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All the King's Men | Study Guide

Robert Penn Warren

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All the King's Men | Themes


Personal Responsibility

In All the King's Men the central struggle for Jack Burden is whether to take responsibility for his life and thereby take an active role in the world. Jack approaches this dilemma basically in three ways: the Great Sleep, the Great Twitch theory, and the spider web analogy.

Jack uses the Great Sleep and the Great Twitch theory to avoid responsibility and pain in his life. The Great Sleep is a depressed state in which Jack sleeps for long hours to avoid any problems he's facing. Even when he is awake, Jack's senses seem dulled. He speaks of himself in the third person: "In the morning he would lie in bed, not wanting anything, not even hungry." Jack uses the Great Sleep three times in the novel; each time he faces a difficult situation. When Jack researches information about his great-uncle Cass Mastern, he learns how Cass came to feel guilty about the suffering he caused. Cass, though, takes responsibility for his actions and tries to make amends by freeing his slaves. Cass's story threatens Jack, who has been leading an aimless life, not taking responsibility for his actions. As a result Jack stops his research, leaves college, and immerses himself in the Great Sleep. Later Jack marries Lois and comes to despise her. To deal with the conflict in his marriage, he sleeps for hours during the day, which frustrates his wife. Eventually even the Great Sleep isn't enough to block out his dislike of Lois, and he divorces her. Years later Jack has a conflict with his editor at a newspaper. So Jack quits his job and enters his third Great Sleep. The main quality of the Great Sleep is its passive-aggression. For example, Jack knows his sleeping annoys Lois but does it anyway. Also when immersed in the Great Sleep Jack acts in a passive-aggressive way toward Adam, who is a responsible, idealistic man.

The Great Twitch comes about as a way for Jack to deal with Anne's affair with Willie. Jack knows he is partly responsible for this affair. He told Anne about her father's scandal, which disillusions her. Seeing her family as corrupt, Anne sees no reason not to sleep with Willie. To make matters worse, Jack still loves Anne, so her affair is especially painful to him. In an attempt to deal with his pain and culpability, Jack rationalizes that all human beings just respond to twitches or biological impulses. Therefore, when Jack fell in love with Anne he was just responding to a twitch. Jack also for a while felt a twitch or sexual attraction to Lois. So Jack views his twitches for Anne and Lois as the same, thereby eliminating his sentimental love for Anne. Indeed, if the Great Twitch explains all of human behavior, then people are never at fault about anything. For example, when Willie does something corrupt he is just responding to his itch. Seen in this light, Jack sees no reason to take responsibility for any of his actions.

The spider web analogy counteracts the Great Sleep and the Great Twitch. Jack comes upon this analogy during his research of Cass Mastern. Cass realizes that all people, including whites and blacks, are interconnected like a spider's web. Because of this, when a person takes an action it will create a repercussion that leads to further repercussions, like vibrations spreading to the outer edges of a web. Cass knows his affair with a married woman led to the suicide of the woman's husband and the selling of the woman's slave. As a result Cass repents of his action and tries to make amends. When first confronted with the spider web analogy, Jack tries to block out its application to his own life by using the Great Sleep. Later he sees the spider web in effect when he tells Anne about her father's scandal—which induces Anne to begin an affair with Willie—and tells her brother, Adam, about the scandal, which shatters his worldview. In this case Jack uses the Great Twitch theory to avoid taking responsibility for his actions. However, the Great Twitch and the Great Sleep prove to be inadequate when Judge Irwin commits suicide. Jack knows his blackmail attempt of the judge led to this suicide. Also Jack has seen the negative effects of other people's actions, such as Adam assassinating Willie. Because of this Jack is compelled to admit that these actions are not just responses to a twitch but rather acts of will. Jack realizes he can make choices in life and, as a result, he takes responsibility for these choices.

