All the King's Men | Study Guide

Robert Penn Warren

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All the King's Men | Chapter 10 | Summary

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Summary

After Willie's funeral Jack Burden goes to Burden's Landing to see Anne Stanton. A few days earlier Anne had attended Adam's funeral, which she tried to stoically endure. However, she collapsed later in the privacy of her home. Jack spends long hours with Anne, during which he sometimes reads to her. He only mentions the incident leading to Adam's death once. Jack wonders if Anne knows who informed Adam about his sister having an affair with Willie. Anne doesn't know. To find an answer to this question, Adam tracks down Sadie Burke, who is staying in a rest home. Sadie admits she told Tiny Duffy, who is now the lieutenant governor, about the affair. Then Tiny called Adam and told him. After the assassination of Willie, Tiny has become the acting governor of the state. He meets with Jack and offers to hire him to work in a similar capacity as he did for Willie. Jack refuses and tells Tiny that he knows about his call to Adam and thus his involvement in the murder of Willie. Flustered, Tiny says Jack will never make any accusation stick in court. Jack agrees and says, "But you still got plenty to worry about."

Jack feels heroic about the way he stood up to Tiny. Then he receives a letter from Sadie and a statement verifying she told Tiny about Anne's and Willie's affair. In the letter Sadie tells Jack to feel free to use the statement in court, but she advises against it. At the next election Tiny will not even be nominated as a candidate for governor, much less be elected. Trying to smear his name to stop him from being elected seems pointless. Jack agrees and feels sick and tired about Tiny and all the politicians. Jack also admits that his work for Willie makes him just as culpable of wrongdoing as Tiny. He spends the next weeks hanging out at bars and reading newspapers at the library. There he meets Sugar-Boy and hints to him that someone framed Adam to kill Willie. Jack wonders what Sugar-Boy would do to the guy responsible. Sugar-Boy says he'll kill him even if it means he will be hanged. Jack says he's just kidding and apologizes. Although Sugar-Boy is upset, he tells Jack to forget it.

Jack visits Lucy at her home in the country. Lucy says her son, Tom, died from pneumonia, but she has adopted his baby, a boy. Lucy has named the boy Willie after her husband. Lucy says she has to believe her husband was a great man. After leaving Lucy, Jack reflects that he also has to view Willie as a great man, who mixed up his greatness with his weaknesses. Jack returns to Burden's Landing and visits his mother, who tells him that she's leaving her husband. Jack's mother admits she always loved Judge Irwin and made a mess of her life by marrying other men. She wants a new start; she is leaving her house to her soon-to-be former husband and starting over elsewhere. At the train station Jack's mother asks her son if the judge killed himself because of the scandal. Jack lies, saying he committed suicide because of his poor health. Jack's mother feels relieved and boards the train. Later, Jack realizes his mother has given him peace of mind by admitting her love for the judge and her awareness of her own shortcomings. Jack tells Anne the judge is his real father and his mother has admitted her love for the judge. He comes to accept his past.

Jack marries Anne and they live in the judge's house; he writes a book about Cass Mastern. Also Jack invites his stepfather, Ellis Burden, to live with them, bringing him out of his squalid living conditions. After Ellis dies, Jack and Anne plan to leave Burden's Landing, perhaps to return later in their lives to visit and relive their memories. The novel ends with Jack and Anne planning to leave the judge's house and going out into the world or "out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time."

Analysis

Rebirth is an overarching theme in the events in the novel's last chapter. Several characters experience rebirth, including Sadie, Lucy, Jack's mother, and finally Jack himself. As part of this process, each character accepts the burden of his or her personal history and takes responsibility to act in a positive way. Sadie admits her role in the murders of Willie and Adam. In fact, she says, "I killed Willie. I killed him." After this admission Sadie feels relief and signs a statement confessing she told Tiny about Anne and Willie's affair. In taking responsibility Sadie receives a new lease on life. She plans to leave the state and start over somewhere else. Lucy also experiences a rebirth. After her son's death she admits he had a child out of wedlock and adopts the baby, naming him for her husband. By accepting responsibility for her family's history, Lucy transforms a scandalous situation into something positive.

The rebirth of Jack's mother involves admitting that she has always loved Judge Irwin and ruined her life by marrying other men. After accepting the burden of her personal history, Jack's mother acts in a responsible way by confessing her folly to her son. The conversation has a profound effect on Jack and his own rebirth process. By understanding the truth about his own family history, Jack comes to accept his past. The unresolved issues that have tormented Jack throughout his life, such as his resentment for his mother because of her affairs and marriages, are seen in a new light. He now understands why his mother tried to block her love for the judge. He also realizes his view of his mother as "a woman without heart" is false. She loved Jack in the best way she could. So Jack comes to accept the imperfections of his mother and, by doing this, can accept her love for him without animosity.

Also Jack knows that Judge Irwin loved his mother and, in his imperfect way, also loved him. By accepting this truth about his parents, Jack comes to accept his own history and to reject the Great Twitch theory. After seeing so many important people from his past die, all in tragic ways, he understands that their lives and deaths were not governed by impulses but by acts of will. Willie, Adam, and the judge all made choices that determined the paths of their lives. "They were doomed," he reflects, "but they lived in the agony of will."

The honest politician Hugh Miller once told Jack, "History is blind, but man is not." By accepting the ability to make choices, Jack comes to accept his own history and takes responsibility for it. Because of this he begins to take positive actions in his own life: he marries Anne, embraces Ellis, and finally writes a book about Cass Mastern. By engaging with his history Jack is, at last, creating his future. As he says, "If you could not accept the past and its burden there was no future."

The novel's closing reference to "the awful responsibility of Time" reflects Jack's hard-won understanding that taking responsibility for one's actions affects the future as well as the present. As time passes, how people live and what they do becomes history, compelling moral people to make wise choices.

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