In Epic of America (1931), James Truslow Adams wrote that the American Dream is “…a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.” The notion of striving for dreams – the American Dream in particular – is central to In Cold Blood. Characters struggle with how to achieve their dreams, they scrutinize who has and hasn’t achieved their dreams, and they struggle with whether their own dreams can ever become reality, and feel resentment when their dreams turn out to be beyond their reach.
The murder central to the plot – the murder of the Clutter family – seems to be the result of murderers Perry Smith and Dick Hickock’s inability to respectively achieve the American Dream. On the one hand, Perry – crippled by a motorcycle accident, haunted by memories of a childhood wracked by poverty and abuse – is never able to achieve the American Dream of a middle-class existence, in spite of being an intelligent and hard-working individual. It’s perhaps because the achievement of this dream is so far beyond his reach that he ends up turning to a life of crime, with the ultimate goal of using his ill-gotten gains to escape to a life of treasure hunting in Mexico. Dick, on the other hand, in spite of a relatively stable lower-middle-class childhood, is frustrated by the normal means by which he might achieve the American Dream. In an effort to take a short cut to the life he dreams of, he turns to a life of crime – primarily through “hanging paper” (writing bad checks) and, ultimately, hatching a plan with Perry to rob the Clutters.
In contrast to Perry and Dick, the Clutters represent (to us, to their fellow townspeople, and to Perry/Dick) the ideal achievement of the American Dream. Herb Clutter is a self-made man who pulled himself up by the bootstraps to become a well-to-do farmer and rancher. He’s married, he has four children, he owns his own land, and he’s engaged with his community. However, in spite of their success, all is not perfect with the Clutters. Bonnie and Herb’s marriage is troubled (Bonnie is mentally ill, and the couple hasn’t shared the same bed in years). This may be why Herb, like Perry and Dick, harbors dreams beyond what he currently has – in an uncharacteristically impractical move, he plants an orchard of fruit trees along the banks of the river that runs through his property, in a way creating his own version of Eden.
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved ThemeTracker
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Quotes in In Cold Blood
At the time, not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them – four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.
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.
[T]he dream of drifting downward through strange waters, of plunging toward a green sea-dusk, sliding past the scaly, savage-eyed protectors of a ship’s hulk that loomed ahead, a Spanish galleon – a drowned cargo of diamonds and pearls, heaping caskets of gold.
Little things really belong to you…They don’t have to be left behind. You can carry them in a shoebox.
Nancy’s door was open. The curtains hadn’t been drawn, and the room was full of sunlight. I don’t remember screaming…I only remember Nancy’s Teddy bear staring at me. And Nancy. And running…
"I’m scared, Myrt."
"Of what? When your time comes, it comes. And tears won’t save you."
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?
…once a thing is set to happen, all you can do is hope it won’t. Or will – depending. As long as you life, there’s always something waiting, and even if it’s bad, and you know it’s bad, what can you do?
It was after one of these beatings, one [Perry] could never forget…that the parrot appeared, arrived while he slept, a bird “taller than Jesus, yellow like a sunflower,” a warrior-angel who blinded the nuns with its beak, fed upon their eyes, slaughtered them as they “pleaded for mercy,” then so gently lifted him, enfolded him, winged him away to “paradise.”
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.
No fooling Dick…This is authentic. I’ve got a map. I’ve got the whole history. It was buried there back in 1821 – Peruvian bullion, jewelry. Sixty million dollars – that’s what they say it’s worth. Even if we didn’t find all of it, even if we only found some of it – Are you with me, Dick?
Deal me out, baby. I’m a normal.
Things hadn’t changed much. Perry was twenty-odd years older and a hundred pounds heavier, and yet his material situation had improved not at all. He was still…an urchin dependent, so to say, on stolen coins.
Perry Smith killed the Clutters…. It was Perry. I couldn’t stop him. He killed them all.
Nonetheless, [Alvin] found it possible to look at the man beside him without anger…for Perry Smith’s life had been no bed of roses but pitiful, an ugly and lonely progress toward one mirage and then another.
The cats, for example: the two thin gray toms who appeared with every twilight and prowled the Square, stopping to examine the cars parked around its periphery – behavior puzzling to [Perry] until Mrs. Meier explained that the cats were hunting for dead birds caught in the vehicles’ engine grilles. Thereafter it pained him to watch their maneuvers: “Because most of my life I’ve done what they’re doing. The equivalent.”
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.”
I think…it’s a helluva thing to take a life in this manner. I don’t believe in capital punishment, morally or legally. Maybe I had something to contribute, something – It would be meaningless to apologize for what I did. Even inappropriate. But I do. I apologize.