Burden of History

Warren sees history as an active part of the present, rather than something in the past that has no effect on people. The author shows this through his style of writing in All the King's Men, which interweaves past events, showing their effect on current actions. For example, when the aptly named Jack Burden learns about the history of his ancestor Cass Mastern, this knowledge has an effect on his actions. Jack attempts to push aside taking responsibility for his past by using various techniques, like the Great Sleep and the Great Twitch, but even so he ultimately cannot deny that the past is always with him, interacting with him. For example, because of his ability to recall the past, Jack knows his revelation to Anne about her father's scandal resulted in her having an affair with Willie.

Furthermore, Jack's ability to reflect on the past, including his personal history, disproves the Great Twitch theory. If Jack just focuses on the present, he could believe that people just respond to twitches or biological impulses. However, through reflection about his history, Jack understands that past events form a pattern or web with one event interacting with other events. Because of this, each current action is influenced by previous actions and has future repercussions. Realizing this fact, Jack decides to take responsibility for his actions. Also by accepting his past and its burden, Jack can hope for a future. In other words he knows by taking responsibility for his past actions he can also accept responsibility for future plans. For Warren, therefore, the acceptance of the burden of history is closely linked with the acceptance of responsibility.

Warren views history as a burden because of the mixture of good and evil. A person can take what he or she might consider to be a positive action, but it may have unintended negative results or mixed results. For example, Anne tells the truth to Adam about their father's scandal with the hope that this information might convince him to take the job running the hospital. Anne wants Adam to accept this job because of the good he can do through it. To a certain extent Anne's attempt works as planned. Because his own family is not free from corruption, Adam realizes he has no right to refuse associating with the corrupt Willie. So he takes the job. However, Adam still feels resentment about working for Willie, which contributes to his ultimate choice to assassinate him. Therefore, by engaging in world events, a person must accept the burden of history that his or her actions often have mixed results.

Ambition and Corruption

For Warren ambition often leads to corruption because of people's pride and self-centeredness. For example, Willie early in his political career has an ambition to do good works for the people of his state, especially poor, rural folks. He tries to expose the corruption behind the building of a school house, but his opponents run over him. Jack Burden and Willie's wife, Lucy, attempt to encourage Willie, telling him that he'll do better next time. However, Willie can't accept defeat and keeps pacing and repeating, "Like I was dirt." This phrase is key. Willie seems more upset because of the blow to his ego or pride instead of for the failure to expose corruption. Therefore, his desire to do good really covers up his main ambition: to be victorious and to be treated with respect. Later when Sadie tells Willie about how he's being manipulated, Willie goes through a transformation because of the blow to his ego. He hates being made a fool and is determined never to let this happen again. His anger fuels his speeches from then on. Willie accepts corruption as a necessary way to achieve his goals. Being honest could lead to failure, which Willie, because of his pride, wants to avoid at all costs.

Also Willie shows a process of corruption that Warren seems to believe happens to many people. Because of this, the author causes other characters, such as Adam and Anne Stanton, to go through a similar progression. First a person has high ideals about what he or she wants to accomplish in life. Then the person receives a crushing revelation, which causes him or her to become cynical, believing all people are basically corrupt. As a result, the person changes his or her approach to life based on this adopted cynical view.

However, once a person starts on the road of corruption, it can draw him further and further in, like a black hole. For instance, to protect his pride and achieve his goals, Willie adopts corrupt methods. Because he sees everything as corrupt, he no longer believes in following any rules. For Willie people change the rules to suit them. The world calls this corruption, but Willie comes to see this approach as just being realistic. Willie, therefore, views himself as above the law. In such a lofty position a person can make up what is good instead of accepting previous definitions of good. So Willie becomes a type of god for which everything is permissible. During Willie's speeches his adoring constituents support this perspective by roaring their unconditional approval of Willie. However, Tom's severe injury forces Willie to realize his limitations. Through a force of will he tries to make Tom recover, but his attempts are futile. Willie accepts that he's just human and tries to redeem himself. For example, he decides to stop having affairs with women and to go back to his wife.


