All the Kings Men
Coming to Grips
Jack Burden is far more than a narrator describing the rise and fall of Willie Stark in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. Intertwined in his description of The Boss’s political machinations and personal dilemmas is an account of his own thoughts and aspirations. The novel not only chronicles the downfall of a political giant but also the emotional development and maturation of a man who has not yet mentally reached adulthood, despite being nearly forty years old. In fact, Jack notes at the end of the novel, “This has been the story of Willie Stark, but it is my story, too. For I have a story” (Warren 656). Though Jack Burden lacks the maturity of a developed adult for much of the novel, reconciling each of his three father figures — Willie Stark, Judge Irwin, and Ellis Burden — to his life helps him mature and accept responsibility for his actions.When Jack begins telling the story, he observes the world from a safe distance. This distance allows him to feel superior and disconnected from humanity, shields him from “messy commitments” (Sanderson 1), and positions him to exhibit the sarcasm he so often does. When he drives to Mason City with Willie and the others in 1936, he is along for the ride, literally jammed in the back seat between two adults like a small child. As the car approaches Old Man Stark’s farm, Jack peers out the dusty car window and imagines the people inside the houses he is whizzing by. “She listens to the flies cruising around the room, and then she listens to your motor getting big out on the road, then it shrinks off into the distance” (Warren 33), he thinks to himself, illuminating the image of his arrival and departure without a significant impact.This image resurfaces numerous times in the early part of the novel. One evening before Willie is elected governor, Jack views and connects with the world through the thick glass of a train window. He studies a woman in her backyard, and as the train pulls away, he thinks, “She’ll stay there. And all at once, you think that you are the one who is running away” (Warren 114). Seconds later he sees a cow and becomes forlorn, commenting, “And all at once you feel like crying. But the train is going fast and almost immediately whatever you feel is taken away from you, too” (Warren 114). Jack’s tremulous relationship with the world is as delicate as that of a young child, whose emotions are also evanescent. He is so emotionally delicate that for much of the novel, he thinks of himself as a piece of furniture. When the reader meets Sadie and Willie, Jack narrates, “I had been a piece of furniture a long time, but some taint of the manners my grandma taught me still hung on and now and then got the better of my curiosity” (Warren 49). This sentiment is elucidated when Jack recalls a visit with his mother, who is obsessed with furniture, with “spinets, desks, tables, chairs, each more choice than the last [littered across her home]” (Warren 159). When she sees Jack, she treats him like furniture, too. She made Jack “lay on [his] back, with [his] head on her lap… She let her hand lie on [his] chest… and her right hand on [his] forehead” (Warren 157). Jack is thirty-five years old at the time of this scene, significantly old for his mother’s lap. When Jack hears his stepfather, Theodore, coming up the stairs, he tries to stand up, but his mother holds him down until her husband sees them in that position. As such, it is not surprising that Jack feels objectified. Similarly, Jack’s emotions lead him to the study of history. Whether he is reporting for The Chronicle, investigating suspects for Willie, or working toward a Ph.D. in American History, Jack is buried in history. When he was in college, he comments how he took “refuge in the past” in an effort to “hide from the present” (Warren 240). Ironically, for most of the story, Jack is ashamed of his own history. Heavily impacted by outrageous claims concerning his father, Ellis Burden, Jack thinks that the man isn’t a “real man” (Ealy 2) if he abandoned Jack’s mother. In Jack’s eyes, if Ellis is not a man, he cannot be one either. As a result, he hides in the histories of others to try to forget his own. Jack’s conception of reality is so deluded that when he is faced with a real, live person, his response is hardly one of an adult. While leaning against the fence and surveying the sunset at Old Man Stark’s farm in chapter one, he hears someone walking up to him but does not turn around to see who it is:If I didn’t look around it would not be true that someone had opened the gate… I had got hold of that principle out of a book when I was in college, and I had hung onto it for grim death… It does not matter what you do or what goes on around you because it isn’t real anyway (Warren 44). Jack’s reaction here is similar to that of a child who tucks his head underneath crossed arms and believes that if he cannot see something, it does not exist. This ontology serves him well as Willie’s chief investigator. Jack “views his job simply as being Willie’s errand boy” (Bohner 3) and doesn’t believe that his actions have any influence on the world surrounding him. His choices and actions are devoid of meaning, and that is how he prefers it. He does not see any complicity on his part in unveiling Judge Irwin’s acceptance of a bribe from the American Electric Power Company twenty-five years ago, even though he readily accepted Willie’s request to dig up the dirt and pursued the quest with some relish. When Anne is upset at learning about the bribe and her father’s collusion, Jack insensitively and immaturely responds, “I only told her the truth… and she can’t blame me for the truth” (Warren 454). Jack’s relationships with women are equally sophomoric — he does not have a clue how to act around them. He “feels absolutely no warmth for his mother” (Sale 3), and while he finds her to be a beautiful woman, he considers her alien, “something which was so precious that it couldn’t be tied down to God’s green globe” (Warren 156). He criticizes his father for leaving his mother but, at the same time, talks of her as if she always “has something up her sleeve” (Drake 4). His and Anne’s relationship is stagnant and faltering, delayed for nearly twenty years when Jack could not muster the courage to make love to her. After his romantic relationship with Anne disintegrates, Jack marries Lois, a wealthy girl whose only asset is her sexual connection with Jack. In chapter seven, he recalls, “as long as I hadn’t begun to notice that the sounds she made were words, there was no harm in her and no harm in the really extraordinary pleasure she could provide” (Warren 440). The detachment he feels from society and women is emphasized in his frustrated comment that Anne, Lois, and all women are the same. In addition, Jack’s behavior when making decisions about school and a career highlight his desire to forever remain a child. Irritated when Anne asks him what he intends to pursue after college, Jack defensively exclaims “law school” (Warren 128) even though he is not the slightest bit interested in it. After attending law school briefly, he gleefully accepts his expulsion. He then re-enrolls in the university as an American history graduate student, works toward his Ph.D. for some time, but then, when the pressure builds, begins one of the three periods of time he calls the Great Sleep. To avoid making decisions and taking action, Jack sleeps “twelve or more hours per day, days on end” (Beebe 3) not doing much of anything else. Moreover, Jack evades reality through his other theories, like the Great Twitch. While the Great Sleep and the Great Twitch have their roots of creation embedded in bouts of depression, Jack’s tendency to revert to reclusion when life demands decision or action emphasizes his immaturity.Nonetheless, by the end of the novel, Jack has come to terms with his mother, accepted culpability for Judge Irwin’s death, married Anne, and taken in his ailing father — a man whom he had long shunned and abhorred for “being weak and foolish” (Cullick 2). What precipitates this radical change?Literary critic Jonathan Cullick contends that “Jack’s connection to history [helps him] surrender his pose of objectivity [and become more involved in the world]” (Cullick 1). This argument could not be farther from the truth, since Jack’s connection to history serves as an escape route, not a path to involvement. He submerges himself in the history of others to forget his own, not to connect with his own. Mr. Cullick’s argument is nothing more than a paradox. As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Jack must come to grips with each of his father figures — Willie Stark, Judge Irwin, and Ellis Burden — before he can become more connected to the world and embark on his journey toward adulthood. Willie is “a man of action” (Beebe 5), something Jack always reprimanded Ellis Burden, whom he thought was his father, for not being. Jack thinks that Ellis left his mother because he could provide for neither her wants nor her needs. Judge Irwin, on the other hand, was a great influence on Jack’s childhood years, both before and after Ellis left the family, and Jack holds many fond memories of spending time with the judge. Like many tragic heroes, Jack must come to terms with each of his father figures before he can be viewed as an actual adult and member of the community of Burden’s Landing. It is an incident involving Willie that helps Jack clarify where he stands. Upon discovering Willie and Anne’s affair, Jack begins to understand that even his inactions have consequences. While on a sudden trip to the West Coast provoked by the shock of the affair, Jack recalls and examines the events and choices that sowed the seeds for the ending of his relationship with Anne. Even though he flees from reality to the West, into a land “at the end of History” (Warren 467), the trip forces him to overcome the fact that “his lack of decisive actions has handed Anne over to Willie” (Sanderson 4). Jack observes a change in the few days between Tom’s paralysis and Willie’s assassination, and he learns from it. Willie’s last words to Jack are, “It might have been all different, Jack” (Warren 603), alluding to the possibility of choice. In the context of Jack’s maturation, though, Willie