All the King's Men | Study Guide

Robert Penn Warren

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All the King's Men | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Setting the Stage

In a southern state during the early 1930s, a dim-witted character named Sugar-Boy drives Willie, the governor, to Willie's hometown. Also in the car are Willie's wife, Lucy, and son, Tom; Willie's employee Jack Burden; and the lieutenant governor, Tiny Duffy. Behind them another car carries Willie's secretary, Sadie Burke; a photographer; and several hired hands. In the town Willie is greeted as a returning hero and gives a speech in which he claims not to be looking for votes for reelection. He says he has just come to visit his father, but at his father's house Willie has publicity pictures taken of him with his dad. Sadie hurries to Willie and says that Judge Irwin, an influential citizen, has revoked his support of Willie and instead intends to back a candidate named Callahan. Upset, Willie has Sugar-Boy drive him and Jack to the judge's house in Burden's Landing, where Jack grew up. Jack recalls how the judge always treated him kindly, like a son. In the judge's house Willie threatens to find and expose a scandal about the judge if he continues to support Callahan. Offended, the judge kicks out Willie and insults Jack for working with him. Willie tells Jack to dig up dirt on the judge: "There is always something."

Earlier Times

Jack recalls when he first met Willie, as he was writing a newspaper story about a bond issue concerning building a schoolhouse in Willie's hometown. Willie was trying to expose corruption involving nepotism and a contractor using faulty bricks. The townsfolk didn't listen to him, and three years after the school was built the building's fire escape collapsed and three children died. Willie was vindicated. A few years later during a Democratic primary, Tiny Duffy convinced Willie to run for governor as the savior of the people. Because of the school incident, Tiny knew Willie was popular in rural areas and wanted to use him to draw votes away from another candidate. Naive Willie was completely unaware that Tiny and his political supporters did not want him to win but instead were using him as a stooge. During his campaign Willie gave dry, earnest speeches, which failed to persuade many voters. Dejected, Willie considered pulling out of the race until Sadie told him how he was being used. Willie got drunk and gave an impassioned speech in which he admitted being manipulated by Tiny. He pulled out of the race but said he'd run in the next election if conditions didn't approve for the state. Willie won the next election for governor with fervent speeches that promised he would serve rural folks.

Willie's Leadership

Jack remembers going to work for Willie, who became embroiled in a political crisis. The attorney general, Hugh Miller, wanted to impeach the state auditor, who was involved in a scandal. Willie refused, so Miller resigned. Jack remembers how Willie had many affairs with women, including Sadie. Soon the impeachment of the state auditor was dropped. However, the state legislature then attempted to impeach Willie on grounds of corruption. Willie used blackmail and bribery to defeat the impeachment attempt and gave a rousing, victorious speech on the steps of the Capitol building, during which the crowd roared its approval.

Cass Mastern

Jack recalls when he was a graduate student in American history, working on a thesis about his great-uncle, Cass Mastern. When Cass was a teenager before the Civil War, his parents died, leaving him and his sister, Lavinia, with little money. His wealthy older brother, Gilbert, rescued his siblings. He set up Lavinia in Atlanta and brought Cass to his plantation, eventually giving Cass a small plantation to run. Cass went to college in Kentucky, where he befriended Duncan Trice and his wife, Annabelle. Cass had a secret affair with Annabelle; after about a year Trice was found dead, apparently having shot himself by accident while cleaning a pistol. Annabelle, however, suspects her husband committed suicide because he knew she was unfaithful. She sold a slave, Phebe, who knew the real reason Trice died. Cass searched for Phebe with the hope of buying her and then freeing her. He never was able to track down Phebe, but he freed his own slaves. He died during the Civil War, repentant about the suffering he caused and its repercussions. As a graduate student, Jack couldn't grasp the motivation for these actions. He stopped writing his thesis and left college, entering his first "Great Sleep"—a depressed state in which Jack tries to block out problems with a lethargic, uncaring attitude.

Back to the Present

In the present-day story, Jack reluctantly tries to dig up a scandal on the judge. He discovers that the judge had financial problems back in 1913 or 1914. As a result he accepted a bribe to not prosecute a lawsuit and then was given a plum job for a company, ousting a man named Mortimer L. Littlepaugh. Because of this, Mortimer wrote a suicide note explaining the entire scandal and then jumped off a balcony, killing himself. Mortimer's sister gives the note to Jack. She says she did not prosecute the judge because Governor Stanton—the father of Jack's childhood friends, Adam and Anne Stanton—threatened to convict her of perjury if she pursued the matter.

Before Jack sees Mortimer's sister, Willie rejects Tiny's plea to use a certain underhanded contractor to build a hospital. Because Willie wants this hospital to be perfect, he doesn't want any hint of corruption concerning it. Also, Willie tells Jack to convince Adam Stanton, a respected surgeon, to run the hospital. After Jack gets the scandalous information from Mortimer's sister, he talks with Anne, who also wants him to convince Adam to take the job as hospital director. Adam, though, is an idealistic doctor who wants nothing to do with Willie. Jack tells Anne that to convince Adam he must be told about the scandal concerning the judge and their father. Jack sends her documentation of the scandal; she shows the documents to Adam, who is upset but agrees to be the hospital's director if given free rein. Willie agrees. As Adam wonders how Anne knew about the hospital in the first place, Sadie tells him that his old friend is having an affair with Willie.

