All the King's Men

Maturing Jack Burden: The Responsibility of the Converted, Nihilistic Idealist

In Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, the narrator, Jack Burden, is a fictionalized version of Warren himself. Jack expresses Warren's views, which are initially nihilistic, cynical, and escapist. He attempts to distance himself from any darkness surrounding him and his actions, yet simultaneously disclaims all responsibility. However, by the end of the book, Jack is transformed by four events: the departure of Ellis Burden, the Case of the Upright Judge, the deaths of three good men, and the youthful relationship with Anne. Forced to see the futility of his defense mechanisms, Jack becomes the man who accepts responsibility, believes the truth of the Spider Web Theory, and dismisses moral relativism and the "Great Twitch".

Jack's initial cynicism is rooted in his past. When he is six years old, Ellis Burden, the man Jack believes to be his father, walks out on Jack and his mother for the life of a poor, street-corner evangelist. His mother tells him that "he left because he didn't love mother," saying he should think of his father as dead (114). Until he discovers Ellis' motivation for fleeing years later, Jack interprets his departure as abandonment. He feels rejected,...

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