must die. With Willie alive, “Jack would have probably continued as Willie’s errand boy” (Bohner 7), eluding responsibility and observing life from a distance. But immediately after Willie dies, Jack receives the opportunity to make a decision and understand its consequences when he chooses not to inform Sugar Boy of Tiny’s involvement in Willie’s assassination. Thinking back on that experience, Jack notes, “But there was a difference now, in my own mind if not the circumstances of my life” (Warren 637). In addition, Willie teaches Jack how to start and maintain a meaningful relationship with a lady. Throughout the novel, Willie is the center of female attention. His wife continues to love him despite his infidelity. Sadie and Anne have a similar story, convincing themselves that Willie is one of a kind. His power, courage, and ambition make him appealing to women, most notably Anne. Jack’s lack of direction, on the other hand, frustrates Anne, and her efforts to inspire him prove to be futile, nudging her toward a man like Willie. Wanting a strong man that is destined to succeed, Anne has an affair with Willie because of his sense of purpose and aura of confidence. She has swung from dating a directionless boy to pursuing a relationship with a motivated, goal-oriented man, and Jack comes to understand that in his inability to find a healthy middle ground, he lost Anne. Willie had to die, so Jack could apply this lesson to his life. Had he not passed away, Anne would have likely forgotten about Jack. Willie’s death permits Jack to prove to Anne that he is now a grown man and lays the foundation for his success later in life. Just as it was necessary for Willie to die so that Jack could grow, Judge Irwin’s death serves a similar purpose. Even though Jack’s story does not completely parallel the ancient tale of Oedipus, enough similarities exist to warrant some mention. In fact, much like Oedipus’s discovery of the identity of his father, Jack does not learn that Judge Irwin is his father until after the judge’s death, when Jack’s mother screams, “Your father and oh! you, killed him” (Warren 487). “But the result is the same; the father moves out of the way so that the son may fulfill his own role in the world” (Sale 6). In addition, the judge’s death highlights the relationship between act and consequence; Jack’s information about the bribery triggers the steps that culminate in Judge Irwin’s suicide. Jack’s epiphany comes when he realizes that he is weeping, noting how the judge’s death “was like the ice breaking up after a long winter. And the winter had been long” (Warren 533). After Willie’s assassination and Judge Irwin’s suicide, Jack is far along the road of maturation. Jack’s acceptance of Ellis Burden, the man whom he had presumed to be his biological father for nearly forty years, marks the completion of Jack’s transformation to adulthood. “The curse of Jack Burden [was that] he was invulnerable” (Warren 227), and when he takes Ellis into his home, it symbolizes his overcoming the fact that he is not invulnerable after all — not to history, pain, life, love, or compassion. Indeed, All the King’s Men is far more than a political novel. “It is the story of a man who lived in the world and to him the world looked one way for a long time and then it looked another and very different way” (Warren 605). Jack’s experiences turned his world upside down, but they eventually brought him full circle. At the end of the novel, he finds himself married to Anne and prepared to leave Burden’s Landing, never to return. With this step, Jack, the man who began as an observer of the world, is now ready to embrace it. Works CitedBeebe, Keith. “Biblical Motifs in All the King’s Men” Journal of Bible and Religion 30 (1962): 123-30. JSTOR. St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, Ridgeland. 27 Mar. 2009
Maturing Jack Burden: The Responsibility of the Converted, Nihilistic Idealist
In Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, the narrator, Jack Burden, is a fictionalized version of Warren himself. Jack expresses Warren’s views, which are initially nihilistic, cynical, and escapist. He attempts to distance himself from any darkness surrounding him and his actions, yet simultaneously disclaims all responsibility. However, by the end of the book, Jack is transformed by four events: the departure of Ellis Burden, the Case of the Upright Judge, the deaths of three good men, and the youthful relationship with Anne. Forced to see the futility of his defense mechanisms, Jack becomes the man who accepts responsibility, believes the truth of the Spider Web Theory, and dismisses moral relativism and the “Great Twitch”. Jack’s initial cynicism is rooted in his past. When he is six years old, Ellis Burden, the man Jack believes to be his father, walks out on Jack and his mother for the life of a poor, street-corner evangelist. His mother tells him that “he left because he didn’t love mother,” saying he should think of his father as dead (114). Until he discovers Ellis’ motivation for fleeing years later, Jack interprets his departure as abandonment. He feels rejected, angry, and confused. The event leads to his consistent denial of responsibility, as well as his lack of understanding of human motivation: Jack does not take into account the possibility that Jack’s mother may have given his father motivation to leave. The event also gives him a sense of inadequacy shapes his mindset throughout his life. When visiting Ellis, grown-up Jack is ashamed. Ellis is helping others and seems happy, but Jack feels he is weak. As Jack sees it, he has not inherited the genes needed to succeed; it is futile for him to toil for any goal, and he is condemned to drift through life indefinitely. Jack refers to his own lack of ambition throughout the novel, which results from his observations of where the ambition to be successful has gotten his father–the street corner. Jack even says near the end of Chapter 8 that all Ellis Burden’s goodness showed Jack was not to live by it (353). Thus, Jack has no hopes and dreams partly because he has no father whom he may strive to emulate. The life changes that shape Jack are so important to him that, as narrator, he frames himself as having three separate, standing identities. One such identity is Jack the Graduate Student who cannot care to understand anyone’s motivations, including his own. For example, he left his PhD dissertation of Cass Mastern after one and a half years because, although he felt he “knew Gilbert Mastern,” he “realized that he did not know Cass Mastern” (188). Without knowing the man behind the facts, Jack the Graduate Student could not compile an informed reality of Cass Mastern. Thus, as Jack the Graduate, even as he tries to retreat from the present into the past, he cannot examine and understand the past with either ambition or perseverance. Jack does not want to touch the past in such a way because it is a source of pain for him. Jack the mature, responsible adult, who is narrating this book, dares to examine and explain the past with the direction and courage that Jack the Graduate Student lacked. The earlier Jack could not put down why he did not know Cass Mastern, but Jack the Narrator, “(who am what Jack Burden became), look back now, years later, and try to say why” (188). To the younger Jack the words of those papers were “an accumulation of items, odds and ends” (189). Jack as an idealist treats his surroundings and all that inhabit the surroundings as nothing and imaginary; he is nihilistic and deconstructionist in nature. He even sees through the people who are close to him, such as Anne, Adam, Willie, and his mother. He had not been able to see the truth that Jack the Narrator can see. He was still trying to escape his past and his understanding of events in the lives of those who have impact on him, in both his study of history and his reverence of time. He had yet to learn the truth. The truth of the spider web is the truth that Jack the Narrator has found–as Cass Mastern had found–and that Jack the Graduate Student cannot see. Jack the Narrator explains he can understand Cass’s motivations because he now knows what Cass learned in his search to free the slave Phoebe. This world is “all one piece,” like “an enormous spider-web, which if touched, ripples with vibrations, and signals the spider in rest. It prepares you for its meal, and it does not matter if you did not mean to upset the web, but the rippling effects lie in wait as the spider with dripping fangs” (188-9). This is the basis of the spider-web theory, underlining the themes of cause and effect and reaping what you sow. These ideas were beyond Jack for most of his life and he retreats from his failure and incomprehension, first with the Great Sleep, and then with the Great Twitch theory. The reason Jack did not understand Cass Mastern is because as Cass was responsible, Jack was not responsible. Jack has as much trouble reconciling the past and present as accepting and understanding cause and effect. His irresponsible actions return to hurt him in the second half of the novel. Jack spends most of the novel living as Jack the Muckraker and Irresponsible Cynic, focusing on finding information reaped in “The Case of the Upright Judge” that will lead to the demises of several men and women throughout the second half of the novel. He starts with a hunch about the Judge needing money, but gains nearly nothing from his assumed father, the Scholarly Attorney, who speaks of “foulness, all foulness!”