Gothic Literature as an Exploration of American Society

3221 words (13 pages) Essay in Literature

23/09/19 Literature Reference this

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Explore how ANY ONE TEXT uses the Gothic to investigate American Politics AND/OR American society.


Karen Haltunnen argues that ‘Modern Gothic horror was the characteristic response to evil in a culture that provided no systematic intellectual explanation for the problem.’.[1] Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood utilises the conventions and tropes associated with the Gothic genre to explore this ‘evil’ within Kansas following the quadruple homicide of the Clutter family. Capote challenges the dichotomy of good and evil through focalisation the narration through both the Clutter family and their killers, exposing the complexity of human nature. Capote suggests to American society that they, like the Clutters, are not so different from the murderous outsiders as they might have thought. Presentation of Perry Edward Smith’s upbringing is juxtaposed with his sensitive nature and artistic capabilities, this poses questions to American society about whether if shown kindness and included, Perry might have been a contributing member of society. Capote investigates and employs the Gothic to disturb his readers and reveal the reality of this quintessential American state. In Cold Blood  forces American society to re-examine why they ostracise others when they do not conform to societal ‘norms’, and examines society’s ‘eye for an eye’ approach to restorative justice.

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Teresa Goddu argues that ‘the American gothic exposes the cultural contradictions of national myth…’, this is evident in the presentation of the Clutter family as it challenges the traditional view of the American family.[2] Outwardly the family appear perfect, however Capote’s investigation into the murders, and subsequent writing of In Cold Blood, exposes the complex reality of the Clutter’s lives. Herbert Clutter is ‘the community’s most widely known citizen’, a man heavily involved in the Methodist Church and one who abstains from cigarettes, alcohol and coffee.[3]  Herbert Clutter is a successful farmer and appears to be the perfect father and member of the community; however, as the narration becomes focalised through Herbert the readers become aware of the family’s suppressed issues. Herbert’s wife, Bonnie is ‘nervous’ and suffers from ‘little spells’.[4] These appear to be direct quotes from Herbert, or members of the community, as Capote uses inverted commas to isolate them from the body of the text, Capote frequently boasted his ability to remember conversations verbatim. The reductive nature of the descriptions of ‘poor Bonnie’s afflictions’ are exposed as the narrative continues and the readers deduce that she suffers from postpartum depression.[5] This links to the Gothic idea of the individual and community repressing things they find uncomfortable to address, the readers are aware that Bonnie has suffered since the birth of her first child but continues to struggle as the issue is not properly addressed. It is only through Bonnie’s death and Capote’s investigation that the nature of her illness is re-examined. Bonnie refers to herself as two versions – ‘old self’ and her current self – as she is no longer the ‘timid, pious, delicate girl’ that Herbert fell in love with.[6] This dichotomy is unsettling as Bonnie appears to be merely a shell of her former self and thus Sigmund Freud’s theory of ‘The Uncanny’ is played upon. It does not only appear that knowledge of Bonnie’s mental illness is repressed by everyone around her which ultimately prevents her recovery, but that by not addressing the issue a less appealing doppelganger is formed, recognisable as Bonnie but not quite the same. Jeffrey Weinstock argues that the Gothic ‘gives shape to culturally specific anxieties’ and here it is evident that the allusion of American dream and what constitutes Americanness is exposed as a falsity.[7]

The portrayal of Kenyon suggests that he is, to an extent, a social outsider. This is confirmed by the locals saying ‘he lives in a world of his own’.[8]. Kenyon’s lanky appearance prevents him from joining sports teams and thus leaves him with only one friend. This not only reinforces the knowledge that the Clutter’s perfect life was a façade, but his outsider status is comparable to that of the killers, a connection which is enforced by Kenyon and Perry’s complete lack of interest in females. The knowledge that Kenyon finds shooting rabbits ‘intoxicating’ is unsettling and insights horror in the reader.[9] The later description of Dick killing a dog aligns the two men’s behaviours and could suggest that the disregard for animal life, and enjoyment in taking it, could be a beginning point for more evil behaviour in later life. The Clutter home is violated through the intrusive spying and subsequent invasion by Dick and Perry. The family homestead is a structural embodiment of American life, Halttunen describes how ‘mysteries at our own doors are rendered all the more terrible by a phenomenon that Sigmund Freud…[identified] as the uncanny, the disturbingly alien nature of the intensely familiar’.[10] This is furthered by the reality of the further invasion of the home by investigating police and reporters. A space that was once the family home of the Clutters becomes unfamiliar and unsettling after the gruesome murders. Herbert’s role in designing his house reinforces the notion that the house stands as a representative for the family he lived with in it, in addition to this the ‘handsome white house’ mirrors the attractive nature of its inhabitants alongside their racial status.[11] Capote repeatedly corrupts the sanctity of the homestead in order to expose the fragility of the structure to American society.

