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All the King's Men | Study Guide

Robert Penn Warren

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All the King's Men | Quotes


Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption.

Willie Stark, Chapter 1

Willie reveals his view about the nature of human beings. Because all people are corrupt, Willie feels he must make goodness out of corruption. In this way he justifies his corrupt methods. Also because of this view, Willie is certain Jack will find a scandal in Judge Irwin's past.


It's because you're a sap. A triple-plated, spoon-fed, one-gallus sap.

Sadie Burke, Chapter 2

Sadie tells Willie how he has been manipulated during his first run for governor. Because of this revelation Willie undergoes a transformation. He rejects honest methods and adopts corruption as a way to get what he wants. Also Willie seems to want to get revenge on the people who made him a sap. So his transformation is fueled by the anger he feels about being manipulated, not because he wants to do good for the people.


Sometimes sleep gets to be a serious and complete thing.

Jack Burden, Chapter 2

Jack describes what it feels like being immersed in the Great Sleep. During the Great Sleep Jack dozes for long hours and, when he is awake, his senses seem dulled to the world around him. In this way sleep seems like a "complete thing" because it encompasses his life. Jack enters this state of being when he wants to avoid the problems of his life and taking responsibility for these problems. The Great Sleep has a passive-aggressive quality: while in a Great Sleep, Jack seems resentful about idealistic Adam's success.


The best you can do is do something and then make up some law to fit.

Willie Stark, Chapter 3

Willie shows that he sees himself as being above the law and also a law unto himself. For Willie corruption consumes everything, including the legal system. People who want to accomplish anything significant constantly break laws to achieve their goals. Realizing this situation, Willie does what he wants and then makes up a law to fit it. Using this rationale Willie becomes a tyrant who overruns any attempt, legal or not, to limit or curb his actions.


There was a moment of stillness, and then there was only the roar.

Jack Burden, Chapter 3

The roar referred to in this quote is the roar of the crowd during one of Willie's speeches. The roar signifies the blind support of the masses for Willie. The crowd views Willie as a godlike figure that can do no wrong. He is their savior.

Also Willie uses the crowd's adoration to convince himself that he is anointed by God. He allows the roar to continue for a while, allowing it to strengthen him. During the speech Jack describes Willie "standing with his right arm raised straight to Heaven and his red eyes bulging."


Her eyes were gold, too, and bright and hard like gold.

Annabelle Trice, Chapter 4

Annabelle describes how the color of her slave's eyes is the same color as her deceased husband's wedding ring. By doing this Annabelle emphasizes the unity between herself and her slave, Phebe. Phebe knows that Annabelle's husband committed suicide because of his wife's infidelity. As a result Phebe and Annabelle share a secret knowledge. Annabelle, however, cannot abide this and soon sells Phebe. Their shared knowledge also causes Annabelle to feel acutely their human connection; she cannot deal with her resulting guilt and so gets rid of Phebe.


Oh, father, father! but he wasn't in the ... white room ... for he had walked out.

Jack Burden, Chapter 5

Jack expresses the pain he feels about his father's abandonment. Although Ellis Burden is really his stepfather, Jack doesn't realize this at this point in the novel. The passage is one of the few times that Jack exposes his pain about not having a father figure. Throughout most of the novel Jack tries to avoid or minimize these feelings. However, by avoiding this pain, Jack also avoids the burden of taking responsibility for his life. He never actively engages in life, except when he falls in love with Anne. Eventually when Jack accepts the truth about his father and stepfather and his mother's relationship with them, he comes to terms with his past and begins to take responsibility for his own life.


"The vibrations," she muttered, "sometimes the vibrations—"

Lily Mae Littlepaugh, Chapter 5

Miss Littlepaugh speaks about the vibrations she feels as Jack pries into the scandals concerning her brother, Judge Irwin, and Governor Stanton. Littlepaugh is a psychic who senses things in the spiritual world. Her reference to vibrations ties into the spider web analogy, which compares life to a spider's web. Everything is interconnected into one whole. As a result, when a person acts he or she causes repercussions that lead to more repercussions, like vibrations extending through a web from the center to the outer edges.

