In Cold Blood

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Innocence vs. Experience 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.
Innocence vs. Experience Theme Icon

Prior to the massacre of the Clutter family, Holcomb, Kansas (a small town adjacent to the county seat of Garden City) is portrayed as a kind of Eden before the fall – a quiet, innocent town where nothing of note happens. (Of course, it’s later revealed in the book that the region had its share of horrifying crimes long before the Clutters were murdered, but it’s a time that’s only remembered by the town’s elderly citizens.) Following the murder of the Clutters, the town becomes a hotbed for suspicion and fear – Holcomb – and, by extension, Garden City - has become a place where terrible things can happen.

Each character in the story goes through a fall from innocence. In Perry, for example, this is dealt with through a discussion of nature vs. nurture – how much of his murderous nature is natural, and how much of it was beaten into him through a lifetime of hard knocks, starvation, and sadness? Perry is ultimately a sympathetic character due to his natural (or seemingly natural) good qualities – he loves music and art, abhors sexual perversion, and loves animals. His fall from grace is essentially thrust upon him, via his abusive, alcoholic parents. This fall from grace is also characterized in his wilted, mangled lower body, which came about as a result of a crime-related motorcycle accident – something that could be seen as a literal fall from grace.

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Innocence vs. Experience ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Innocence vs. Experience appears in each chapter of In Cold Blood. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Innocence vs. Experience Quotes in In Cold Blood

Below you will find the important quotes in In Cold Blood related to the theme of Innocence vs. Experience.
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.

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.