The Gothic traditionally employs the grotesque to create anxiety in the reader, this is evident in the presentation of the two killers, though in different ways. The description of Perry begins with the suggestion that he was a ‘normal-sized man, a powerful man’ but upon closure inspection it is revealed that ‘some sections of him were not in proportion to others.’.[12] His lower half is presented at ‘grotesquely inadequate’ to his masculine torso. His native Indian background also presents him as a racially different ‘other’ to the white Kansans. Capote describes Richard Eugene Hickock’s face as ‘composed of mismatching parts.’, a grotesque description which evokes a feeling of horror within the reader as they are forced to visual his deformed face.[13] Further than this we are informed of his garish and extensive collection of tattoos, yet the knowledge that some tattoos were ‘self-designed and self-executed’ could be seen as self-mutilation which evokes a feeling of revulsion in the reader, making him appear even more ‘alien’ and emotionless.[14] Ideas of race and its relation to criminality are challenged by the awareness of Dick’s sexual perversions and Perry’s disgust of said perversions. It is revealed that Dick intended on raping Nancy and it is Perry that prevents it from happening. Capote reveals to us that Dick has always had in interest in ‘Seducing pubescent girls, as he had done ‘eight or nine’ times in the last several years.’.[15] Capote shocks his readers with the knowledge that it is the white Kansan with a mother whom Perry refers to as ‘a real sweet person’ who appears the most morally corrupt out of the two murderers.[16] This feeling of unease is created because the killer is not some monstrous, recognisable ‘other’ and thus makes the community re-examine itself and their neighbours. It is also key to note that the two men found out about the Clutter family through an associate from prison named Floyd Wells. Wells had worked for the Clutter family and the narration informs us that Wells thought ‘He treated me fine…’.[17] Capote again insights fear in the reader as evil is not outwardly distinguishable in Wells, yet despite the former employee of Herbert having no reason to want him dead, he still inadvertently contributes to his death. Capote uses the grotesque to describe the two killers, yet in by doing so he ironically highlights that it is not these outward appearances are not synonymous with their crimes as some white Kansans are presented in an similarly unfavourable light. This use of the grotesque exposes the superficial nature of American society and challenges it to readdress their preconceived ideas of identifying evil within others.

In the description of Garden City the narrator tells us that ‘It seem just another fair-sized town in the middle…of the continental United States.’ and that locals say ‘you won’t find friendlier people…there’s no better place to raise kids than right here.’.[18] The ironic inclusion of ‘Good neighbours, people who care about each other, that’s what counts…’ implies that there is a safety felt because of the closeness of the community.[19] There is a suggestion also that the farming industry is not what it used to be in Kansas, a local Mrs Ashida informs Mr Clutter that her husband thinks they could make more money elsewhere, this suggests to the reader farming is either not as profitable or fruitful as other areas in the country. The idyllic Kansas is outdated in its farming practices and thus potentially in its lifestyle. The presentation of Garden City related to us through snippets of locals’ descriptions, this contrasts greatly with the narrators description of Holcomb which is heavy laden with allusions to the Gothic. The description of Holcomb as ‘a lonesome area’ which even ‘Kansans call ‘out there’’ suggests an emptiness and isolation typical to Gothic descriptions of landscapes.[20] The narrator is also keen to align this area with the American Frontier, referring to the atmosphere as ‘rather more Fare West than Middle West.’.[21] The use of the Gothic in the beginning of the book reminds readers of the violent history of the beginning of America, immediately breaking the façade of the quintessential American state. It is evident that the Gothic reality of the area is highlighted more accurately through the narrator as, unlike the locals of Garden Green, his presentation is unclouded by the need to present Kansas in a favourable light.

Capote’s presentation of the capital punishment system in America is heavy laden with gothic imagery and allusions. The description the execution room is not the setting of ‘suitable dignity’ which Alvin Dewey had expected but a ‘bleakly lighted cavern’.[22] Capote writes

But the gallows itself, with its pale nooses attached to a crossbeam, was imposing enough; and so, in an unexpected style, was the hangman, who cast a long shadow from his perch on the platform at the top of the wooden instrument’s thirteen steps. The hangman, an anonymous, leathery gentleman who had been imported from Missouri…was paid six hundred dollars…he wore a cowboy hat which…was now a weathered, sweat-stained oddity.[23]

