Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.


After the murders, the town of Holcomb, the investigators, and the murderers themselves attempt to find normalcy in the midst of trauma and terror. In many ways, the Clutters were paragons of normalcy, and in the aftermaths of their deaths, the everydayness of the town is destabilized. The town is thrown into terror and suspicion, and some families are so altered by the Clutter murders that they leave the state. This suggests that, though life goes on, the town is also irreparably changed and must grope toward a new definition of normal. In contrast to the Clutters, Dick’s behavior, such as pedophilia and plotting murders, is aberrant and abhorrent despite that he strongly desires to be seen as “a normal.” Dewey, meanwhile, becomes increasingly obsessed with the case, determined to solve it, unable to rest until he does. When his wife asks him if things will ever go back to normal, he’s so busy fielding tips on the case that he can’t even answer her question. It’s as though the question resounds through the entire book, as everyone involved wonders how life can continue after such an abnormal act.


Perry is fixated on masculinity and throughout his life courts a very specific image of what he thinks it means to be a man. For example, he is drawn to Dick because he is “totally masculine,” which Perry associates with being tough, invulnerable, hard, pragmatic, and decisive. He trusts Dick and puts his faith in him precisely because of these traits. This is similar to Perry’s sister Barbara’s description of Perry’s father as “a real man” who is capable and competent. Both of these descriptions stand in contrast to Perry’s perception of himself, as he considers himself prone to fantasy, unable to put plans into action, and less stereotypically masculine. In partnering with Dick, Perry seeks to replace his absent father with a man who strikes a similarly masculine figure. What’s more, Perry feels betrayed when, in the midst of their crime, Dick violates Perry’s ideals of manliness, perhaps because this disappointment replicates the way Perry’s father disappointed him. Perry reacts with aggression and violence, both to prove himself capable of the acts Dick cannot take and to punish others for his emotional pain.


The motif of dreams throughout the book illustrates the power of fulfilling one’s dreams and the danger of a dream deferred. Herb Clutter, in many ways, achieved his dreams, as he set out to establish a good life for his family. He grew a successful business and was an upstanding community member, well-loved by many. The day he died, he was optimistic and looking forward to more good years. In contrast, both Dick and Perry suffered from having their dreams dashed. Dick wanted to go to school, but there wasn’t enough money. This made Dick bitter, believing the world owed him something. Perry similarly was furious at his family because he couldn’t attend school, which squandered his intellectual and artistic abilities. Perry often turns to fantasy, dreaming of unrealistic things such as buried treasure, to compensate for his bleak reality. Perry’s violence emerges when his dreams or fantasies are dashed. For example, he gets violent with his sister, threatening to throw her off a bridge, as he recounts his resentment over not going to school. For both killers, disappointed dreams lead to resentment and entitlement, and the Clutters, who in many ways have a dream life, suffer the consequences.