In contrast to the process of corruption, Warren shows characters—including Cass Mastern, Sadie Burke, Jack's mother, and Jack—going through a process of rebirth. Like the corruption process, the rebirth progression involves several steps, which can clearly be seen with Cass Mastern and Jack Burden.

First a person is involved in corrupt and/or irresponsible behavior. Cass has an extramarital affair with Annabelle Trice. Jack refuses to take responsibility for his actions and, as a result, collects dirt for Willie. After this a person has a shattering experience, which confronts him with the consequences of their actions: Cass realizes his affair with Annabelle caused Duncan Trice to commit suicide and Annabelle to sell her slave; Jack has several sobering experiences. By telling Anne about her father's scandal, he has disillusioned her, which leads to her affair with Willie. Also by using a scandal against Judge Irwin, he causes the judge to commit suicide. Both Cass and Jack realize not only the repercussions of their own actions but also the repercussions of many people's actions. For example, Cass learns how people through the system of slavery have taken actions that have caused the immense suffering of millions of people. Jack reflects on how many people he knows have taken irresponsible actions, causing suffering. The judge refused to marry Jack's mother; Sadie tells Tiny about Anne's affair with Willie; and Jack's mother marries men she doesn't love.

After realizing the harm done by the corruption and irresponsibility of others and themselves, Cass and Jack decide to change their ways. The final step in the rebirth progression involves going out in the world and taking actions that reflect their new approach. Cass searches for Phebe and frees his slaves. Jack forgives his mother, marries Anne, and takes care of his stepfather, Ellis Burden.

Fathers and Sons

Throughout All the King's Men Warren explores several father and son relationships, including the relationships between Judge Irwin and Jack Burden, Ellis Burden and Jack Burden, Willie and Tom, and Willie and his dad. Also, although brothers, Gilbert Mastern treats Cass Mastern in many ways like a son by providing for him and educating him. Each of these relationships has different dynamics: Willie spoils Tom; Judge Irwin denies being the father of Jack but still acts like a surrogate father to him; Gilbert criticizes Cass for his reformed ways. However, a thread unites all of them: each relationship in its own way is dysfunctional, which causes hardships and separation.

Because of the judge's refusal to admit that Jack is his son, Jack suffers from a lack of a father figure; as a result Jack and the judge never bond. Even when he learns about the scandal, the judge refuses to tell Jack that he's his father. Instead, he commits suicide, causing the ultimate separation. On the other hand Willie causes hardships by spoiling Tom. Willie praises his son's achievement on the football field but fails to discipline him; as a result Tom becomes headstrong and irresponsible. He flaunts his bad behavior, not caring what Willie thinks. Because of this, Willie and his wife, Lucy, feel a painful separation from their son. Seeing himself as invincible, Tom suffers a severe injury on the football field, and the very activity Willie praised his son for ends up causing a final separation between father and son. Willie treats his dad coldly—an object to be manipulated for publicity. Whatever affection Willie ever felt for his father has long been lost. Willie's dad shows the pain of this separation when he hopes that his son will stay overnight a while at his place, but Willie abruptly replies, "I gotta shove."

The relationship between Ellis and Jack breaks this dysfunctional pattern. Jack has definitely dealt with hardships concerning his stepfather, especially Ellis's sudden abandonment of Jack and his mother. In fact Jack feels so much resentment toward Ellis that he intentionally keeps his distance from him. Jack sees Ellis only when he has to track down a scandal about the judge. This encounter is very painful for Jack. At one point Jacks says to himself "Oh, father, father" and wonders why Ellis abandoned him. The ache Jack feels for his father's love is palpable. However, when Jack accepts responsibility for his life, he brings Ellis to his house and takes care of him, thereby breaking the pattern. Jack seems to forgive his father and accepts that he, like all people, is imperfect.

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