Death Penalty In Cold Blood Essay Prompt

First, it's important to realize that there is danger in inserting "Capote's opinion on the death penalty" just because this is a novel.  In pretty much ANY other case, I would suggest that you steer clear of stating an author's opinion, focusing instead on the provable opinions of the characters.  HOWEVER, because Capote himself called this a "nonfiction novel" and was known in interview after interview to state his opinions on the subject I find it fairly safe to admit the answer to your question:  Capote was most certainly against the death penalty.  Further, the title serves to suggest that the murderers were people who are victims of a self-righteous society.

Capote strives to show us that murder is murder.  The death penalty is murder by the state.  The Clutters' deaths account for murder by two people: Dick and Perry.  There is no difference.  I really like the way eNotes educators have put this in the past:

But Capote's questioning of the relevance and righteousness of small-town values and priorities could be his own angry criticism of the world he himself inhabited: a false meritocracy in which his talents were inadequate unless accompanied by a biting, unrelenting charm.

Therefore murder done by a person isn't okay, but murder by the government is perfectly fine.  Such is the small-town self-righteousness that Capote is criticizing.  Capote believes that this error is the only thing that allows a small town to create the semblance of order after a tragedy such as this. Capote's "nonfiction novel" says it this way:

There is considerable hypocrisy in conventionalism. Any thinking person is aware of this paradox; but in dealing with conventional people it is advantageous to treat them as though they were not hypocrites. It isn't a question of faithfulness to your own concepts; it is a matter of compromise so that you can remain an individual without the constant threat of conventional pressures.

We can go even further if we consider the age old debate of nature vs. nurture.  This is where Capote attempts (succeeds?) in convincing his reader about this topic.  Capote is most DEFINITELY on the side of nurture!  This means that Capote believes that humans are fully a product of their environment.  Childhood tragedy and abuse is the reason behind the murders.  We can see quite a bit of Capote in Perry who ditches conformity, is the victim of a society convinced it is always right, and shares many aspects of personality, including considering himself to be the opposite of the "manly" Dick.  The confirmation of the nurture theory comes when Perry not only admits to killing the Clutter family, but also admits the following:

Maybe it's just that the Clutters were the ones who had to pay for it.

The big question is, what is "it"?  The answer is this: a lifetime of abuse, mistreatment, and neglect.  The reader understands and begins to sympathize with the "cold-blooded" killer.  Knowing this (and believing this) is supposed to make the reader be completely against the death penalty.  Again, eNotes nails the true reasoning according to Capote:

The true tragedy, according to Capote, is not the Clutter murders, which are an accident of fate, but the murder of Smith by a society that failed him as a child and shunned him as an adult.

However, keep in mind that it is the character of Brooks that can serve as Capote's true voice here.  Brooks continually questions capital punishment making the title the ultimate irony.

Thus, even though the rhetoric is subtle, it is obvious that Capote sympathizes with both Perry and Dick.  Further, Capote wants US (his readers) to sympathize with them as well.

SPOILER WARNING: These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points, if you have not read the book.


Title:In Cold Blood
Author: Truman Capote
Page Count: 343
Genre: Nonfiction – True Crime
Tone: Bleak, Sobering

Questions composed by MPPL Staff:

1.    Did anyone look up the French epigraph at the beginning of the book? Francois Villon, “Ballade des Pendus,” translates to:

Human brothers who live after us,
Do not have (your) hearts hardened against us,
For, if you take pity on us poor (fellows),
God will sooner have mercy on you.

What do you think Capote meant, using this as the epigraph?

2.    Why do you think Truman Capote introduced the town first, then the Clutters and then the murderers?

3.    Do you like Mr. Clutter and his family when you meet them?

4.    What is your first impression of Perry and Dick?

5.    What about the Clutters? Did you feel like you knew them?

6.    On page 37, Dick boasts that nothing can go wrong. Was he prepared or naïve?

7.    When you read a quote like “Ain’t that what I promised you, honey – plenty of hair on them-those walls?” (p. 37) What does it make you feel towards Dick?

8.    How does Capote build suspense in In Cold Blood?

9.    Capote goes back and forth in chapters between the Clutters and the murderers. Then Capote goes back and forth from the police and the murderers. Why? Was this an effective way to tell a story?

10.    What did you think of Capote’s use of direct quotes?

11.    Did this read like other nonfiction books you’ve read? Why or why not?

12.    What does the term “nonfiction novel” mean?

13.    Do you think Capote gave a fair amount of time to all characters involved?

14.    Who seemed like the worse criminal, Dick or Perry? Do you think that had anything to do with Capote’s writing style?

15.    Perry admits to thinking that they are “wrong,” but Dick continually calls himself a “normal.” (p. 109) What do you think this says about each of the men?

16.    Who do you pity in this story?

17.    Does it change your opinion of Perry to know that he was a veteran (page 128) or to know that he was sexually abused (p. 133)?

18.    How did the police get their big break in the case?

19.    Do you think Floyd Wells felt bad about telling Dick about the Clutter family?

20.    What did you think of Dick’s family’s reaction to hearing that he was a murderer?

21.    When Dick and Perry are caught, who breaks to the cops first? Why?

22.    Was there a specific moment that scared you with either criminal?

23.    If a horrible crime happened in your town, would you talk to a dedicated writer about it?

24.    Was there a passage of this book that was harder to read than others?

25.    Do you believe that the farmhand Stoecklein didn’t hear the four gunshots next door?

26.    What did you think of the insurance man’s reaction to hearing of Mr. Clutter’s death? (p. 71)

27.    What did you think of Dick and Perry’s reactions to murdering four people? (p. 73 – 74, p. 91)

28.    Nye says, “Nobody would kill four people for fifty bucks,” (p. 87). Do you think this is true today? Do you think it was true then?

29.    What did you think of Josie and Wendle Meier? Josie showed calm and caring. Could you have showed that to either Dick or Perry? Would you have?

30.    Don Cullivan, an old Army buddy of Perry’s, comes to visit. Why?

31.    Perry changed his statement to say he murdered everybody. Why?

32.    Do you think there is a difference between reading a true crime book and reading a violent fiction book? Do you feel different while reading one as compared to the other?

33.    Was there a section that moved slower than others?

34.    Did you like where the book stopped at? Would you have wanted its ending to have come sooner?

35.    Do you think Capote did this town good or a disservice by writing In Cold Blood?

36.    Do you believe in the death penalty?

37.    Do you think Dick and Perry “got what they deserved?”

38.    Perry didn’t believe in the death penalty, he said, “I think it’s a helluva thing to take a life in this manner. I don’t believe in capital punishment, morally or legally.” (p. 340) How did this strike you?

39.    What did you think of each man’s last words?

-Perry p. 340
-Dick p. 339

40.    Do you think Capote believed in capital punishment? (Answer found here.)


Other Resources:

Truman Capote Wikipedia entry
Lit Lovers’ book discussion guide
Kansas Center for the Book discussion questions
George Plimpton interview with Truman Capote
Paris Review interview of Truman Capote
List of catalog materials helpful to discussion*
Original New York Times article that inspired Truman Capote to write In Cold Blood


If you liked In Cold Blood, try…

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
Columbine by David Cullen
The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer







And! Please speak with one of our friendly reference librarians about finding original articles from 1966 about the Clutter family killings in our Chicago Tribune Historical database. The pictures alone make the articles good handouts for book discussion groups.

*These are most helpful when you use the index at the back of the book to search for In Cold Blood.

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