(202) when it comes to his past with Irwin and Jack’s mother. However, Jack does leave with a hint that the Judge was once broke. Anne calls Jack to tell him that Irwin married into money, but further research into Mabel’s past in Savannah reveals that Mabel Carruthers had been as broke as his first wife when they were married (218). Researching further, Jack finds a bounty of information on Irwin. Jack learns that Judge Irwin took 500 shares of American Electric Power Company stock as a bribe for dismissing a case against the Southern Belle Fuel Company, used the money made from selling the stock to save his plantation, received a job as counsel and vice president of the American Electric Power Company (219), and led Mortimer Littlepaugh to commit suicide when his services were refused and Littlepaugh had no options for getting justice from Stanton (221). Jack tracks down Lily Mae Littlepaugh to force the truth out of her through guile and bribery, as “[Jack] may not be alright, but [money] always is”(223-4). Learning the truth from her, he finds Irwin had “killed [Mortimer in a bribe]” (225) and that the late Governor Stanton also had concealed the events. The information will be used to force many unexpected decisions by those who see it. Jack’s transfer of the evidence of Irwin and Stanton’s corruption to Adam and Anne leads them to Willie and sets them up for disaster. When Jack first comes to Adam with Willie’s proposal, Adam firmly refuses to work in Willie’s filth. Jack tells Adam that his failure is his need to “do good” and his Christ complex. Anne pleads with Jack to make Adam take the job, because Adam refuses to supposedly “touch filth.” Adam’s moral code pits him in opposition to Willie Stark, but Jack’s decisions to tell Anne about the evidence and to give her the evidence lead to many changes for the Stantons. Jack tells Anne that her father covered up Irwin’s crime (249), which goes against the appearance of moral absolutism which Governor Stanton had before his children. He sends her the proof for her and Adam to look over. This leads to Adam finally agreeing to work as chief of staff in Willie Stark’s soon-to-be-built hospital, as Anne said “He told me to tell you that he would do it. To arrange it. That was all” (254). Adam’s idealism is cut down by the evidence of his father’s corruption, as he learns that his father was not infallible. The spider web shows that he has broken Adam to a point where Adam can accept working in Willie’s hospital. Jack harms Anne Stanton with his actions. Anne loses her idealism because of Jack’s discovery. She is an aristocratic woman who prefers power and direction, and who was initially turned off by Willie and his methods. She asks Jack if what Willie promises to do in a speech he delivered would come to pass, to which Jack replies, “How the hell should I know?” (262). Willie’s sheer willpower and action sway Anne, and she becomes engaged in an affair with him. Sadie congratulates Jack for bringing the new woman into Willie’s life. Jack must leave to see Anne to talk to her. She confirms the worst; she has become Willie’s new mistress. Jack’s spirit is crushed by this knowledge. He is pained by the fall of one of his best friends, the woman he loved for her pure Old South ideals and morality. Thus, his actions not only hurt Anne, but cause his own physical and emotional pain. Jack’s past with Anne showed him what it felt like to have love and is the source for many of Jack’s unresolved character flaws. Jack eventually falls in love with Anne at age 21, thinking, “you are in love” (277). He kisses Anne, confessing his love for her on their walk. She heads to her room to consider. Near the end of the summer, Anne asks Jack what he hopes to do; he says he will not let her starve and wants to give her what she likes. Jack lacks direction or ambition for the future, making Anne hesitant to become more serious in the relationship. The two fail to consummate their relationship and battle with one another constantly. When Anne returns from Maine, Jack realizes “it was not the way it had been” (300). Anne finds the direction and ambition she wants in her partner in Willie, accepting the new affair after seeing the evidence of her father’s impropriety. Thus, Jack loses Anne to his paralysis and indecision. Jack comes to see all life as a “twitch in the blood,” believing he has no responsibility for anything that occurs. He finds strength in the concept that “you cannot lose what you never had” and you are never guilty of a crime which you did not commit (311). This new misunderstanding of truth only makes him even more bitter, cynical, and indecisive. Jack arrives at his ultimate defense against taking on the responsibility of the spider web. Jack comes to derive the Great Twitch Theory on his way back to Louisiana, when he picks up an old hitchhiker with a peculiar facial twitch. From this phenomenon he derives the Great Twitch, which states that all human actions are random phenomena, and so no one must bear any responsibility for anything that happens. With this understanding, you “are at one with the Great Twitch” (314). Under these auspices, Jack is free to do anything without feeling responsible or having to take responsibility for anything that happens. Being absolved of all worldly responsibility makes for cold interactions between Jack and those who are closest to him, Willie, Anne, and Judge Irwin. Jack decides to show the Judge the evidence his own way. However, his encounter will challenge his newly-founded comfort zone. The encounter with Judge Irwin allows for Jack’s eventual redemption and rebirth by challenging his newly-founded theory. He is ruthless to Judge Irwin when he brings the judge evidence of Irwin’s bribe and its consequences. Irwin refuses to plea for Jack to spare his biological father, as Irwin says, “I could just… just tell you that…something…But I won’t” (347). Instead, the judge commits suicide. Jack is forced to conclude that the judge brought his death upon himself, as he says, “For either killing or creating may be a crime punishable by death, and the death always comes by the criminal’s own hand and every man is a suicide. If a man knew how to live he would never die” (353). Jack gives up the “good, weak father for the evil, strong one,” (354) as he is relieved that his father is not the weak Ellis Burden but the strong and flawed Judge Irwin. The judge sets an example of moral uprightness and courage. Jack lacks these traits, but can now try to follow them. With his increased sense of responsibility, Jack gains new perspective. Jack finds new respect for his mother in her proven ability to love a man, as compared to his previous belief that she was incapable of love since the men and furniture in her home changed simultaneously (114). He feels a sense of pity for Ellis Burden’s fate as he now understands the actions of the Scholarly Attorney, who was “cuckolded by [Judge Irwin]” (353) and driven from his home. Jack traded humble Old South morality for power through a cynical lack of ethical concern, but he is now beginning to realize and lament it. Even so, Jack’s ultimate redemption will not come peacefully. The fact that the Judge’s suicide eats away at Jack’s conscience prefigures the dramatic events of the next chapter. Jack weeps after learning of the judge’s decision to give Jack the plantation, the most candid show of emotion since his relationship with Anne. The double meaning of Chapter Eight’s final sentence essentially foreshadows what is to come: “It was like the ice breaking up after a long winter. And the winter had been long” (354). After reaching its coldest point, the ice of Jack’s emotionlessness and carelessness has begun to break. Similarly, the Great Twitch will also break because of the consequences of the deaths of not only Judge Irwin, but also Adam Stanton and Willie Stark. Jack is significantly affected by the deaths of the two men closest to him. His transformation is accelerated when Adam and Willie are gunned down, one after the other. Adam is called and manipulated into accepting the caller’s story of the affair between Anne and Willie, and about Adam’s up-in-coming replacement at the hospital, since Adam failed to fix Willie’s son. He runs off after confronting Anne. Jack fails to find Adam, and cannot stop him from shooting Willie. He comes over to Willie and the group, not hearing Jack calling, “Adam!” Jack at first thinks that Adam is simply going to shake Willie’s hand. Instead, Jack must witness Adam shoot Willie twice, and be shot twice by Sugar Boy and the State Trooper. Jack is accustomed to the Boss usually being in control of the situation, but this situation, not unlike the fate of Tom Stark, is something he has no control over. Willie pleads that “things could have been different” (400). He still has remains of moral relativism, opposing the moral absolutism for which Adam was willing to give up his life. That relativism is what Jack must also reject. Thus, Jack must come to terms with his own responsibility, specifically his role in the eventual death of Willie. Jack’s final transformation is based on his realization that people must be responsible. He must admit to having a hand in the many events and tragedies that occur in the second half of the novel. Had he not begun to research the Judge, the ironic, tragic chain of events that unfolds in the final chapters of the novel would never have been instigated. This cements the concept Jack begins to develop after Irwin’s suicide–the theory that men have no responsibility for what happens to them is impossible. Thus the Great Twitch has been defeated. Jack blames Tiny Duffy for Willie’s death (413-5), and so Tiny must have responsibility for something. Henceforth, so must everyone else. Tiny was sure Jack would work for him because Jack was just another cog in the political machine. Jack must realize that he played a pivotal role in the deaths of Willie Stark and Adam Stanton. This is the epiphany that shatters the Great Twitch and Jack’s self-righteousness, and allows him to enter a world of accountability and possibility. Jack can finally resolve all times as one. He understands now that “If you could not accept the past and its burden, there was no future…for only out of the past, can you make the future” (435). He can handle his transformation, as all Jacks are now one Jack. He will work for Hugh Miller, when he returns to politics, and he will travel with his wife Anne “out of history into history and the awful responsibility of time” (438). Jack is ready to take on responsibility for his actions and for his life. He has been converted and born anew, no longer cynical, nihilistic, or disillusioned. He has rejected the Great Twitch, and as the current narrator, he has the ability to understand Cass Mastern, write his thesis, and understand the truth of the spider web. Thus, Jack Burden a trinity: the impressionable, immature youth, the irresponsible, disillusioned cynic, and mature adult. He evolves from one person to the next–and ends up as the most complete, and good, version of himself.
