, the timing of their wedding is highly abnormal, given the circumstances! Howard’s letter is the first of many appeals to Christian mercy as an antidote to revenge.
Dick and Perry are having a roadside picnic in Mexico. Perry speculates that there must be something wrong with them, given that they murdered the Clutters. “Deal me out, baby,” Dick says. “I’m a normal.” Dick secretly scorns Perry’s habit of bed-wetting, his dreams of treasure hunting, and even his new sunglasses (which Dick refers to as “flit stuff”). Dick brings up the murder Perry had supposedly committed years ago. “But a nigger,” Perry says. “That’s different.” Perry is convinced that something bad will happen as a result of their crimes.
Dick’s stubborn dream of being “normal” is tested by Perry’s insistence that they must be “abnormal,” given that they killed the Clutters in cold blood. Perry’s dreams and appearance offend Dick’s “normal” “masculine” sensibilities. Perry thinks killing a black man is somehow not as evil as killing a white family, perhaps because in the United States a white family is help up as the epitome of normality.
As they drive away, Perry reflects on their conversation. Memories of the murder haunt him. He wonders if he was fated to live a doomed life, given that his mother had been an alcoholic, his sister Fern had been killed in a freak accident, and his older brother Jimmy had committed suicide. It is revealed that Perry lied about killing the black man – he’d only said he’d done it in order to impress Dick. Perry is shaken from his thoughts when Dick gleefully swerves to hit a dog.
Perry feels doomed to a life of ill fortune, given that his family is “abnormal.” This runs parallel to his “hunch” that something bad will happen. It seems Perry lied about murdering a black man in order to appear more masculine to Dick. Dick’s nonchalant killing of the dog parallels his attitude toward the Clutters.
Weeks go by, but rumors still abound in Holcomb, particularly in Hartman’s Café. Two of the café’s “steadiest customers,” Lester McCoy and Mrs. Hideo Ashida, announce that they’re leaving town. McCoy cites his family’s unease following the murders. Mrs. Ashida claims her husband had wanted to leave for a while, and she’d always convinced him to stay; after the death of the Clutters, she stopped fighting him.
Holcomb’s innocence continues to crumble, and it leads some townspeople to move elsewhere. Mrs. Ashida’s motivations for leaving may be a bit more complex, given that she seemed to have a deep personal connection to Mr. Clutter.
Dick and Perry are aboard a small boat off the coast of Acapulco. A young Mexican man and a “rich middle-aged German” accompany them. Their money is almost gone. Dick has already gotten himself tangled up with two women and has mentioned that the Chevy will have to be sold. Perry lands a gigantic sailfish, an act that makes him feel “as though at last…a tall yellow bird had hauled him to heaven.”
Perry’s dreams of paradise in Mexico are sullied by money troubles. He’s surrounded by sexual “abnormality,” which was certainly not part of his dream! (The German man is homosexual.) In spite of this, he still clings to his dreams, and he takes the sailfish as a sign that they might yet come true.
Dick and Perry are in a motel room in Mexico City. Perry has come to realize that Dick simply cannot manage money – the sum they’d earned selling the Chevy has disappeared in a matter of three days, and Dick has refused to get a job as a mechanic, citing the low wages in Mexico. Dick argues that they have to return to the States. “Diamonds,” he says. “Buried treasure. Wake up, little boy. There ain’t no caskets of gold. No sunken ship. And even if there was – hell, you can’t even swim.” Terrified that something bad will happen if he abandons Dick, Perry resolves to stick with his partner in crime. Dick borrows money and buys two bus tickets back to the States.
Dick caustically and devastatingly shatters Perry’s dreams of treasure hunting. He calls him a “little boy,” which indicates that Dick (in contrast) is a fully realized, “normal” man. Still, Dick himself is unable to reach his dreams, due to his inability to manage money or hold down a job. Perry is driven to stay with Dick given his superstitious “hunch” that something evil will happen if he doesn’t.
Checkout time at the motel is drawing near, and Perry rifles through his memorabilia, trying to decide what he can afford to take with him. Perry thinks back on his life – on his parents, on the abusive nuns at the orphanage, and on a stint in Alaska that taught Perry to “dream of gold.” The harsh Alaskan wilderness also taught Perry to dream of warmer climes – Hawaii in particular.
It seems Perry has escaped into a world of fantasy in order to cope with his deeply traumatic past. Perry’s sense that evil will follow him wherever he goes – as if it were fated – seems to stem from his traumatic past as well.
