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All the King's Men | Study Guide

Robert Penn Warren

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All the King's Men | Chapter 8 | Summary



As Jack drives back East, he picks up a hitchhiker; the man has a facial twitch. This twitch is, to Jack, the perfect name for the theory he has been developing about how actions are driven by impulses and not feelings. He will refer to it as the Great Twitch.

After Jack Burden returns from California, he visits Adam Stanton, who seems sullen as he works tirelessly as the director of the planned hospital. Jack then has dinner with Anne Stanton. She tells him about how a man named Coffee tried to persuade Adam to give the construction contract for the hospital to Gummy Larson, a friend of Tiny Duffy. Adam would receive some payoff if he did this. Furious, Adam punched Coffee and threw him out. Adam then wrote a letter of resignation but didn't mail it. Anne wants Jack to convince Adam to stay in his job. Anne says she's willing to serve as a witness against Coffee and Larson. Jack, though, advises Anne not to do this because the defense attorney might bring up Anne's affair with Willie, which has mostly been kept secret. Jack wonders why Anne is having this affair. She claims Willie wants to divorce his wife and marry her, and after she learned about her father's corruption she didn't see any reason not to sleep with Willie. Jack convinces Adam that Willie wants to run the hospital in an honest way, so Adam remains at his job.

Jack learns that Willie's son, Tom, has impregnated a young woman named Sibyl. MacMurfee, Willie's political rival, meets with Willie and threatens to expose this scandal unless Willie steps down as a candidate for the Senate. MacMurfee wants the Senate seat for himself. Willie knows that Judge Irwin is one of MacMurfee's few powerful backers and could pressure MacMurfee to drop the pregnancy scandal. Willie asks Jack to convince the judge to do this. If the judge refuses, Willie wants Jack to threaten the judge with the scandal Jack has unearthed.

Jack meets with the judge and asks him to convince MacMurfee to drop the blackmail. Although the judge doesn't support MacMurfee's underhanded tactics, he refuses to do so. Jack reluctantly gives the judge the documents that prove his involvement in the Littlepaugh scandal. The judge reads the documents and admits to the scandal but still won't talk to MacMurfee. Jack leaves the judge and goes to his mother's house, where he is staying.

The next morning Jack is woken by a scream. He rushes to his mother, who has just gotten off the phone. She screams at Jack that he killed his father: the previous afternoon, the judge committed suicide, shooting himself in the heart. She confesses that she was once the judge's lover and that Jack is his son. When Jack's mother got pregnant, the judge was married to an invalid wife and decided not to divorce her; the scholarly attorney Ellis Burden married Jack's mother and pretended to be Jack's real father. Even though the invalid wife died and Jack's mother divorced Ellis, the judge and Jack's mother never married. Jack attends the funeral for the judge. Afterward his grief for the judge breaks through "like the ice breaking up after a long winter," and he cries.


Jack continues to use his Great Twitch theory to distance himself from emotional pain. He feels empowered by a secret knowledge, similar to the way a person who has a religious rebirth feels empowered by a relationship with God. Because of this knowledge, Jack feels he can cope with anything: Willie's corruption, Anne's affair, his role in the judge's suicide. He says, "You feel clean and free. You are at one with the Great Twitch." The Great Twitch, in fact, takes the place of God in his life. Jack shows this when he teases Adam, saying, "I baptize thee in the name of the Big Twitch." However, the Big Twitch differs from a religious conversion in one important way. When people have religious conversion they often feel more empowered to love others. The Big Twitch, though, isolates Jack from people. Jack says, "My secret knowledge cut me off." Because his knowledge is secret, Jack feels he can't communicate with people who don't have this knowledge—most people. Jack, therefore, ends up feeling smug and superior to others.

Adam Stanton is trapped in a dilemma: with his noble nature, he hates associating with the corrupt Willie, yet Willie has promised to let Adam run the hospital in an honest way. Coffee's appearance reveals his dilemma and leads him to an act of violence that foreshadows a greater one.

The scenes in which Jack talks with the judge and learns the judge is his father bring together the themes of fathers and sons, ambition and corruption, the burden of history, and personal responsibility. As in previous chapters, Jack feels affection and respect for the judge; however, Jack has never come to terms with his lack of a father figure and so can't admit his depth of feeling for the judge. In Chapter 8, however, Jack is further hampered in his interactions with the judge by the odious task given him by Willie.

The task embodies a conflict between two corrupt, ambitious men, Willie and the judge. Jack is merely the reluctant go-between. The difference between the two rivals is that Willie is openly dishonest, whereas the judge cultivates the image of a fair and honest pillar of society. The truth about his past, which he has successfully tamped down to this point, as if "it hadn't happened," now threatens this image. It is fitting for Jack, who represents another scandal in the judge's past, to be the messenger.

Caught in a bind, the judge commits suicide, which could be seen as a final act of cowardice. By shooting himself the judge never takes responsibility for a man's suicide and never tells Jack he's his father. Jack, in contrast, can't help feeling responsible for the judge's death. Jack says, "I had dug up the truth and the truth always kills the father." Jack, thus, is faced with the question of whether he is responsible for the way he uses the truth. He dealt with a similar problem when he told Adam and Anne the truth about their father's scandal.

At the end of the chapter Jack allows the depth of his feelings for the judge to surface. Because of the older man's suicide, Jack learns that his surrogate father really was his father. As Jack absorbs this truth, his defenses break apart and he begins to weep.

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