The Essence of Ambiguity: The Paradox of Willie Stark and Dr. Sloper
Our society revolves around the question of what is good and what is evil. We usually characterize humans as essentially malevolent or benevolent. The world contains, however, a minority of people characterized by ambiguity, a unique emotional equilibrium that lets them be both good and bad. Throughout both Washington Square, by Henry James, and All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren, the dispositions of numerous characters are simultaneously humanitarian and corrupt. In both sagas, the genuine internal motivations and emotional fabrics of Willie Stark and Dr. Sloper remain disputable. The authors intentionally remain unclear about the true nature of each character in an attempt to convey that benevolence and integrity fall victim to the realities of life. Both Willie Stark and Dr. Sloper are presented as ambiguous; however, the progression of each plot shows their morality degrade. Each author suggests that societal pressures subsume his character’s altruism, as if to suggest that the contemporary world leaves no room for compassion. Robert Penn Warren’s mastery of literature manifests itself in Stark’s complexity. Stark is a man of startling contradictions. He is loved and hated, devoted and disloyal, comforting yet abusive. Despite this ambiguity, Warren often depicts Stark as thoroughly admirable. The people of Louisiana commonly remember him as a compassionate man who pursued many beneficial initiatives for the people of his state. To be sure, Stark’s government did improve living conditions in Louisiana and provide the state with better infrastructure. For the economically deprived, the improvements in roads, schools, and healthcare, prevail over their leader’s moral shortcomings. The gem of his populist agenda was his grandiose hospital complex: “I don’t care how fine they are, mine’s gonna be finer…mine’s gonna be bigger, and any poor bugger in this state can go there and get the best there is and not cost him a dime” (279). The people interpret Willie’s relentless effort to better the lives of his fellow “hicks” as a genuine show of goodheartedness. Stark represents heroism in the eyes of the people, for whom he has provided tangible lifestyle improvements. Although Warren establishes Willie’s character as an equilibrium between evil and amicable, his capacity for effecting real progress safely gives him the support of the general public. Despite accusations of corruption and the advent of numerous scandals, the people express their loyalties to Willie via the ballot box and street demonstrations: “The crowd began chanting, “Willie, Willie, Willie – We want Willie!” (178). Too intense to be interpreted as desperation or the effects of propaganda, Willie’s popularity stems from results – results which better the lives of people previously disenfranchised. Warren clearly intends to depict Willie as a man who is at least partially devoted to the execution of good deeds. Yet Warren also devotes himself to establishing Willie as an unsavory fellow. He provides the reader with ample evidence that Willie is both pure and rancid. Willie’s administration is characterized by the employment of despicable tactics to achieve political goals. Although “the boss” oversees massive infrastructural improvements in his state, it is impossible to ignore the blatant corruption of his administration. Willie uses exploitation and intimidation, among other troubling methods, to impose his political agenda on Louisiana: “Willie Stark caused the event by corrupting and blackmailing the legislature” (183). Stark’s practices disgrace the integrity of American politics and destroy his image as a purely benevolent character. Moreover, the motive for many of Stark’s actions is self-gratification. While he does seem devoted to improving the lives of commoners, he also seems to be driven by a selfish desire for an iconic legacy. For instance, he declares that “I’m building that place…the best in the world…and I’m going to call it the Willie Stark Hospital and it will be there long after I’m dead and gone and you are dead and gone…” (281). Willie’s infatuation with his legacy tarnish the benevolence which the Louisiana populous accords him. Warren shows that Stark provides for the people while implying that Stark’s true intent is to immortalize himself as a godlike figure in American history. Willie also displays a lack of honor in his private life. At the beginning of the novel, Warren portrays Willie as a dedicated partner to his wife, Lucy. However, Willie’s loyalty to Lucy deteriorates substantially as his political prominence rises. Willie becomes a sexual hedonist, unable to curtail his attraction to women. Willie’s extramarital encounters show he has nothing but disrespect for the concepts of loyalty and the vows of marriage: “…A bevy of ‘Nordic Nymphs’ in silver gee-strings and silver brassieres came skating out…Then when the last act was over he’d (Willie) say ‘Good night, Jack,’ and he and the friend of the friend of Josh Conklin would head off into the night” (169). Willie seems to think he is above the moral code, and his intimate desires lead him to betrayal. In sum, Warren strikes a delicate balance in the character of Willie Stark. Willie advocates the rights of the common man, and provides for them in such efficient fashion that he becomes one of the most beloved figures in Louisiana history. By contrast, his motivations are often selfish, his tactics include intimidation and bribery, and his disloyalty to his spouse is legendary. The well-initiated reader may recognize the contradictory nature of Willie Stark as one of the most prominent paradoxes of 20th century literature. In Washington Square, Henry James presents an intricate portrait of the wealthy urbanite, Dr. Sloper. Much like Willie Stark, Dr. Sloper is a man of ambiguity. Henry James delicately develops Dr. Sloper’s character in a way which clearly achieves the desired balance between morality and malevolence. Many goodhearted qualities are attributed to him. One of the main pillars of the novel is Dr. Sloper’s reaction to Morris, whose sole purpose is to take advantage of Dr. Sloper’s daughter, Catherine. Dr. Sloper recognizes Morris as a conniving “gold-digger” and battles the man’s intrusion with admirable skill. While some might contend that Dr. Sloper’s crusade against Morris is purely to prevent financial loss, his true intentions are deeper – he will protect his daughter from corrupting forces at all costs. Dr. Sloper’s financial assets are both plentiful and secure, so he would not dedicate the entirety of his time to extinguishing a purely economic threat. The premier catalyst in his campaign against Morris is the integrity of his child, Catherine. Dr. Sloper’s dedication to his daughter is fundamental evidence for the humane component of his character. Dr. Sloper’s commendable qualities go beyond the commitment to protect his daughter. He is also generous, using his considerable fortune for the benefit of others. His generosity, although not always fully appreciated, is ever-present. While on a European journey with Catherine, Dr. Sloper finances a slew of lavish gifts to award to loved ones in the Americas: “…she (Catherine) opened them and displayed to her aunt some of the spoils of foreign travel. These were rich and abundant; and Catherine had brought