Perry thinks back on his time as a Merchant Marine. He’d loved the seafaring life, but Perry recalls that had been bullied (and possibly sexually assaulted) by homosexuals aboard the ship. Thinking back on his time in the Army, Perry blames a homosexual sergeant for not promoting him “[b]ecause [Perry] wouldn’t roll over.” After being discharged from the Army, Perry got into a motorcycle accident in an attempt to join his father, Tex Smith, in Alaska, where he was supposed to help him open a hunting lodge aimed at tourists. He finally joined his father after recuperating, but the lodge was a failure. Perry then recalls his time in Worcester, Massachusetts, New York City, and (finally) Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing.
Perry’s life story could be seen as one failed ream after another. He chases one dream after the next, bolstered by the highest hopes, only to have his dreams dashed. His abhorrence of “abnormal” sexuality seems to stem from these experiences (given that he reports being assaulted by “queens”). His inability to reach his dreams seems to have forced him into a life of crime.
Perry is shaken from his reminiscence and pulls out another letter, this time from his sister Barbara, written to him in the spring of 1958, while he was serving 5-10 years in Lansing. The letter starts out by telling Perry about the goings-on in Barbara’s family, but quickly becomes a platform for Barbara to shame her brother for his criminal behavior. (“There is no shame – having a dirty face – the shame comes when you keep it dirty.”) Barbara argues that Perry has free will and that he isn’t doomed to a life of crime.
Barbara’s “normal” life stands in stark contrast to Perry’s “abnormal” life of crime. It seems like Barbara has achieved the American Dream – she’s made it into the middle class, she’s married to a successful man, she has children, etc. Unlike Perry's sense of himself that he can't avoid a life of crime, Barbara argues that he is not fated to a life of evil.
After Perry reads this letter, it is revealed that he hates Barbara, and that he harbors a wish that she had been in the Clutters’ house the night of the murders (presumably so he could have murdered her, too). Perry only keeps the letter because his friend Willie-Jay offered a detailed typewritten analysis of the letter (“Impressions I Garnered from the Letter”), which Perry treasures due to its sympathy for Perry’s plight and its insight into his character. Willie-Jay’s analysis ends with a warning to Perry: that his letters to his sister should serve a purely social function, given that any further letters from her of this nature “can only serve to increase your already dangerous anti-social instincts.”
Perry’s seemingly casual attitude toward killing is made apparent in this scene. His religious and sexually “abnormal” friend Willie-Jay attempts to offer an antidote to Perry’s homicidal tendencies – he encourages Perry to be aware that he is capable of evil acts as a way of combatting those instincts.
Perry picks up a notebook: “The Private Diary of Perry Edward Smith.” Perry’s diary contains quotes, ideas for a speech (something he was never called on to do), and bits of poetry. By this time, it’s nearly 1:00 – one hour before checkout. He checks to see if Dick is awake. He is – he’s having sex with a teenage prostitute. Perry tells Dick to hurry it up.
Perry’s diary reveals more of his unrealized dreams. Dick, meanwhile, seems to embody both “normal” masculinity (at least compared to Perry) and “abnormal” sexuality (he is a sexual predator of young women, or even girls). What's normal and what's abnormal becomes all mixed up, and it starts to seem as if many of the awful acts of the book are committed by people who see themselves as abnormal and their acts as somehow making them seem normal.
Christmas is near. In Holcomb, Alvin Dewey is driving to River Valley Farm, and stops at Hartman’s Café for a cup of coffee. A couple of local men harass Alvin about his failure to locate the murderer. Alvin leaves the café and walks to the Clutters’ farm. Alvin’s mind turns to his now-dashed dream of living in the country; his wife is now staunchly against the idea, given that the Clutters were murdered in their “lovely country house.”
Holcomb and Garden City seem to have lost their innocence, and as a result Alvin and Marie’s dream of living in the country will never be realized.
His mind then turns to other murders that had occurred in Holcomb. Alvin recalls the 1920 Hefner Slaying, in which an AWOL soldier shot and killed the town’s sheriff. Alvin then thinks back on his own experiences with murder cases in Finney County: a man who stabbed a woman in the neck with a beer bottle in 1947; “a pair of railroad workers” who “robbed and killed an elderly farmer” in 1952; a husband who beat his wife to death in 1956; and the peculiar case of a man who committed a murder and then proceeded to bury and exhume the body repeatedly.
Given the murders that have occurred in the past, it seems that Holcomb (and all of Finney County) have only ever had the appearance of innocence. Much of the book follows this idea, as seemingly "normal" people are revealed to be something other than that. Both normality and innocence come to seem like traits that are only visible from the exterior and are based on incomplete knowledge.
Dick and Perry are hitchhiking in the Mojave Desert. Their plan is to get picked up by a solitary stranger, who they’ll then relieve of their life and their car. A man slows down, but is suspicious and zooms off. Undaunted, the two continue to wait.
Dick and Perry are unfazed by the prospect of taking another human life. Their fantasy is spoiled when the driver evades them.
More help on this section...
• See quotes from Part 2: Persons Unknown