With Miss Littlepaugh, Jack has arrived at the center of the web or the central action that caused many repercussions. Because of this she senses loud vibrations surrounding her. This action is a scandal committed by Judge Irwin that caused her brother's suicide. Also to Jack's surprise, he unearths another scandal: that Governor Stanton covered up the judge's scandal.


For when you get in love you are made all over again.

Jack Burden, Chapter 7

Jack describes the experience of falling in love. This experience is like a rebirth in which each lover recreates the other and also recreates the self. By doing this each person becomes more real and finds a true identity. Also through this process, a person ends up with two selves. For example, Anne creates a new image of herself and receives the new image of herself created by Jack. The more perfect the love, the more these two images coincide.


All life is but the dark heave of blood and the twitch of the nerve.

Jack Burden, Chapter 7

Jack describes an aspect of the Great Twitch theory. According to this idea, people just respond to twitches or biological impulses, like a dead frog's leg twitching from an electric current. Therefore, a person who loves someone is really just responding to an itch. By seeing life in this way, Jack rationalizes that his feelings for Anne and Lois are really the same. In both cases Jack is just responding to an itch. All the sentimental feelings Jack has for Anne don't really matter.

Also because people are just responding to itches no one can be blamed for anything. Jack uses the Great Twitch to deal with Anne's affair with Willie and to escape taking responsibility for his life.


"Your father," she said, "your father and oh! you killed him."

Jack's mother, Chapter 8

Jack learns from his mother that Judge Irwin is really his father. Jack had used a scandal to make the judge support Willie. Instead, the judge killed himself. So in a way Jack has killed his father. Jack now feels he has lost two fathers. Having thought Ellis Burden was his father, Jack loses him too when he realizes he is his stepfather.


He said he wouldn't be paid pimp to his sister's whore.

Anne Stanton, Chapter 9

Anne repeats to Jack what her brother, Adam, told her. Someone told Adam that he got the job to run the hospital because Anne agreed to have sex with Willie. As a result Adam becomes hysterical, confronts Anne, assassinates Willie, and gets killed himself.

Both Anne and Adam are idealistic people whose disillusionment about their father results in the tragedies of Willie's and Adam's deaths. When Anne realizes that her father committed a scandal, she sees no reason not to have an affair with Willie. When Adam learns about this scandal, he agrees to run the hospital for Willie, whom he despises. Adam becomes a sullen, divided person involved in a corrupt system he once thought he was above. The idea that he is also benefiting from his sister's liaisons proves too much for him. Adam snaps and kills Willie.


And it might even been different yet.

Willie Stark, Chapter 9

Willie says his last words to Jack. After his son's injury Willie tries to change his ways. For example, he stops having affairs with women and returns to his wife. However, his redemption is cut short when he is shot by Adam. With this passage Willie emphasizes to Jack that a person always has a choice, which can change his life. It is never too late to make this change.


If you could not accept the past and its burden there was no future.

Jack Burden, Chapter 10

Jack explains this idea to Anne as he speaks of his mother's confession about loving Judge Irwin. By accepting the burden of history a person takes responsibility for his or her past. As a result a person can also take responsibility for creating future plans and guiding his or her actions to achieve these plans. For example, Jack's mother takes responsibility for making a mess of her life. Because of this she can also make decisions to change and improve her life. In so doing she creates a hopeful future for herself.


We shall go ... out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.

Jack Burden, Chapter 10

Jack describes his leaving Burden's Landing with his wife and going into "the convulsion of the world." He uses the word convulsion because the world is in turmoil, a mixture of good and evil, honesty and corruption, and lies and truth. Going out into the world means engaging with it and all of its turmoil. By doing this Jack comes out of his own history and creates a new history.

Indeed what is considered the present is only a brief moment as everything slips into the past. Such interactions with the world are an "awful responsibility" because well-intentioned actions can have negative or mixed results. However, by accepting this burden a person tries to do his or her best and influence history for the better. Jack shows this approach at the end of the novel when he marries Anne, writes a book about Cass Mastern, and takes care of his stepfather.

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