The ominous description of the gallows evokes a feeling of horror within the reader as the reality of the imminent deaths of the killers fully comes to pass. The unlucky ‘thirteen steps’ and ‘pale nooses’ combine to make the ‘wooden instrument’, the simple nature of the structure reinforces the horror as this is capable of ending human life in an instant. The hangman’s noose reminds the reader of a long and violent history of hangings in America which is evident with Perry’s overwhelming fear resulting in him attempting to starve himself instead of facing the hangman’s noose. Notably, Capote includes the fee that the hangman received for the job. The financial motivation behind the hangings and the Clutter killings forces a comparison between the deaths. This evokes a feeling of revulsion as the value of life is quantified. The killings are further comparable because they are at the hands of a non-local with an unusual appearance. The unfavourable presentation of the capital punishment system is reinforced by the title of the novel In Cold Blood as it appears that both the murders and the hangings appear to be ‘in cold blood’. Dewey ‘hoped to see Perry and his partner hanged – hanged back to back.’.[24] Despite his initial blood-thirsty desire, on the day, the Special Investigator can only watch Dick’s execution. Dewey describes Perry as ‘a creature walking around wounded’, the metaphor redirects attention back to American society’s ostracism of the murderer and the role that played in creating the murder he is.[25] Capote uses the Gothic to expose the undignified and unnecessarily violent end to the killers life and challenge American society’s attitude towards capital punishment.

Voss argues that the presentation of Perry is a ‘model for mercy followed by life imprisonment’.[26]  It is evident that Perry has experienced rejection all of his life, from his family, from the nuns that were supposed to look after him, and from the general public as a result of his grotesque appearance and heritage. Perry recounts how his ‘real and only friend’ Willie-Jay, was the only person to ever recognise ‘his worth, his potentialities, had acknowledged he was not just an undersized, over-muscled half-breed’.[27] Voss argues that ‘The evidence indicating Perry Smith’s life as a sociological and psychological mess is overwhelming…’.[28] Capote provides the reader with excessive information about Perry’s difficult upbringing and distressing adult life, suggesting he was predestined to turn to a life of crime. It is this grotesque character, revealed to the readers to be a sensitive man with artistic capabilities, who turns the reader attention back to the society that created him. American society is asked how behaviour of others and the structures in place forced him into his outsider status from which this uncontrollable angered stemmed.

Teresa Goddu explains that ‘[i]nstead of fleeing reality, the gothic registers its culture’s contradictions, presenting a distorted, not a disengaged, version of reality.’.[29] This is evident as Capote uses the Gothic to expose the reality of American society. The focalised narrative style allows the readers to become uncomfortably close to killers so there is a ‘problematic relationship between watching and participating in such violence, thus suggesting the reader’s moral complicity in the murderer’s terrible crime.’.[30] However, in In Cold Blood, American society is partially complicit in the crime as it is partly their behaviours and social structures which aid in the formation of the killers. Whether it be their outdated preconceptions what an American looks like, or their brutal capital punishment system, Capote uses the excessive and grotesque nature of the Gothic to force the reader to re-examine themselves and the society they are in.


  • Capote, T. (1966) In Cold Blood, (London: Penguin Books)
  • Goddu, T. A. (1997) Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation, (New York: Columbia University Press)
  • Halttunen, K. (2001) Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press)
  • Plimpton, G. (1966) ‘The Story Behind a Nonfiction Novel’ (The New York Times Company) Available at: (Last accessed: 4/01/19)
  • Rash, S. E. (2015) ‘”Maybe It Was You”: The Implications of Southern Gothic Elements of Criminality, Sexuality, and Race in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood’, University of Arkansas
  • Voss, R. F. (2011) Truman Capote: And the Legacy of In Cold Blood (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press)
  • Weinstock, J. A. (2017) ‘Introduction: The American Gothic’ in The Cambridge Companion to American Gothic, ed. J. A. Weinstock (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

[1] Halttunen, K. (2001) Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), p59

[2] Goddu, T. A. (1997) Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation, (New York: Columbia University Press), p10

[3] Capote, T. (1966) In Cold Blood, (London: Penguin Books), p3

[4] ibid., p4

[5] ibid., p4

[6] ibid., pp.4-5

[7] Weinstock, J. A. (2017) ‘Introduction: The American Gothic’ in The Cambridge Companion to American Gothic, ed. J. A. Weinstock (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p2

[8] Capote, op. cit., 38

[9] ibid., p37

[10] Halttunen, op. cit., p143

[11] Capote, op. cit., p7

[12] ibid., p13

[13] ibid., p29

[14] ibid., p29

[15] ibid., p195

[16] Capote, op. cit., p22

[17] ibid., p153

[18] ibid., p31

[19] ibid., p31

[20] Capote, op cit., p1

[21] ibid., p1

[22] ibid., p330

[23] Capote, op. cit., p330

[24] ibid., p239

[25] ibid., p333

[26] Voss, R. F. (2011) Truman Capote: And the Legacy of In Cold Blood (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press), p124

[27] Capote, op. cit., p43

[28] Voss, op. cit., pp.59-60

[29] Goddu, op. cit., p3

[30] Halttunen, op. cit., p89

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