All the Kings Men
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.”