All the King's Men | Study Guide

Robert Penn Warren

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All the King's Men | Chapter 4 | Summary

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Summary

Jack Burden remembers when he was a graduate student studying American history and living with two other graduate students. One day Jack received a package consisting of letters, a photograph, and a plain gold ring. The package was sent from the heir of Gilbert Mastern, who was Jack's great-uncle. Jack's other great-uncle, Cass Mastern, was Gilbert's brother. The letters were written by Cass and the picture depicted him. Cass died in 1864 at a hospital in Atlanta during the Civil War. In the letters he mentioned a dark period in his life before the war. Jack decided to base his dissertation for a PhD on Cass.

Through his research Jack learned the following about Cass: many years before the war, when Cass's mother and father died, he and his sister, Lavinia, were left with little money. They were both teenagers at the time. However, his older brother Gilbert, who was amassing a fortune, came to their rescue. Gilbert left Lavinia well cared for in Atlanta and took Cass with him to his plantation. After three years Gilbert gave Cass a small plantation to run. Cass attended Transylvania College in Kentucky, where he befriended the wealthy Duncan Trice and his wife, Annabelle. Cass felt an instant attraction to Annabelle but kept the relationship on a friendly basis. At the time Cass was 22, and Annabelle was seven years older.

After Cass returned to his plantation during the summer, he soon received a letter from Annabelle, in which she declared her love for him. When he returned to college, Cass began a secret affair with Annabelle. Duncan seemed oblivious to this liaison. The affair continued for more than a year. Then Duncan was found dead, accidentally shooting himself while cleaning a pistol. After the funeral Cass met Annabelle, who was visibly shaken. Her personal house slave, Phebe, had found Duncan's wedding ring under Annabelle's pillow. She showed it to Annabelle, who immediately understood that her husband left it there to let her know he found out about her affair and killed himself for that reason. Duncan intended only Annabelle to find the ring. However, because Phebe found it, Annabelle realized her slave also knew about the affair. Unable to abide a slave having this knowledge over her, Annabelle sold Phebe and put the ring on Cass's finger. Cass, though, was mortified that his affair with Annabelle resulted in the death of his friend Duncan and the selling of a slave, who was married to another of Annabelle's slaves. Cass tried to find Phebe and free her, even though this angered Annabelle. In the process he discovered the cruel, inhumane treatment of female slaves. Cass never found Phebe, but he freed his own slaves. Annabella left Kentucky, never to return. For the rest of his life Cass wore the ring on a cord around his neck; he died repenting for the suffering he caused. Cass realized that life is like a spider web: a person's action can cause a tremor, which gradually spreads throughout the web, like a chain reaction. Sensing the vibrations, the spider wakes up and bites the cause of the ripples. As a graduate student Jack either didn't grasp this analogy or was threatened by it. In any event he stopped his dissertation, left college, and entered his first Great Sleep.

Analysis

Through his letters Cass tells a story that shows how everything in life is related. Cass subtly shows a sexual interest in Annabelle, which leads to Annabelle declaring her love for him, which causes Cass to enter into an extramarital affair with her, and so on. No event stands alone. Each event is connected to previous events and leads to further events. When people realize the interconnectedness of things, they also understand that their actions cause consequences—in some cases severe ones. To Cass's horror, he realizes that his affair with Annabelle causes the suicide of Duncan and the selling of the slave Phebe.

Faced with this understanding, Cass has two choices. He can either deny his part in these tragedies and continue to live a calloused life, perhaps continuing his affair with Annabelle; or take responsibility and attempt to set things right. Annabelle herself takes the former approach as she sells Phebe and breaks up the woman's family. Cass, though, chooses the second option. Failing to find Phebe, he frees his slaves, even though doing this causes him to eventually sell his plantation. Jack compares the interconnectedness of Cass's actions to a spider web and the spider to God's eye.

The Cass Mastern story both echoes events in the present-day story—its many infidelities; a suicide that follows being dishonored; the betrayal of a friend—and directly contributes to them. When Jack comes to understand the spider web analogy, he can't handle it; he abruptly stops his dissertation, leaves school, and enters his first Great Sleep.

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