home a present to everyone…” (172). Dr. Sloper shows a willingness to indulge, and his generosity must be recognized as one of his respectable qualities. Dr. Sloper also recognizes that he by no means constitutes perfection. While many wealthy aristocrats refuse to acknowledge their miscalculations, Dr. Sloper is plagued by his own. As a doctor, he sees it as his foremost duty to protect his family from the evils of nature. He fails to prevent the death of his wife, thereby failing in the most fundamental of a physician’s tasks. As a result, Dr. Sloper subjugates himself to a life of self-criticism. While conventional aristocrats are arrogant, Dr. Sloper is tormented by inadequacy: “Our friend, however, escaped criticism; that is, he escaped all criticism but his own, which was much the most competent and formidable” (6). As Dr. Sloper grieves the death of his spouse with intense emotion, his keen senses of love and anguish become apparent. This relentless self- criticism makes Dr. Sloper seem more genuine and humane. Despite this praise, not all is well within Dr. Sloper’s character. He employs treacherous tactics in prying his daughter away from Morris’s clutches. Dr. Sloper is radicalized by the ordeal with Morris and Catherine, and seldom spares the emotional stability of his daughter in his bid to achieve their separation. Dr. Sloper is the cause of much of Catherine’s misery and depression. He embodies the image of a dominating father, and unleashes countless threats in an attempt to frighten Catherine out of her ties with Morris. Dr. Sloper’s unfatherly behavior includes threats and intimidation: “You try my patience…and you ought to know what I am. I am not a very good man…at bottom I am very passionate; and I assure you I can be very hard” (165). Dr. Sloper makes it a priority to be feared by Catherine, rather than loved, and continues his policy of alarming Catherine by suggesting that doomsday scenarios will be the result of a union between her and Morris. He exceeds the realm of reality with his outlandish predictions, and asserts that even starvation will result from Catherine’s irresponsibility: “Should you like to be left in such a place as this, to starve?…That will be your fate – that’s how he (Morris) will leave you” (166). Dr. Sloper’s willingness sacrifice the emotional health of his only daughter in order to achieve a single-minded objective is revolting. His use of fear and coercion portray him as a verbal cannibal, ruthlessly eating away at the happiness of his companions. Moreover, Dr. Sloper seems to take pride in his despotic way of ruling. He believes maintaining his lifestyle depends on firm rule, and takes great pride in his successful use of intimidation. Dr. Sloper’s recognition that he is the source of much sorrow only increases his egotism. He lauds his authoritarian style, and his cockiness becomes increasingly noticeable as the novel progresses: “They are both afraid of me, harmless as I am…And it is on that that I build – on the salutary terror I inspire” (90). Dr. Sloper’s disdain for human merriment results in open haughtiness and adds to his devilish characteristics. He commands respect through fear, not affection, and builds relationships on dependency, not mutual fondness. Henry James clearly performs a literary balancing act in the evolution of Austin Sloper – on one hand, Sloper is generous and genuinely concerned for his daughter’s needs; on the other, he is a domineering force who does not spare Catherine’s stability. Just like Willie Stark’s, Sloper’s personality is one of countless, truly riveting contradictions. Both Robert Penn Warren and Henry James succeed in their attempt to portray characters as neither solely evil or innocent. Further parallels between the characters’ lives become evident as the plots go on. Whether both entities are defined by malice or purity remains vague at best, and the reader’s psyche, desperate for definitive conclusions, is left wanting. The keen reader will swiftly wonder whether both authors deliberately leave the identities of each character in a doubtful state. Surely, the authors were not so overly indecisive that they were unable to provide their characters with concrete dispositions. On the contrary, the decision to leave the true identities of Willie Stark and Dr. Sloper to the sentiments of the reader was calculated. Both authors put their character in a position of vulnerability, in which outside forces constantly try to intrude upon the status quo. The challenges and conflicts of the world compel both Stark and Dr. Sloper to adjust and eventually abandon their ethical commitments. The cycle of life consumes the goodness most evident in them at the beginning of the novels. This transformation occurs in Stark in part because of the endless political opposition that climaxes with an attempt to impeach him. At the dawn of the novel, Willie clearly advocates a moral way of life. Ambitious Willie seems to embody human innocence, even refusing alcohol because “Lucy didn’t favor [me] drinking” (62). As the story progresses, however, Willie is faced with countless challenges, and the realities of life force him to adjust. Willie is compelled to employ numerous forms of corruption, about which he often hints: “You can forget about the vote side about it (the Willie Stark Hospital)…There are lots of ways to get votes, son” (309). He acquires many nemeses as his career progresses and defends his political advantage with immoral actions, thereby risking his good reputation. As Stark realizes that he must reject any moral code that would restrict his political maneuverings, his former integrity becomes a figment of history. The society in which Dr. Sloper dwells is also characterized by shrewdness. Dr. Sloper is an admired professional and a member of New York’s elite. Like Stark, he appears largely benevolent at the beginning of the novel; challenges to his honor and legacy, however, force him to discard kindness in favor of authority. The man seeking to take Dr. Slope’s daughter forces the doctor to become increasingly hostile. He acts as though he is under constant threat, and one cannot ignore vengeful passages such as “I am very angry” (164) and “I have been raging inwardly for the last six months” (165). In effect, he enters a crusade against Catherine, aiming to frighten her into compliance. Dr. Sloper recognizes that the contriving realities of life leave no room for compassion. Both Henry James and Robert Penn Warren recognize the necessity of establishing complex personality traits in their characters. In both All the King’s Men and Washington Square, the emotional tendencies of all characters are painstakingly catalogued; however, the dispositions of Willie Stark and Dr. Sloper are especially striking. Each author deliberately frames both characters cryptically: both Stark and Dr. Sloper display many positive traits along with a slew of contemptible ones. The result is emotional equilibrium – neither Dr. Sloper nor Willie Stark is entirely good or bad. However, each book is structured to suggest that malevolence subsumes goodness. The protagonists’ positive qualities appear primarily at the beginning of the novels, then deteriorate as social pressures take their toll. The men’s principles disintegrate as others threaten their accomplishments; apparently morality, according to James and Warren, cannot coexist with success.
