All the King's Men | Study Guide

Robert Penn Warren

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All the King's Men | Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

Jack recalls that before he went to see Miss Littlepaugh, Willie's son, Tom, had a car crash, but his father covered up the incident. Tom made a full recovery. Lucy told her husband to reign Tom in, but Willie refused, saying he's not going to make his son a sissy.

Jack also reveals that Willie insisted the construction of his hospital be done honestly and, because of this, he didn't want Tiny Duffy associated with it in any way. Also Willie told Jack to convince Adam Stanton to be the director of the hospital. However, when Jack asked Adam to run the hospital, Adam refused. He didn't want anything to do with Willie, even though Adam knows he could do a lot of good with the hospital.

After Jack gets the scandalous information from Miss Littlepaugh, he takes a walk with Anne Stanton and they talk about the hospital. She wants Adam to take the job as director because of the good he could do. Jack says Adam is a romantic idealist who doesn't believe in dealing with corrupt people like Willie. To make Adam take the job, Jack would have to change Adam's view of life. Anne wants Jack to try, prompting Jack to suggest how he might change Adam's mind: tell him Judge Irwin once took a bribe and Governor Stanton covered it up. Upset, Anne tells Jack she doesn't want him to take her home and leaves.

Upon Anne's request Jack sends her copies of the documents that prove the scandal concerning Judge Irwin and Governor Stanton. About a week later Anne returns the copies to Jack and tells him she showed the incriminating evidence to Adam. He got very upset but agreed to be the director of the hospital. Willie and Jack visit Adam to seal the deal. After Adam agrees to run the institution, Willie gives his view about how people need to be corrupt to do good. Adam resents Willie's lecture and demands free rein concerning the hospital. Willie says he won't interfere unless he has to fire Adam.

Jack wonders why Willie, who apparently has no qualms about being corrupt, insists that the hospital be built and run without a breath of corruption. Nor can he figure out how Anne learned about the hospital to begin with. Jack didn't tell her, and Willie has been keeping the hospital plans secret. Adam didn't inform her either. A few weeks later a furious Sadie Burke blurts out to Jack that Willie is having an affair with Anne. Stunned, Jack walks to Anne's place, but he doesn't even have to ask. She just looks at Jack and nods.

Analysis

In Chapter 6 Warren delves into the theme of ambition and corruption by exploring the process of corruption that happens to several of his characters. This process consists of the following steps:

  • A person has idealistic beliefs and wants to do good.
  • The person has a crushing realization.
  • Because of this realization the person becomes cynical, believing that all people are basically corrupt or evil.
  • The person changes the way he or she lives based on their adopted cynical view.

In previous chapters Warren shows this process happening to Willie. He was an idealistic, naive politician who wanted to do good in the world. However, after the rude awakening provided by Sadie, Willie comes to believe that everyone is corrupt and evil. Because of this Willie often says, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption." Soon Willie dramatically changes his approach and acts dishonestly to get things done. Willie explains his worldview to Adam, saying, "You got to make [goodness] out of badness ... Because there isn't anything else."

The same process of corruption happens to Adam and Anne. Adam is an idealistic surgeon who believes so fervently about doing good that he lives below his means in a shabby apartment. However, when Anne tells Adam their father covered up the judge's crime, Adam's idealistic worldview crumbles. He no longer believes in noble people doing noble deeds; if a noble man like his father was corrupt, then most people are probably corrupt as well. Because of this Adam is willing to a certain extent to "get dirty" by accepting Willie's offer to direct the hospital. Willie's underhanded methods don't matter as long as he doesn't interfere with running the hospital.

Anne is also an idealist who wants to do good, such as by supporting a children's home. Perhaps to get backing for this project, Anne has an affair with Willie. The corruption of Anne seems more gradual than the corruption of Willie or Adam. At this point in the novel, Warren is vague about exactly when she started a liaison with Willie. Anne has also been exposed to the cynicism of Jack, the man she loves, which probably erodes her idealism. Then when Jack reveals her father's past history, Anne's worldview collapses. It may be at this point she gives in and has sex with Willie. In any event Anne experiences the same disillusionment and resulting cynicism as Willie and Adam. She sees no reason not to sleep with Willie, a man she has criticized for being corrupt, if doing so will achieve some good. Because of Anne's sexual favors, Willie will support the children's home, another example of making goodness out of badness.

Although Jack has been a cynical person for many years, he has one remnant of idealism: Anne. Jack often views Anne as a standard of truth and beauty in the sordid surroundings. For example, when Anne enters a tavern, Jack describes her as resembling "bright gold and red leaves" on trees with sunshine pouring over them. However, Jack's image of Anne is shattered when he learns of her affair with Willie. Jack adds to the reverberations in the web started by the judge and Stanton many years ago. These tremors have severe repercussions, resulting in Adam taking a job he doesn't want and Anne having an affair with Willie. Jack did not expect the latter; he probably believed Anne was above such corruption. Even so his involvement in her corruption stuns and devastates him. Entrapped in the web, Jack receives a bite from the spider.

As in Chapter 3, the hospital symbolizes the way in which Willie uses lofty ideals to justify his corruption. However, the hospital is such a pure ideal for Willie that he doesn't want it tarnished by even a hint of corruption. Jack, though, notices a contradiction with this. If everything is based on corruption, as Willie claims, how can he keep the hospital free from corruption? Also why would he want to? Perhaps Willie is deluding himself. Willie wants to believe that everyone is evil to ease his own conscience. However, deep inside, he clings to and tries to protect a remnant of the goodness he once had. Now he must persuade himself that all of his dirty doings are for good causes: the end justifies the means.

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