Jack's Memories of Anne

After learning about Anne's affair with Willie, Jack drives to California to get away from everything. Along the way he remembers falling in love with Anne when he was 22 and she was 17. During this summer Jack and Anne formed a close bond. When Jack went back to college, he and Anne wrote love letters to each other. However, their long separations began to wear on their relationship. Jack asked Anne to marry him, but although she loved him she refused because of his aimless way of life. Jack married an attractive, unintellectual woman named Lois and soon divorced her; Anne was engaged twice but never married. In a hotel room in Long Beach, California, Jack adopts the Great Twitch theory, which claims that people's behavior, such as falling in love, is determined by twitches or biological impulses. As a result Jack equates his relationships with Anne and Lois as a twitch because he had an itch for each of them. He decides he should go back to work for Willie because the deep feelings he once had for Anne really don't exist anymore.

Back in the South

After Jack returns from California, he meets with Anne, who explains Adam is threatening to quit his position as the head of the planned hospital. Someone has tried to get him to accept Tiny's corrupt contractor to build the hospital. Jack convinces Adam the hospital will be honestly built and run, so Adam stays in his job.

Jack learns that Willie's son, Tom, a star college football player, has impregnated a young woman. Willie plans to run for the Senate, but his political opponent, MacMurfee, is threatening to use Tom's scandal against Willie. Judge Irwin is one of MacMurfee's biggest backers, so Willie concocts a plan that swaps the suppression of one scandal for another. Jack will use the scandalous suicide note he unearthed as leverage to convince the judge that MacMurfee should keep silent about Tom's scandal. The judge refuses to bend to Willie's plan and instead commits suicide. Jack's hysterical mother then makes a confession: Jack is the judge's son. They had an affair while the judge was married; when she became pregnant she married the scholarly attorney who pretended to be Jack's real father. Jack attends the funeral for the judge and afterward breaks down and cries. He refuses to do any more muckraking for Willie.

As a result of the judge's death, Willie agrees to use Tiny's contractor for the hospital. Willie and Jack attend one of Tom's football games. Tom is seriously injured and, at the hospital, Adam Stanton tells Willie and Lucy that their son's neck is broken. Adam performs a risky surgery, but Tom remains paralyzed. Willie is stunned to be faced with a situation he can't fix. A few days later Willie tells Tiny that he's taking the hospital contract away from Tiny's contractor. Tiny gets very upset, but he can't convince Willie to change his mind.

Willie's Assassination

Jack visits Anne, who is hysterical because Adam received a call informing him of Anne's affair with Willie. In a case of dramatic irony, which is when the reader knows more than the characters, the call is gratuitous: Willie, who had left Lucy, is going back to his wife. Yet Adam is deeply shaken by the news of the affair and feels he has been betrayed by Willie. Anne pleads with Jack to find Adam as soon as possible. Jack searches for Adam but can't locate him. He then meets Willie at the State Capitol building. As they walk across the lobby, Adam appears and shoots Willie. Sugar-Boy and a guard then shoot and kill Adam. Willie is rushed to the hospital, where a doctor removes two bullets from his chest. Two days later Willie's condition gets worse. When Jack visits him, Willie says, "It might have been all different." The next day Willie dies.

The Aftermath

After Willie's funeral Jack visits Anne, who is stunned about her brother's death. Jack then tracks down Sadie, who is staying at a rest home. She admits telling Tiny about Anne and Willie's affair; it was Tiny who called Adam and told him. Tiny becomes the acting governor and tries to get Jack to work for him, but Jack angrily refuses. Jack considers using Tiny's involvement with Willie's murder against Tiny but decides not to. As Sadie explains in a letter, Tiny will probably not be reelected for governor anyway, so trying to smear his name would be pointless.

Jack becomes sick and tired of Tiny and all the politicians. He visits Lucy, who tells him that Tom died; she has adopted Tom's son and named him Willie after her husband. Jack then drives to Burden's Land and visits his mother. She is upset about the mess she made of her life by denying her love for the judge and marrying men she didn't love. She plans to divorce her husband, give her house to him, and leave the area to start a new life. She asks Jack if the judge killed himself because of the scandal. Jack lies, saying the judge committed suicide because of his poor health, to the relief of his mother. After she leaves town, Jack realizes she has given him peace of mind by admitting her love for the judge. Jack rejects the Great Twitch theory and for the first time comes to fully accept his own past and take responsibility for his own actions. He marries Anne and lives with her in the judge's house, writing a book about Cass Mastern. Jack brings his first stepfather, who is living in squalid conditions, to live with them. After his stepfather dies Jack and Anne plan to leave Burden's Landing, perhaps to return later in their lives to visit and relive their memories.

All the King's Men Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Jack finds out about Cass Mastern's affair.

Rising Action

2 Willie tells Jack to find a scandal about Judge Irwin.

3 Willie becomes corrupt, dynamic politician.

4 Willie wins election as governor.

5 Willie defeats an impeachment attempt, increasing his power.

6 Jack finds a scandal about the judge and Governor Stanton.

7 Jack tells Anne about her father's scandal.

8 Jack learns about Anne's affair with Willie.

9 Jack tells the judge of the scandal; the judge dies.

10 Jack learns the judge is his father.


11 Adam learns about Anne's affair and assassinates Willie.

Falling Action

12 Jack learns that Sadie leaked Anne and Willie's affair.

13 Lucy adopts her deceased son's illegitimate baby.

14 Jack's mother admits her mistakes and gives Jack peace.


15 Jack accepts responsibility for his life and marries Anne.

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