Knowledge and All the King’s Men: One Man’s End is Another Man’s Beginning
In All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, the theme of the power of knowledge is prominent throughout Jack’s journey within the great web of the world. His path brings to light his true self and along with it the realization that he and everyone else in the web must take responsibility for their actions and the reverberations that they cause. Through Jack’s struggle against his inevitable rebirth, readers see how the power of knowledge affects Jack and all those around him. The knowledge of love, knowledge of truth, and knowledge of one’s self all wield immense consequences for Warren’s characters. It is how each of Warren’s characters deals with this power of knowledge that guides their life.Through Jack’s narration, readers travel along with him on his path toward rebirth. In the early stages of his adult life, Jack is “huddled away up inside himself,” trying to stay aloof from the knowledge and responsibility of the outside world (Girault 62). Jack finds solace in history and truth and “warm[th] in [his] not-knowing”(Warren 11-12)(Simmons 75). He blindly uncovers facts for Governor Stark, without regard to consequence or responsibility. “Jack loves Truth, loves it voraciously, with a precise, judicious, almost niggling dedication” (Bohner 87). He is focused on the “black line down the center”(Warren 1) of the highway, and later mesmerized by the cones of light that project out in front of him when he drives down the dark highway of his life (Bohner 87-88). This guiding line and guiding light are the direction in Jack’s life and studies. It is this path, however, and his love of truth and fact, which bring the knowledge to the surface that ultimately leads to his downfall and rebirth.The truth that Jack unearths regarding Judge Irwin ultimately causes the Judge’s suicide. When Jack attempts to blackmail Judge Irwin by confronting him with the Littlepaugh scandal, he is blind to what consequences could result. He has no idea that Irwin is his biological father; he is simply carrying out the Boss’s will, blindly following the path towards the warm solace of knowledge and truth. When Irwin commits suicide as a result of his encounter with Jack, the chain of events that leads to Jack’s rebirth begins2E Jack is awakened by his mother’s “silvery soprano scream” (Warren 348) in the middle of the night. This scream signifies the labor pains of Jack’s rebirth about to come (Girault 61). Jack’s mother is in despair over Irwin’s death and, in her hysteria, she accuses Jack of killing his father. At that moment, Jack realizes that Judge Irwin is his true father. It is knowledge that destroyed Judge Irwin, and it is this knowledge of Irwin’s true identity that gives Jack his revelation and self-definition (61). Through this new knowledge Jack is given a father he can accept in Judge Irwin, and a new mother in the sense that he has discovered through her anguish that his mother is capable of love (61). His mother is no longer the vain and pretentious woman he thought she was, but now has new meaning to him in his re-birth (61). In one stroke, ” [Jack’s] illusory world is shattered,” and he is forced to realize that his actions do have meaning and consequence, as he knows now he is responsible for his father’s death (63).The truth that Jack digs up about Irwin also reaps great consequences for Adam and Anne Stanton. Throughout their lives, Adam and Anne have held high moral standards as a result of their well-respected father, Governor Stanton. In Jacks discovery about Irwin, he also finds that Governor Stanton was involved in these underhanded activities. When this knowledge is revealed to the Stanton children, their once high moral standards are dashed, and they take part in actions that they originally would not have considered. Adam, the “man of idea,”(Bohner 92) has an idealist view of the world, where morality and good deeds are key (92). When his idealist view of his father is crushed, he is able to go against his previous moral standards and become the head of Willie Stark’s hospital. Adam’s views originally contrasted with those of the Boss’s proclivity for “stark” truth (93). The Boss feels that one must generate good from bad, and that the ends justify the means. In Adam’s ideal view, good deeds must be carried on throughout all actions. In the real world, however, these ideal actions are not always possible to achieve a goal. For Anne, the knowledge of her father’s mistakes causes her to break previous moral standards and become Willie’s mistress. After this affair with Willie, she reveals to Jack what allowed her to act the way she did. “Then you told me- you told me about my father. There wasn’t any reason why not then. After you told me” (Warren 325). The power of knowledge is evident here, for Jack’s simple revelation of the truth caused himself much anguish and lowered the moral status of the girl he loves, the girl which he has been trying to see as perfect all his life (Girault 62). Before this confrontation, when Jack first receives knowledge of Anne’s affair with Willie, he is sent into a state of withdrawal and heads west. Alone in a hotel room in California, Jack attempts to revert to his “womb-like” state of innocence where Anne is still perfect in his eyes (62). Jack, however, must learn that this innocence is impossible to retrieve, for he cannot deny the knowledge he has just received. His westward movement is a symbol of his realization of that fact, a “stage in his intellectual and spiritual development” (Bohner 91). Jack also realizes that he is responsible for changing Anne’s view of the world, a consequence Jack never considered, but which results from his blind search for truth.Warren further explains the implications of Jack’s westward journey through Jack’s observation of Adam’s surgery on a schizophrenic patient. The catatonic schizophrenia the lobotomy patient endures parallels Jack’s attempts to return himself to the state of “not-knowing” (Simmons 74). The symptoms of “gradual withdrawal from reality, the sudden loss of animation, a tendency to remain motionless for long periods of time, some degree of emotional apathy and periods of stupor alternating with those of intense activity” (74) are all evident in both the patient’s condition and Jack’s states of the “Great Sleep” (74). In a sense, Jack’s final withdrawal to California is his own “lobotomy.” Jack emerges in “good spirits,” socializing and remaining “perfectly happy” (78). Jack’s mood parallels Adam’s description of the cured state of the lobotomy patient: “relaxed, cheerful and friendly… He will be perfectly happy” (Warren 336). The joyfulness, however, is a falsely induced feeling. The lobotomy patient is simply joyful because he has lost some of his brain, which has been replaced with the emotion of another man (Simmons 78). Similarly, Jack’s happiness is simply a result of repressing his emotions and avoiding any humanistic interpersonal relationships. He realizes that by being in such a personal relationship with Anne, she was no longer the piece of “machinery” to him, but rather a human. The same applied for Lois, from whom Jack was forced to separate when he could no longer distinguish “Lois the person” and “Lois the machine” (78-79). When Jack comes to know people in this way, it only brings him hurt and suffering, which leads him to his states of withdrawal and the “Great Sleep.”The other major event Jack’s search for knowledge causes is Willie’s death. The chain reaction that leads to this event is complex and has a wide variety of causes. In the end, almost everyone, including Jack, is responsible. It is ironically Willie, however, who triggers the bizarre series of events that lead to his demise. Because Willie asks Jack to uncover knowledge to blackmail Judge Irwin, he has indirectly caused Anne to have an affair with him. One of the results of this affair is Sadie Burke’s anger. With her irritation at yet another of Willie’s affairs that isn’t with her, Sadie sees the opportunity that both she and Tiny Duffy have been waiting for, the opportunity to kill Willie Stark. She takes action, and passes her powerful knowledge of Anne’s relationship to Adam, with the help of some truth twisting from Duffy. They tell Adam that Willie’s affair with Anne is the only reason he was offered the job as head of Willie’s hospital. Adam is furious, and tells Anne that he “[will not be] pimp to [her] whore” (Warren 391). Adam then acts as expected and, standing symbolically under the towering statue of his father, critically wounds Willie Stark, only to immediately be shot and killed by Sugar Boy. These tragic events were all set in motion by the immense power of knowledge. Knowledge led Anne to Willie, knowledge pushed Sadie over the edge, knowledge caused Adam to kill Willie, and the same knowledge caused Adam’s death. “The end of man is to know” (Warren 9).The culmination of Jack’s rebirth occurs when he is given the chance seek vengeance on Tiny Duffy. In the basement of a library, knowing Sugar Boy’s pistol is tucked away under his shoulder ready for action, Jack refuses to give Sugar Boy the knowledge he needs to lead him to kill Tiny. This decision clearly demonstrates Jack’s realization that he was wrong in thinking his actions were “neither good nor evil, but meaningless” (Girault 63). By not sinking to Tiny’s level, he walks boldly into the “convulsion of the world and the awful responsibility of Time” (Warren 438). Here, everything is connected, and the power and limitations of human knowledge are known, and man knows the moral responsibility that he holds as a result of his actions (Girault 66).All of this knowledge, truth, and action are linked together in the gossamer spider web introduced in Cass Mastern’s journal. Through the journal, Warren illustrates his belief that all actions send effects to the “remotest perimeter” (Warren 188) of the “fabric of the world” (178). Jack divulges into the past of Cass and brings forth this theory of responsibility that, through his journey and rebirth, he must learn to accept (Cottrell 118). Jack’s first reaction to the theory is to shut it away, “put aside the journals and boxed up three-by-five cards”(118). As a result, Jack is plunged into his journey, with the words of Cass Mastern etched upon his memory (121). At first Jack cannot accept responsibility or even the fact that his actions have such effect; however, through his experiences he must come to terms with the Spider Web theory. The synchronicity between Cass’s revelations and Jack’s life emerge as Jack begins to see the consequences of the twitching of the web he causes, “whether or not [he] meant to brush the web of things”(Warren 189). Warren also draws a parallel between the idealism of Cass and Adam, as well as the realism between Cass’s brother and Willie (Cottrell 121). Jack observes this parallel by contemplating “…perhaps the Gilbert Masterns are always at home in any world. As the Cass Masterns are never at home in any world”(Warren 162). Through this observation, Warren illustrates that the idealist man is always uncomfortable with the true immoral nature of the world, whereas the man