In Cold Blood

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Normal vs. Abnormal 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.
Normal vs. Abnormal Theme Icon

Dick constantly asserts that he’s “a normal,” even though he has deeply abnormal physical features (his face is crooked thanks to a car accident) and even though he’s capable of committing various crimes – up to and including murder. The question of what’s considered normal and abnormal is repeated throughout the book.

For example, what is a normal marriage/family? In spite of being the perfect couple, Herb and Bonnie have a troubled marriage. Dick and Perry, on the other hand, could be said to have a happy marriage – they even go on a veritable honeymoon in Mexico after murdering the Clutters. The book also questions what a normal person might look like. Herb, the proverbial everyman, is of average build and has fine, even features. On the other hand Perry, albeit handsome, is often referred to as having feminine facial features, and has stunted and warped legs thanks to a motorcycle accident. In Cold Blood also questions the notion of normal mental health. Bonnie, in spite of having a supposedly perfect life, suffers from bouts of “nervousness” that often result in her hospitalization. By the end of the book, Perry is pronounced mentally ill; Dick, in contrast, is pronounced sane, in spite of his inhumane actions.

The book also grapples with sexual norms. What is normal sexuality? What kind of person possesses normal sexuality? And what is normal masculinity? Perry – sexually inexperienced, never married - is staunchly against “pervertiness” – homosexuality, pedophilia, and rape. Conversely, Dick– married twice, father of three children, and the epitome of what Perry considers masculine - is a pedophile and a rapist. On a metatextual level, one could also argue that the close relationship between Dick, Perry, and the book’s author, Truman Capote (who was openly homosexual throughout his life), further complicates these questions of sexual norms.

Normal vs. Abnormal ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in In Cold Blood related to the theme of Normal vs. Abnormal.
Part 1 Quotes

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. 

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Part 2 Quotes

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. 

Now, what kind of person would do that – tie up two women…and then draw up the bedcovers, tuck them in, like sweet dreams and good night?

Related Characters: Alvin Dewey (speaker), Perry Edward Smith, Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickok
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Alvin contemplates the specifics of the murder scene, saying that he is most tantalized by the trouble that the killers went to to make sure the Clutters were comfortable. Alvin seems unable to understand how a cold-blooded murderer could be in the process of killing and simultaneously beholden to the impulses towards kindness that would make him tuck Nancy and Bonnie in, or put a pillow under Kenyon's head. With this passage, Capote continues to explore the complex nature of evil. Evil, Capote seems to say, is not monolithic--an almost scarier proposition than the idea of somebody being purely evil, since it makes us ask to what extent one has to follow evil impulses to do evil, and, conversely, how much kindness is required to save us from evil.

In these considerations, the passage also makes a commentary on our perceptions about what is normal. It seems that Alvin does not believe that these impulses towards kindness are "normal" behavior for a killer, though kindness would be "normal" behavior for the middle-class Christians in his community. Alvin's inability to categorize "normal" and "abnormal" people is, he seems to say, more difficult to process than the fact of the murders itself.

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

But I’m afraid of [Perry]. I always have been. He can seem so warmhearted and sympathetic. Gentle. He cries so easily…. Oh, he can fool you. He can make you feel so sorry for him –

Related Characters: Barbara (Smith) Johnson (speaker), Perry Edward Smith
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is spoken by Perry's sister, who is a source of torment for him--at this point in the book he has expressed his hatred for her patronizing attitude and her lack of sympathy for his plight, as well as his wish that she had been in the Clutter home the night of the murders. While this passage, spoken by Barbara, seems, perhaps, less sympathetic to Perry than the reader might expect, her sentiment does not seem unjustified. For her, Perry's evil lies in the dichotomy between his outward appearance of sweetness and his inward tendencies toward violence. Barbara seems to view this as pathological manipulation, and it forces us as readers to step back and wonder if we have been similarly manipulated by Capote's attention to Perry's inner conflicts, dreams, and passions, which seem to soften his cruelty.

Barbara also presents a challenge to the fatalistic hypothesis that Perry is the way he is because his childhood was so bad--Barbara herself had a similar childhood, and she has achieved a life that she, and most others, would consider normal. This is an important counterpoint to Perry's own idea that he is not totally responsible for his actions, since he is controlled by fate and the past.

Dick was sick of [Perry] – his harmonica, his aches and ills, his superstitions, the weepy, womanly eyes, the nagging, whispering voice. Suspicious, self-righteous, spiteful, he was like a wife that must be got rid of.

Related Characters: Perry Edward Smith, Richard Eugene “Dick” Hickok
Page Number: 214
Explanation and Analysis:

Just before their arrest in Las Vegas, Dick reveals that he has tired of Perry and that he plans to ditch him without saying goodbye. Significantly, Perry's characteristics that most grate on Dick are the ones that Dick sees as being most abnormal--it's worth noting, too, that to Dick, the most abnormal thing a man can be is feminine. So Dick, in his relentless protection of his own normalcy, wants to get rid of Perry. While Capote has brought attention throughout the book to Perry's femininity, this passage is significant because Dick has never before been so disgusted with Perry and, correspondingly, has never described Perry in such concertedly feminine terms. He brings attention to Perry's womanly eyes, his feminine voice, and his nagging, before explicitly comparing Perry to a wife. In prior passages, Dick has seemed to enjoy aspects of feminizing Perry--in a traditionally masculine way, Dick is the leader of the two of them, and he calls Perry pet names like "honey" and "baby." However, as their relationship splinters, Dick uses Perry's femininity as a scapegoat for the deeper problems of trust and cruelty that plague their relationship. 

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.