In Cold Blood

Pdf fan dd71f526917d6085d66d045bd94fb5b55d02a108dd45d836cbdd4abe2d4c043d Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)

Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
Evil Theme Icon
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in In Cold Blood, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Theme Icon

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

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved appears in each chapter of In Cold Blood. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
Chapter length:
Get the entire In Cold Blood LitChart as a printable PDF.
In cold blood.pdf.medium

Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved Quotes in In Cold Blood

Below you will find the important quotes in In Cold Blood related to the theme of Dreams Failed, Dreams Achieved.
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. 

A+

Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other In Cold Blood quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!

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.

[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.

Related Characters: Perry Edward Smith
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

More than any other character in the book, Perry represents the elusive nature of the American dream. While Perry's dreams are always eccentric (he does not embody mainstream American masculinity, and his dreams are not quite resonant with the classic American dream), his fantasizing about the wealth and excitement of treasure hunting in Mexico places him within the bounds of the classic American quest for the stability and status that come with money. Indeed, Perry's fantasizing about Mexico reveals that he believes he will have a comfortable life there (rather than the scrappy and impoverished one he has lived in the States), and that he will feel independent. This shows the similarities between his values and traditional American middle class values.

However, the same passage reveals one stark difference between Perry and the majority of middle class Americans; Perry plans to achieve his dreams through criminal means. Perry is not entirely unsympathetic, though. In this passage, Perry reveals that his motivation for robbing the Clutter family is to get enough money to allow him to escape to what he believes will be a fulfilling life in Mexico (he doesn't fantasize about more crime), and, furthermore, readers learn that Dick is the ringleader of this operation. Clearly, then, Perry is not simply interested in crime for its own sake. 

Little things really belong to you…They don’t have to be left behind. You can carry them in a shoebox.

Related Characters: Bonnie Clutter (speaker)
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a moment in which readers are allowed, finally, to see beyond the perfect Clutter facade. Bonnie Clutter is revealed to be a strange and unhappy woman who speaks of her fatigue and her feeling of irrelevance, since she believes her children don't need her anymore. Capote then allows readers a glimpse into her past—from her happy childhood through her adult life, which has been riddled by mental health troubles. In this heartbreaking statement, Bonnie is alluding to the fact that she can take her beloved small objects with her to the hospital when she goes. Bonnie's history shows us that, while she seems to be someone who has achieved the American dream, she is in a way still seen as "abnormal" because of her mental illness, and she still longs for more from life--she wishes she had completed nursing school, and she loved her job as a file clerk, though she left it because she thought it unchristian to enjoy being away from her husband. This hints at the emptiness of the American dream, that even when someone seems to have achieved it he or she is still likely to want something different or better. 

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…

Related Characters: Susan Kidwell (speaker), Nancy Clutter
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

This scene is, in every way, a fall from innocence. On a literal level, Nancy's two friends fall from innocence because they are the ones to find their friend's murdered body. This idea is magnified because it is a light-filled Sunday morning, and the girls are on their way to Church—a completely unexpected and even perverse time for this to happen. More symbolically, this is a fall from innocence for the entire town of Holcomb. The girls are able to enter the house and find Nancy in the first place because, as Capote points out, nobody there locks their doors. Though we later learn that other grisly crimes have occurred in the area, nobody seems to remember them. Residents believe they live somewhere safe and idyllic, and the murder of the Clutters makes people distraught and suspicious--it irrevocably changes the town. 

This scene also presents readers with another barrier to the American dream. While much of the book is consumed with its living characters failing to achieve the lives that they aspire to, in this scene we see that Nancy Clutter--perhaps the character we believe is most likely to be fulfilled--cannot achieve her dreams because her life was violently taken from her. This contributes to the pervasive sense of doom that hangs over the whole book.

"I’m scared, Myrt."
"Of what? When your time comes, it comes. And tears won’t save you."