who will allow his ends to justify his means will be able to adapt to any situation and at least make some good out of it (Cottrell 121). Reflecting on Judge Irwin’s suicide Willie Stark’s assassination, Jack can trace the order of vibrations back to his actions. Even though Jack did not “brush the web”(Warren 189) purposely, he must take responsibility and assume guilt for his actions. Cass illustrates this quality through his attempt to save the slave girl, Phebe, who was sent off by Annabelle for her “knowing eyes” (119). In the end, Jack sees the true power of the Spider Web, and that “all are equally balanced, equally vulnerable, on the infinite Spider Web of God” (123). By realizing this equality, Jack is able to separate himself from being simply an idealist or a man of results, and therefore is able to deal with the good and evil he encounters while at the same time taking responsibility for how he balances the two forces (123).The fragile web that holds together Jack Burden’s world transfers knowledge and truth through its fibers, bringing into light the true necessity of accepting responsibility for one’s action. Through Jack’s narration, the reader gains insight into Jack’s journey towards rebirth and acceptance of the Spider Web theory. The knowledge and experiences Jack gains allow him to learn the importance of acceptance of responsibility. Each of the characters in Warren’s novel deals with knowledge in their own way that ultimately decides their fate. For Willie and Adam, “the end of man is to know;” (Warren 9) however, in Jack’s enlightened state, it is only the beginning.Works CitedBohner, Charles H. Twayne’s United States Authors Series: Robert Penn Warren. New Haven: Twayne Publishers, 1964.Cottrell, Beekman W. “Cass Mastern and the Awful Responsibility of Time”. Twentieth Century Interpretations of All the Kings Men. Ed. Robert Chambers. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1977. 116-126.Girault, Norton R. “The Narrators Mind as a Symbol: An analysis of All the Kings Men.” Robert Penn Warren: Critical Perspectives. Ed. Neil Nakadate. Lexington: University Press, 1981. 60-76.Simmons, James C. “Adam’s Lobotomy Operation and the Meaning of All the King’s Men.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of All the Kings Men. Ed. Robert Chambers. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1977. 73-84.Warren, Robert Penn. All the King’s Men. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1946, 1996.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: The Winding Road to Self-Discovery in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men
In Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, three major characters, Jack Burden, Willie Stark and Adam Stanton, embark on a whirlwind journey of self-discovery that leads to tragedy for some and optimistic enlightenment for others. Throughout the course of the novel, each learns something different about himself and must face realizations about their moral standing and role in the world.Willie Stark, political powerhouse and Jack’s employer, is sadly enlightened right before his death. Throughout most of the book, Willie is both politically and personally corrupt, managing the state through manipulation and having many extramarital affairs. As governor, Willie treats people kindly as long as people listen to his views and support him. However, Willie is just as committed to punishing his enemies. A staunch supporter of the principle that the “end justifies the means,” Willie resorts to blackmail and manipulation to do what he feels is best for the state and his administration. Willie tries to persuade moral Adam Stanton that goodness isn’t simply “inherited.” “You got to make it Doc, if you want it. And you got to make it out of badness… And you know why? Because there isn’t anything else to make it out of” (367). Stark is trying to justify his bad actions because the end is good. Willie sustains this philosophy and continues to manipulate people up until his son Tom is paralyzed in a football game. For the first time in the book, Willie can’t control the situation at hand and is at his weakest. Willie does everything he can to pretend the situation is within his grasp, continually saying that Tom will be fine and declaring his son’s toughness at the hospital. Finally when Willie can control part of the situation, like when he decides to name the hospital after Tom, he jumps at the chance. He simply doesn’t know how to act when he can’t force circumstances to conform to his desires.After Tom’s injury, Willie begins to turn over a new leaf by breaking off his affair with Anne and trying to reconcile with Lucy. He even wants to rid his office of corruption, canceling a dishonest building contract and telling Tiny Duffy and Jack that things were going to be done differently from now on. Unfortunately, Adam Stanton, who is distraught after hearing that his sister and Willie had an affair, shoots Willie that very day. Dying on a hospital bed a few days later, Willie tells Jack “if it hadn’t happened (Adam’s shooting), it might have been different, even yet” (573).Adam Stanton, a skilled surgeon and Jack’s closest childhood friend, is the most moral of the three characters and possesses high integrity as well as high sensitivity. His high principles and desire to do good are easily upset by people he views as unscrupulous or possessing a lower standard of character. Thus, Adam naturally despises Willie Stark. When Willie offers Adam a position as director of the new hospital, Adam only accepts because he knows it’s a promising opportunity to help as many people as possible, his ultimate goal. From this point on, Adam receives blow after blow to his virtue until his morality is shattered and he breaks down. The first blow occurs when Jack exposes the dishonesty and bribery of Adam’s late father, a former governor whom Adam highly revered as an honorable man. Adam doesn’t take the news well, as his delicate virtuous outlook is beginning to crack. After an attempted bribe concerning the hospital and learning of the affair between Willie and his sister Anne, Adam is shattered. He believes he only got the hospital directorship because he was the brother of Willie’s mistress. This is the kind of corruption Adam cannot tolerate, and the fact that it involves both him and his sister pushes him over the edge. His ego as well as his sensitive spirit is crushed. In desperation, he kills Willie and dies himself when Willie’s friend Sugar-Boy shoots him. Tragically, what Adam learns about himself isn’t positive; his enlightenment is only his realization that he simply cannot stomach the corrupt, darker aspects of life.Jack Burden, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, is the political-right-hand-man of southern governor Willie Stark. He lacks initiative and enthusiasm to pursue his goals and acts merely as a puppet, conforming to surrounding people and whatever life deals him. For example, after months of work on a biographical study about his grandmother’s brother Cass Mastern, he quits working and has no desire to finish it. Similarly, when he loses his job, he doesn’t attempt to look for another one, simply because he doesn’t feel like it, and fills his empty days with sleep and leisure. Future and responsibility mean nothing to Jack. While this doesn’t bother him, his lack of initiative troubles companion and love interest Anne Stanton. Once she brings this to his attention, he mulls it over in his mind a little, but takes no action, and Anne leaves after their summer fling.Most of the novel follows Jack in his work for Willie, which consists of digging up dirt on political enemies and blackmailing. Never getting emotionally involved in his work, Jack stays detached from all feelings of responsibility. This detachment carries over into Jack’s personal life, where he decides that anything that happens is the result of the whims of nature and not of any specific person’s actions. By adopting this theory, called the “Great Twitch” (events are twitches, random and uncontrollable) Jack thus rids himself of blame and responsibility for his actions.Jack Burden is transformed from an unfeeling man to a caring individual only after the death of his close friend and mentor Judge Irwin. On one of Willie’s blackmailing pursuits, Jack finds that Irwin had accepted a bribe because he needed the money to save his estate. After Jack tries to blackmail the judge with this information, Irwin shoots himself. Later, Jack finds out that Judge Irwin was really his father and Jack is the sole heir to the estate. After poring over the turn of events in his mind, Jack realizes with incredulity how undeniably logical the situation was. Judge Irwin took the bribe in order to save the estate, then fathered Jack, who tried to blackmail his father with information about the bribe, which caused Judge Irwin to commit suicide, which caused Jack to inherit the estate; had Judge Irwin not taken the bribe, Jack would have had nothing to inherit, and had Jack not tried to blackmail Judge Irwin, the judge would not have killed himself, and Jack would not have inherited the estate when he did. This incident proves to Jack that the Great Twitch theory must be wrong, and that people really are responsible for the actions they take. His ability to escape the idea of responsibility is shattered by this situation. Jack is genuinely sorry for his role in the death and cries, his first sincere emotional reaction. Another death has a great deal to do with Jack’s inner enlightenment, that of Willie Stark’s assassination by Adam Stanton. When Jack learns that Tiny told Adam about Willie’s affair with Anne, he visits Tiny and threatens him with the information, the same way he used to blackmail Willie’s enemies.However, Jack soon realizes that in blaming Tiny in full for Willie’s death, he is acknowledging that someone was directly responsible for what happened. If someone is responsible for an action, then the Great Twitch theory cannot be correct, and if someone is responsible for Willie’s death, Jack will be forced to face the responsibility he bears as well. After this incident, the Great Twitch theory is completely devastated. Jack finds this realization hard to accept, and becomes numb and withdrawn. Jack’s mother eventually brings him out of his deadened state and softens his heart when she talks to him some time later. Coming to a realization herself, she is leaving her husband because she has finally recognized her lifelong love for Judge Irwin. This finally changes Jack’s long-felt impression of his mother as an unfeeling woman, and helps him understand the value of love and relationships. Jack is finally a person with a heart instead of an unemotional machine.The road to self-discovery can be a rocky one, a concept that Robert Penn Warren makes very clear through the characters of Willie Stark, Adam Stanton and Jack Burden. In the cases of Willie and Jack, corruption and its consequences are sometimes the only way to get a person to realize his own faults, an important milestone that eventually leads to self-betterment. However, in Adam’s case, the enlightenment corruption brings is more than the soul can bear.
