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All the King's Men | Study Guide

Robert Penn Warren

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All the King's Men | Chapter 9 | Summary



Willie meets with Jack Burden and asks him why Judge Irwin committed suicide if he wasn't scared by the scandal. Jack says he doesn't want to talk about it. He's willing to keep working for Willie but doesn't want to do any more muckraking. Willie agrees. Because he has lost the judge, Willie begrudgingly agrees to give the construction contract for the hospital to Gummy Larson. Larson will make sure MacMurfee doesn't use the scandal about Tom getting a woman pregnant. Tiny Duffy is pleased about this development because he'll get a kickback from Gummy.

Willie and Jack attend a college football game in which Tom is knocked unconscious. At the hospital Jack meets Willie and his wife, Lucy, who are very upset because Tom is still unconscious. The doctor on the case is Adam Stanton, who called in a specialist from Baltimore. Adam tells Jack that Tom's neck has been broken. In the hospital lobby Jack informs Sadie Burke about the seriousness of Tom's injury. Jack then calls Anne and tells her about Tom. The specialist and Adam decide that they could either put Tom in a cast and hope he heals over time or perform a dangerous operation that might restore the use of his limbs if his spinal cord has not been crushed. However, the surgery could kill him. Willie and Lucy both agree to the operation. Tom survives the surgery, but his spinal cord has been crushed. As a result he is paralyzed from the neck down. Lucy leads a stunned Willie out of the hospital.

The next Monday Willie tells Tiny that he's taking the hospital contract away from Larson. Dismayed, Tiny declares Willie can't do this at such a late date. Willie refuses to budge on his decision. Jack tells Willie that Larson is tough, but Willie replies, "You have to start somewhere." Soon after this Willie meets with Sadie. She leaves very upset, and Willie also goes somewhere. Jack goes to Anne's place and finds her hysterical. Apparently, Adam received an anonymous call telling him that he got the job as director of the hospital because his sister agreed to sleep with Willie. Furious, Adam went to see Anne and tells her he "wouldn't be paid pimp to his sister's whore." He then stormed out. Anne tells Jack to find Adam as soon as possible. Also she tells him that Willie has decided to go back to his wife. Jack searches for Adam but can't locate him. He then receives a message saying that Willie wants to see him.

At the Capitol Jack meets Willie and they, along with Sugar-Boy, walk through the big lobby. Willie notices Adam, greets him, and extends his hand. Adam also extends his hand, but it holds a gun. Adam fires twice. Sugar-Boy and a policeman shoot Adam, and he dies in Jack's arms. Jack moves through a crowd of shocked onlookers to Willie, who lies with two bullets in his chest. Willie is rushed to the hospital. A doctor removes the bullets and tells Lucy and Jack that he thinks Willie might pull through. However, after a couple of days Willie takes a turn for the worse. Jack visits him in the hospital. Willie is confused about why Adam shot him. Then Willie says, "It might have been all different." Jack nods and Willie continues, "And it might even been different yet." The next day Willie dies. Jack attends the funeral, which is packed with mourners.


In Chapter 9 Warren explores the theme of fathers and sons through the relationship between Willie and Tom. This relationship forms a stark contrast to the relationship between Jack and Judge Irwin depicted in the previous chapter. Both are dysfunctional, but in very different ways. The father and son connection between the judge and Jack is shrouded in secrecy throughout Jack's life. Afraid of a scandal, the judge keeps secret the fact that he had a son out of wedlock. The judge acts as a caring, surrogate father to Jack to a certain extent, but their relationship is always limited. Because he does not admit to being Jack's father, the judge relates to his son only when they are together. As a result Jack never fully bonds with the judge.

In contrast Tom is fully aware who his father is. Willie is extremely close to his son, but in an effort to give him what he was denied Willie spoils Tom. Failing to put constructive limits on the boy, Willie enables Tom's headstrong nature, and Tom grows to view himself as invincible. For example, he often does not work out with the football team because he figures he can deliver on game day without practicing. Considering this, it is appropriate that he is injured while playing an easy opponent. During the game Tom seems to be showing off his skills, thinking no harm will come to him. However, he is suddenly tackled hard, knocking him unconscious.

Tom's sense of invincibility comes from his father. In previous chapters Warren shows how Willie elevates himself to a type of god before the roaring crowd, declaring that he will get things done no matter the opposition. However, faced with his son's injury Willie also faces his own human fallibility. At first Willie tries to will his son back to good health. At the hospital Willie keeps insisting that his son will be all right, to which his wife replies, "God grant it." During his political career Willie uses his fierce ambition to make things happen that he believes are good for the state, no matter how corrupt the methods. However, he can't use blackmail or bribery to save his son. Realizing this, Willie becomes humble enough to honestly accept his limitations.

Willie's rebirth takes multiple forms: He relies on Lucy as she guides him out of the hospital, and he tells Tiny Duffy that he's taking the hospital contract away from Larson. Later Anne informs Jack that Willie is returning to his wife. These events indicate Willie is attempting to redeem himself; he can admit he has limitations and must rely on others for love and support. Willie's tragedy, however, is that his realization comes too late. When he attempts to change his ways, he sets into motion the chain reaction of events that leads to his death. Willie takes the hospital contract away from Larson, which upsets Tiny. Tiny most likely arranges the phone call that informs Adam about his sister's affair with Willie. Adam becomes incensed and kills Willie. Despite his tragic ending Willie offers a ray of hope when he tells Jack, "And it might even been different yet." Perhaps Willie says this for Jack's benefit.

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