Related Characters: Mrs. Myrt Clare (speaker)
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of the most startling passages in the book, because it is the first indication that the Holcomb community itself might be internally divided or cynical. Myrt reacts to the news of the Clutter murders coldly, and her words seem to indicate that she feels Herb Clutter had it coming because his ambition, it seems to her, came at the expense of the community. She also immediately casts suspicions on community members, calling them "rattlesnakes." In a book that has gone to great pains to present the Holcomb community as innocent and good, this is a jarring reminder that everything is more complex than it seems. 

The fatalism of this exchange is also an interesting counterpoint to the theme of characters chasing unrealizable dreams. Myrt seems to be the only character who truly embraces fate; this passage indicates that she frowns on the kind of ambition that denies a person's natural fate, even if that fate is mediocrity or death. If Perry represents one extreme--chasing wildly unrealizable dreams without recognizing their impossibility--Myrt represents the other. Capote seems to frown on both.

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. 

…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?

Related Characters: Perry Edward Smith (speaker)
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

Perry says this in response to Dick asking him why, if he had a premonition that something bad would happen, did he continue with their plan. His response reveals that Perry is, perhaps, less secular and innocent than he seemed at first. As readers have been acquainted with a Perry who is possessed by his fantastic dreams of treasure hunting in Mexico, the fatalism of this passage comes as a shock. While Perry had once seemed a little innocent in his unrealizable aspirations, we now see that Perry may actually understand the hopelessness of his position more than we think.  

His response also seems almost religious, even though Perry is somebody who disavows religion. Perry claims, to some extent, to have had no agency in the murders, as he feels that he was possessed by a fate that was determined outside of himself. Not only does Perry show his belief in fate here, but he also reveals that he thinks of himself as some sort of mystic--he cites a history of premonitions. This passage adds considerable depth to Perry's character, and also casts doubt on Perry's sense of good and evil, as he chooses to cite fate rather than reckoning with his own choices. 

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.”

Related Characters: Perry Edward Smith
Related Symbols: The Golden Parrot
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

While Perry's previous admission of his beliefs in fate and premonition seemed eccentric, this passage tips from eccentric to, depending on your perspective, a kind of religious ecstasy or an indication of possible mental illness. Perry here describes a cherished vision, one that has returned to him throughout his life, of a parrot who saves him from his own wrongdoing and the cruelty of others. The parrot, which Perry compares to Jesus, has a similar function -- to take Perry to paradise despite his sins.

This gives crucial insight into Perry's perspective on himself. Through the parrot, readers glimpse the litany of cruelties Perry has experienced at the hands of others, and we see that, while Perry does not always consider his actions to be good or righteous, he does feel that he is less cruel than other people, which excuses some bad behavior. Furthermore, he expects salvation not from his own deeds, but from the parrot. This logic sheds light on Perry's seemingly impossible hope for a fulfilling and stable life, and also his idea that he can achieve this without behaving wholly honorably. The parrot points to a complicated psychological disposition in which Perry's past and his (possibly pathological) beliefs in salvation and fate combine to make murder possible. 

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. 

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?

Related Characters: Perry Edward Smith (speaker), Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickok
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

While Perry's discussion of inescapable fate makes readers feel, to some extent, that Perry understands his own doom, he is still prone to flights of fancy about the life he and Dick could have in Mexico. Here, after a day of writing hot checks, Perry is explaining to a skeptical Dick how they will make money once they leave the country. His explanation sounds delusional at best--his plans include treasure maps, fishing boats, and diving for sunken treasure. It is through the contrast between passages like this (that show the scale and intensity of Perry's longing) and the brutality of the Clutter murders that Capote critiques the American dream. Not only does the dream inspire rabid dissatisfaction and grandiose hopes, but it makes it possible to commit acts of extreme violence in the name of aspiration. Clearly, Perry just wants to have a nice life for himself, but he doesn't seem to recognize that, in the pursuit of this, he has taken four lives from others. 

Deal me out, baby. I’m a normal.

