Robert Penn Warren was a writer who was immensely admired as a writer during his lifetime. He is the only person to have been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and poetry. As a young man, he supported racial segregation; this was the effect of living in the South. But later, he became an ardent supporter of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and the Civil Rights Movement. While Warren was a professor at the Louisiana State University, Huey Long was climbing the trajectory that took him to the position of a Senator. All The King’s Men, based on Huey Long’s mercurial life also studies the consequences of one’s actions.

Relevance of the Title

The title of the novel, “All The King’s Men” is a spin on Huey Long’s motto, “Every Man a King”. The story closely follows the life of Huey Long who was a stable hand before he embarked on a political career that made him a Senator. The character of Jack Burden is a fictitious one. Dr. Adam Stanton who shot dead Willie Stark in the story is based on the man who killed Huey Long, Dr. Carl A. Weiss.

Main Themes

Consequences of Actions

The central motif of the novel is that actions have consequences that one cannot escape from. It is not possible for an individual to be a mere observer. Jack Burden had held the belief that individuals could remain unaffected by their actions but by the end of the story, he is forced to rethink his philosophy.

The Great Twitch

When Jack Burden drives back from California, he is convinced that life is essentially without meaning and people are motivated by an inborn impulse that they cannot resist, like a facial twitch, for example. For this reason, man could not be held responsible for what he did. But the tragic events that come after bring home to Jack the realization that actions have consequences for which they have to be held responsible.

Time

Through the novel runs the idea that the seeds of future are held in the moments from the past. Much of what happens in the present too has their roots in the past.

Characters

Jack Burden

Jack is the narrator of the novel and also its protagonist. Born in an aristocratic family that is well connected, Jack allies himself with the crass and ambitious Willie Stark who began life as a stable hand. That would have been no problem if only Willie had any scruples. But he does not and Jack works to help Willie realize his ambitions by blackmailing his rivals. Jack is a skilled researcher; he uses his skills in research to dig out unsavory facts about Willie’s rivals. This he uses as ammunition for blackmail. For a long time, Jack is not troubled about his role in destroying people’s reputations. But as tragic events come closer home, he is forced to accept that his actions have played a part in causing them.

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Willie Stark

Willie Stark who is often referred to as just “the Boss” is a stable hand who passes the law exam and becomes a lawyer. To begin with he is idealistic; he wants to fight for the underprivileged masses. But soon he realizes that he can get power in his hands if he is able to defeat his rivals easily. For this he uses unsavory information about them to threaten and blackmail. He is revealed as being completely amoral. He has a string of affairs including one with Anne Stanton who is loved by Jack Burden, Stark’s adviser. There are many who want to see Stark destroyed. Adam Stanton is one such; he shoots Willie dead in the Capitol building when he learns about his affair with his sister.

Judge Irwin

He is a well known personality in the town. He is a close friend of Jack’s family; for Jack, he has been a father figure. But when Judge Irwin opposes Willie, things go wrong between the judge and Jack. In his usual way, Willie tells Jack to dig out some scandal about Judge Irwin. Jack finds out that he had taken a bribe from a power company. Jack confronts Judge Irwin with this information. Rather than defend himself, Judge Irwin commits suicide. After his death, Jack’s mother tells him that Judge Irwin was his biological father. Jack realizes that his actions are responsible for his father’s death.

Summary

All The King’s men is the story of Willie Stark, an ex-farm hand who passes the bar examination and hopes to be a lawyer who fights for the poor. But soon, he becomes corrupt, amoral and power hungry. He threatens and blackmails his rivals; in this he is helped by his aides who are just hired thugs. The book is also the story of Jack Burden, a history researcher who begins to work for Willie Stark. Their backgrounds could not have been more disparate. Burden comes from an aristocratic, well connected family. He has just abandoned his PhD dissertation. When Jack begins working for Willie, he is cut off by his family who resent his connecting with an upstart like Stark. Jack is divorced from his first wife Lois Segar. Anne Stanton is the true love of his life but no one knows why he has not yet married her. Jack is cynical and has no great ambition, perfect reasons for Willie to use him for his ends.

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Judge Irwin is a well loved personality in the town; Willie wants him destroyed because he supports his rival. For Jack, Judge Irwin was a father figure; but when he is given the task of digging out some unsavory material about the judge, he does not refuse. Jack finds out that somewhere in the past, Judge Irwin had accepted a bribe from a power company; it had been covered up by Mayor Stanton who is the father of Anne and Adam, Jack’s best friend. In spite of all these connections, Jack confronts Judge Irwin with the details of the bribe. Judge Irwin commits suicide. The other consequences of Jack’s action are that Dr. Adam Stanton accepts the position of the director of a hospital that Willie Stark is building though Adam hates Willie. Anne slips into an affair with Willie; this is more than Jack can stomach. When Adam comes to know of Anne’s affair with Willie Stark, he shoots him dead. Jack realizes that he has to take responsibility of his actions. He marries Anne and begins writing a book.

Quotes

  1. We would come into Burden’s Landing by the new boulevard by the bay. The air would smell salty, with maybe a taint of the fishy, sad, sweet smell of the tidelands to it, but fresh nevertheless. It would be nearly midnight then, and the lights would be off in the three blocks of down-town . . . .

These are Jack’s recollections of his town. The town got its name from an illustrious ancestor who had settles down there. Memory and the past are themes that run through the novel. All the Characters recall past times which may have been happy or sad.

  1. If the government of this state for quite a long time back had been doing anything for the folks in it, would Stark have been able to get out there with his bare hands and bust the boys? And would he be having to make so many short cuts to get something done to make up for the time lost all these years . . . ?
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Jack tries to explain away Willie’s wheeling dealings in this way. He says that the government did nothing for the people all these years. Now Willie Stark is trying to make up for lost time by not bothering about rules. He wants to ease the burden on the poor farmers but he has no time for laws.

  1. Then it was another day, and I set out to dig up the dead cat, to excavate the maggot from the cheese, to locate the canker in the rose, to find the deceased fly among the raisins in the rice pudding.

These are words spoken by Jack about digging into Judge Irwin’s past. He speaks in a cynical way; the surprise is that Judge Irwin was a much loved father figure during Jack’s childhood. When he does dig up some unsavory truths, the judge commits suicide. More tragic events follow forcing jack to reassess his actions and accept responsibility.

  1. I had had a puncture in the morning and so didn’t hit Long Beach till about evening. I drank a milk shake, bought a bottle of bourbon, and went up to my room. I hadn’t had a drop the whole trip. I hadn’t wanted a drop. I hadn’t wanted anything, except the hum of the motor and the lull of the car and I had had that.

Too many tragic things have happened following the attempt to blackmail Judge Irwin. He has committed suicide and Anne has begun an affair with Willie Stanton. Jack had loved Anne for much of his life. Now he wants to get away from the town away from the memories that trouble him.