Jack Burden’s Journey of Self-Destruction
Jack Burden, the chronicler and one of two possible protagonists of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, is anything but a static narrator. His character is quite possibly even more dynamic than that of Willie Stark, the novel’s man of the hour. Throughout the adventures and misadventures Jack encounters on the capricious road of life, he ultimately destroys his original self, tries on numerous vaguely different personalities, and ends up an entirely altered entity. Although many factors shape the destruction of Mr. Burden’s primary character and the shaping of his ultimate persona, the departure of his father when he is very young, his love affair with Anne Stanton, finding evidence of Judge Irwin’s wrongdoing, the Judge’s suicide and the revelation that he is Jack’s father, and the deaths of Willie Stark and Adam Stanton are the five monumental events that have the greatest effect on his personality.Although he does not realize it at the time, Jack’s life is first significantly impacted by an episode that occurs when he is a boy of six. Ellis Burden, the man Jack calls the “Scholarly Attorney” and believes to be his father for a sizeable portion of the novel, walks out on Jack and his mother for the life of a poor, street-corner evangelist. Jack does not find out the reason for this seeming abandonment until some years later. Until he discovers Ellis’ motivation for fleeing, Jack interprets his departure from the viewpoint of the small child he is when the episode occurs. He feels rejected, angry, and does not understand why a man has discarded him and his infatuating mother. After this incident, Jack carries with him a sense of inadequacy and defect that shapes his mindset throughout adolescence and adulthood. Jack’s denial of responsibility throughout part of the novel is also rooted in this event, as is his lack of understanding of human motivation. Jack considers that his “father” simply left, and does not take into account the possibility that Jack’s mother may have given him reason to leave. When visiting Ellis, believing that he is his father, a grown-up Jack is ashamed, even though Ellis is helping others and appears to be happy with his life. Jack feels that Ellis is “weak.” As Jack sees it, he has not inherited the genes needed to succeed; it is futile for him to toil for any goal, and he is condemned to drift through life indefinitely. Jack refers to his own lack of ambition throughout the novel, which results from his observations of where the ambition to be successful has gotten his father-the street corner. Jack has no hopes and dreams partly because he has no father whom he may strive to emulate.Another influential event in Jack’s life is the romantic relationship he shares with Anne Stanton in their youth. Anne, Jack’s first love, changes him by allowing him to feel emotions unlike any he has experienced before. Loving a parent or parent figure and being in love with a peer are separate and very different emotions for him. The difference between these sentiments is especially distinct because Jack has had no peer love and little normal parental love until he and Anne fall in love. Jack’s feelings for Anne are some of the purest, most honest feelings he expresses throughout the entire narrative. Jack’s descriptions of Anne and their times together illustrate true love, rather than lust or infatuation. All images of Anne and their romance are idealized; however, and the indistinct, inconclusive end of their youthful relationship creates much cynicism in Jack’s character. His picture of the perfect summer that simply drifts along forever is shattered, along with his impression that he is in the perfect relationship. Jack learns that there is no perfect relationship, nor perfect woman, and allows this knowledge to destroy his already scant idealism completely. As he and Anne fall out of love, Jack becomes even more emotionally withdrawn, and ultimately resorts to a relationship with Lois based purely on physical attraction.Jack’s personality is further transformed when he finds proof that Judge Monty Irwin, his father figure after the departure of Ellis, accepted a bribe to salvage his home, possessions, and position. When initially confronted by Willie to “dig up some dirt” on the judge, Jack is confident that he will find nothing. Adulating the older man for much of his life, Jack refuses to believe that Irwin is anything but lily-white until Irwin confesses to the entire scandal Jack uncovers. After his through search and this confirmation, Jack is amazed, disappointed, and shocked. Jack has now been disappointed by the second man he has looked up to. This event leaves Jack with even less faith in people than he had to begin with. If his father and Judge Irwin could both be susceptible to such disappointing failure, Jack is surely doomed.Almost immediately following his revelation about Judge Irwin, Jack experiences another momentous event. After considering the position he has been put in by the uncovering of his past sins, Judge Irwin commits suicide. In a state of horror and disbelief, Jack’s mother reveals that Judge Irwin is Jack’s father. Jack has been bombarded with two facts of great magnitude at once, and he must digest this new information as it pours into his character, changing him definitely and irrevocably. He weeps, showing the most candid emotion since his love affair with Anne. Knowing that Judge Irwin would rather kill himself than sell out his power, Jack appreciates a newfound reverence for the responsibility of men. Judge Irwin takes such accountability for his actions that he sacrifices his own life. Jack has no choice but to reject his “Great Twitch” theory in the phenomenal irony of the situation: Judge Irwin accepts a bribe to save the estate that Jack inadvertently inherits by exposing the bribe. Much as he might like to, Jack can no longer believe that life simply happens to men. Through Judge Irwin’s suicide, Jack also learns that his mother is capable of love. She truly loved Judge Irwin, and that love produced Jack. Finally, Jack is somewhat relieved to know that he has a strong father rather than the weak “Scholarly Attorney,” but he again recalls tender moments with Ellis and remains unclear about his feelings regarding his paternity. Needless to say, Jack’s perception of life changes significantly in the instant that he finds out he has driven his father to suicide.When Willie Stark and Adam Stanton are gunned down essentially simultaneously, the final significant change in Jack’s character transpires. Accustomed to Willie being in control of every situation, Jack is somewhat shocked when Governor Stark is fired upon in a cold blooded situation even “the Boss” can not control. Most importantly, Jack must come to terms with his own responsibility, specifically his role in the eventual death of Willie. Had he not begun to research the Judge, the ironic, tragic chain of events that unfolds in the final chapters of All the King’s Men would never have been instigated. This cements the concept Jack begins to develop after Irwin’s suicide-the theory that men have no responsibility for what happens to them is impossible. Because he blames Tiny for Willie’s death, Tiny must have responsibility for something, and henceforth, so must everyone else. Jack must realize that he played a pivotal role in the deaths of the two most important men in his life. This epiphany shatters Jack’s comfortable bubble of denial and self-righteousness, and awakens him to a more empowered, slightly more difficult to deal with, way of living in a world of accountability and possibility.Unmistakably, Jack Burden’s character in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men evolves from impressionable child to irresponsible cynic to matured, complete adult throughout the course of this respected literary work. The critical turning points in this destruction of his original self include the departure of Jack’s alleged father, Jack’s first love, Anne Stanton, finding proof that Judge Monty Irwin accepted a bribe, Irwin’s suicide and the revelation that he is Jack’s father, and the deaths of Adam Stanton and Willie Stark. By the time the novel concludes, our often unwittingly confused protagonist has found his true love, resolved his unfinished thesis, and accepted, “the awful responsibility of time.”