Always certain of what he wanted from the world, Mr. Clutter had in large measure obtained it. On his left hand […] he wore a plain gold band […] which was the symbol, a quarter-century old, of his marriage to the person he had wished to marry…" (1.7)
Herb Clutter is nothing if not goal-oriented and determined, and it sounds like he was that way from Day One. You can just see the irony mounting as Capote describes Herb's continuing progress toward getting what he wanted out of life—a successful and prosperous farm, a beautiful family, and the esteem of his community.
[…] the son of a farmer, he had from the beginning aimed at operating a property of his own. Facing up to it, he resigned as county agent after four years and, on land leased with borrowed money, created, in embryo, River Valley Farm. (1.15)
River Valley Farm is a symbol of Herb's ability to envision his future and do what he must to make it happen, even resigning from a steady government job. The eventual selling off of the farm and its contents is a tragic symbol of the end of that dream. Nothing was left of it.
Since childhood, for more than half his thirty-one years, he had been sending out for literature ("FORTUNES IN SKIN DIVING! Train at Home in Your Spare Time! Make Big Money Fast in Skin and Lung Diving! FREE BOOKLETS…"), answering advertisements ("SUNKEN TREASURE! Fifty Genuine Maps! Amazing Offer!...'') that stoked a longing to realize an adventure his imagination swiftly and over and over enabled him to experience. (1.23)
We think this is another of Capote's genius moves: describing these clearly fantastic plans of Perry's just paragraphs after the story of Herb Clutter and his dreams.
"The ineffable happens, things do take a turn," he said. But Dick, smiling boastfully, boyishly, did not agree. "Get the bubbles out of your blood. Nothing can go wrong." No. Because the plan was Dick's, and from the first footfall to final silence, flawlessly devised. (1.120)
There's a lot to unpack here, aside from the obvious dramatic irony. Did Perry's more vivid imagination make it possible for him to see what might go wrong? Should a person always be a little anxious going into a big scheme because it lets him see how things might not work out as planned?
He drove to Las Vegas, sold his junk-heap car, packed his collection of maps, old letters, manuscripts, and books, and bought a ticket for a Greyhound bus. The journey's aftermath was up to fate; if things didn't "work out with Willie-Jay," then he might "consider Dick's proposition." As it turned out, the choice was between Dick and nothing […]. (1.150)
Another plan of Perry's that didn't work out—Willie-Jay had already left Kansas. Since we know that Perry is obviously not living in Hawaii, skin-diving and hunting treasure, we know that he must have developed a fatalistic attitude about future plans. As he said, "the ineffable happens."
"Tell the truth, I feel pretty good. And pretty optimistic. I've got an idea a man could make some real money around here the next few years." While outlining his schemes for future financial betterment, he signed the check and pushed it across his desk. (1.166)
What better example of future planning than buying life insurance? Herb knew that Bonnie couldn't run the farm if anything happened to him, so he wanted to leave her financially well-off. Of course, the plan of the New York Life Insurance Company was that Herb Clutter would live a long time.
After he graduated from high school—June, 1949—he wanted to go on to college. Study to be an engineer. But we couldn't do it. Never had any money. (3.19)
This is our first look at Dick's thwarted plan to go to college—we wonder if after that, he decided it wasn't worth planning past the next "score." Anyway, do you think he'd be able to keep it together enough to finish college?
Strong character, high courage, hard work—it seemed that none of these were a determining factor in the fates of Tex John's children. They shared a doom against which virtue was no defense. (3.133)
Here's Perry's sister, reflecting on the psychological problems that eventually killed two of her siblings. She seems to say that all their talent and hard work amounted to nothing because they were doomed by their family background, or as we'd say today, victims of their DNA.
Hot islands and buried gold, diving deep in fire-blue seas toward sunken treasure—such dreams were gone. Gone, too was "Perry O'Parsons," the name invented for the singing sensation of stage and screen that he'd half-seriously hoped someday to be. […] He and Dick were "running a race without a finish line"—that was how it struck him. (3.210)
We could argue about whether Capote's laying it on a bit thick here, plus it would be a lot more heartbreaking if Perry hadn't slaughtered four innocent people. But Perry feels they're nearing the end of the line, even if Dick doesn't. They're off yet again, to "nowhere definite" (3.210) with twenty-seven dollars to their name. Things are really falling apart for them by this time.
[Dick] had reached a decision that he was certain would eradicate his current difficulties and start him on a new road, with a new rainbow in view. The decision involved impersonating a police officer. […] He'd already selected the officer's rank and name; the latter borrowed from a former acquaintance […]. As Captain Tracey Hand, smartly clothed in a made-to-order uniform, Dick intended to "crawl the strip" […] By writing worthless checks right around the clock, he expected to haul in three, maybe four thousand dollars within a twenty-four hour period. (3.262)
Add "doesn't learn from experience" to Dick's list of problems. At least he's a very consistent character. As Capote describes it, it was this plan that Dick was pondering seconds before the police pulled up to their car in Las Vegas. All the failed plans of the last six weeks didn't change his M.O. one iota—unlike Perry, who seemed to see the end of the line in sight.