Related Characters: Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickok (speaker), Perry Edward Smith
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes in an exchange between Perry and Dick in which Perry raises the possibility that there is something wrong with the two of them, since they were able and willing to kill the Clutters. Dick responds confidently that he is normal, though Capote reveals that Dick is strongly convinced that Perry is not. Dick cites Perry's childishness, his stormy emotions, and his obsession with treasure hunting as examples that Perry is not "normal," but Dick's relentless defining of normalcy also reveals to us Dick's own preoccupation with being normal himself. Normalcy is a virtue that Dick seems to cherish and one that he believes (with pride) that he has, despite Perry's very good evidence to the contrary. In a sense, Dick's quest for normalcy is his version of Perry's treasure hunting dream--both are aspirations that guide their actions, and both are delusional in that, because of who these men are and the circumstances they're in, neither one of them can ever achieve their dream.

Part 3 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Perry Edward Smith
Page Number: 193
Explanation and Analysis:
This is one of the most damning passages for the American dream in the whole book. Perry, who is much beholden to his fanciful dreams, here realizes that his life has actually been marked by a lack of progress of any kind. He is, at this point, still supporting himself by petty theft, just as he did as a kid. It's a complicated passage because he remembers those childhood thefts fondly--it even cheers him up to think about them--but he also notes cynically that his lack of progress seems incredible for someone of his intelligence and talent. As readers, we're left not knowing what to believe--since he seems to enjoy theft, is he in his current position because his aspirations are actually much less extravagant than he seems to believe? Or has he been unable to achieve his tremendous potential because of fate and circumstance? Regardless, this passage once again critiques the empty promise of progress and success in America.

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. 

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.

Related Characters: Perry Edward Smith, Alvin Dewey
Page Number: 246
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote comes at the end of Alvin hearing Perry's full confession to the Clutter murders. Capote devotes pages to Perry giving an account in excruciating detail of how he and Dick killed the four Clutters, and then Alvin proclaims that he has a certain sympathy for Perry, and he's not angry, though he does not feel inclined towards forgiveness or mercy either. Alvin, perhaps, has the most nuanced perspective on Perry of all. Unlike Perry's sister, he does not think of Perry as pure evil; unlike Dick, he does not think of Perry as weak and abnormal; and unlike Perry himself, he does not chalk the man's actions up to fate and rotten circumstance. While Alvin acknowledges that Perry has been, for his whole life, in the maddening position of chasing a dream that is actually a "mirage," he still believes that Perry is responsible for his own choices, indicating that he believes that evil is something not inherent to a person, but something within his or her control. 

Part 4 Quotes

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.”

Related Characters: Perry Edward Smith, Josephine Meier
Related Symbols: Two Gray Cats
Page Number: 264
Explanation and Analysis:

The two gray tomcats are obvious symbols of Dick and Perry themselves. From his cell, Perry watches them and at first feels perplexed by their behavior. This harkens back to Capote's concern with normality and abnormality, as Perry clearly finds the cats' behavior to be abnormal—until Mrs. Meier explains that they're hunting for dead birds in car grilles. At this point Perry seems heartbroken by watching them, because he sees himself in the cats: surviving by foraging for what's cast off by the world, living on the margins of society, and benefiting from violence and death. In comparing his own behavioral patterns to the behavior of the cats, Perry seems to embrace the same fatalism that led him to conclude that his behavior was largely outside of his control. He is pitying himself here by comparing himself to animals who are not taken care of and have little hope for a better life. 

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. 

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.

Related Characters: Perry Edward Smith (speaker)
Related Symbols: Death Row
Page Number: 340
Explanation and Analysis:

Perry's last words further show the complexity of evil. Perry did something evil, and the humility of his apology shows that even he would likely admit that at this point. However, he does not believe that this makes him wholly bad, and he does not believe that the taking of one life (or even four) justifies the taking of another. Despite Perry's flaws, he emerges from this story seeming reasonably human and sympathetic. It's profound that Perry acknowledges that even if he is sorry for what he has done, it is meaningless to say the words in the face of the lives he has taken. 

This passage is also Perry's final appeal to his beloved dreams. Throughout the book Perry has been full of dreams--he is always aspiring to a better life than the one he has, but his visions for the future have, up until now, been largely concerned with personal wealth and adventure. That at the moment of his death Perry's dream for the future is to contribute to society opens the possibility that Perry has grown.