All the King's Men | Study Guide

Robert Penn Warren

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All the King's Men | Chapter 3 | Summary

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Summary

While working for Willie during his first term as governor, Jack Burden visits his mother at home. His mother expresses concern about her son working for the governor and wonders if Jack could get another job, perhaps working for her husband, Theodore Murrell. Jack rejects this notion, feeling repulsed by the idea of working for his stepfather.

During this visit with his mother, Jack, his mother, and Theodore have dinner with Judge Irwin and some other guests. The judge and Jack fondly reminisce about how they used to make model catapults and other model weapons when Jack was a kid. When the judge and his guests talk about Willie's corrupt administration, Jack only wonders whether, if previous administrations had been more effective, "[Willie would] be having to make so many short cuts." One of the guests, Miss Dumonde, realizes Jack's capacity for self-deception. She confronts him about his opinion of her, saying, "Tell the truth, say, I think you are a fool." But Jack only gets angry at her for prodding him to be truthful.

The next day Jack drives back to the state capital. On the way he realizes he's different people in different situations. For example, in Burden's Landing he's one type of person and in the capital with Willie he's another type. He thinks that he should "invite those two you's to the same party ... it would be amusing ... what they would say."

Jack meets with Willie, who is going through a political crisis. Willie is in the midst of forcing the state auditor, Mr. White, to sign a letter of resignation in case Willie needs to use it against him. White is being threatened with impeachment because he has been caught in an illegal scheme. White agrees to obey Willie and leaves. Then the attorney general, Hugh Miller, meets with Willie. Miller wants to impeach the state auditor, but Willie disagrees, saying White isn't worth it. As a result Miller offers his resignation. Still in Willie's office, Jack recalls how Willie has affairs with many women, which upsets Sadie, who is having an affair with Willie. Sadie feels Willie owed her some respect; it was her advice and guidance that helped Willie win the election for governor. Jack isn't sure how much Willie's wife, Lucy, knows about her husband's affairs.

The impeachment of the state auditor becomes a minor issue as members of the state legislature decide to impeach Willie for his corrupt administration. To fight this, Willie gives impassioned speeches throughout the state about how corrupt politicians are planning to oust him from office. In the meantime Willie gathers dirt on key legislators and threatens to use it if they vote for impeachment. He also bribes other legislators, thereby convincing them not to support impeachment. As a result the impeachment of Governor Willie is dropped. To crown his victory, Willie gives a speech on the steps of the Capitol building to an enraptured crowd that chants, "Willie—Willie—Willie."

After the speech Willie and Jack return to the governor's mansion to find Lucy in bed with a headache behind a locked door. Willie is upset his wife didn't have the courtesy to stay up and congratulate him on his victory. Lucy stays with Willie for a while longer, but when their son goes to college, she leaves him.

Analysis

Jack's lack of a father is one of the parts of his life he refuses to confront. He openly values his relationship with Judge Irwin, who has acted as a surrogate father to him. Jack fondly remembers making models with the judge, a typical bonding experience between father and son. However, Jack never admits he resents his mother for all her past boyfriends and her current husband, or that he has ached for a father figure. Instead he just seems to passively observe these events, defeating any attempt at self-understanding.

Jack also ignores his employer's growing corruption and the scandal surrounding Willie. At the dinner party he hardly contributes to the talk about Willie, instead passing the blame onto the politicians who preceded Willie. He also denies his own culpability in working as a muckraker for Willie. Miss Dumonde sees his lack of honesty, but when she prods him about it his response is anger. Because of Jack's denial of the truth, he does not have a strong sense of his own identity. He thinks to himself about his "two you's" and even pictures these different selves at a party together, as if they could exist outside of him.

The dynamics of Willie's administration show that ambition and corruption go hand in hand, one of the novel's themes. Willie maintains his power and gets things done by using a two-pronged approach. First he uses threats and bribery to manipulate people into doing what he wants. For instance, he browbeats White into writing a letter of resignation, which Willie plans to use against White if needed. Later Willie uses blackmail and bribery to convince some legislators to not vote for impeaching him.

In addition Willie uses the support of the common people and stirs it up in his impassioned speeches around the state. Warren uses the roar of the crowd to symbolize how the blind support of the people can elevate a person to an almost godlike status. As a crowd roars its approval for Willie, Jack describes Willie "standing with his right arm raised straight to Heaven and his red eyes bulging." The crowd sees Willie as a divine messenger from God who can do no wrong. Willie fully realizes this religious aspect of the crowd's support and so uses religious terminology in his speech, saying things like "O Lord," and "I have seen a sign!"

Willie believes that the loftiness of his goals put him above the law and others. Indeed Willie has contempt for the law, saying it is "too short and too tight for growing humankind." Because of this Willie believes in disregarding the law to get something done and then making up a law that fits.

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