All the King's Men

Major Themes

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"The Old South" vs. "The New South"

One of the key oppositions in the novel is the conflict between the "Old South" and the modernistic "New South." The former is represented by both the entrenched political system (i.e., those in the government and the aristocracy who oppose Willie) and Adam and Anne Stanton, scions of a prominent political family. The latter is represented by the populist demogogue Willie, his followers, and Jack. Adam and Anne intend to do good while adhering to a strong ethical code, even if doing so will not effect change: this is moral absolutism. Willie, meanwhile, is willing to tolerate corruption and use underhanded tactics if they will maximize the amount of good he can do for the poor in the state: this is a more complex moral system, perhaps even relativism. He believes that this plan is the only way to accomplish his goals in the face of an entrenched political system inherently resistant to change. Jack too is himself a modernist in the worst sense in that he lacks any perceptible value system and fails to take responsibility for his actions. After Jack reveals the corruption of their father, Adam and Anne ultimately concede to Willie's way.

Willie dies as a consequence of his political machinations. He had Jack dig up dirt on Judge Irwin, and he surrounded himself with disloyal politicians like Tiny Duffy. Jack suffers a great deal of trauma for his lack of judgment and responsibility. Though this experience, Warren implies that the lack of values of the New South lends itself to fatalism.

Warren subtly criticizes the Old South as well. Adam's death to repair his sister's honor implies a similar trouble with his Old Southern values of chivalry. After Jack's epiphany, he comes to respect the values of Hugh Miller, the one character who combines Willie's realism and zeal to change the system with staunch ethics. The fate of Lucy Stark, too, could be considered a partial vindication of certain Old Southern values. Although Lucy loses the men she loved in her life, she maintains her deep faith, humbleness, and kindness. Her willingness to raise Tom's lovechild represents the enduring nature of the Old South.

The "Great Twitch"

At the end of Chapter Seven, Jack dreams the idea of the "Great Twitch": everything everyone does is controlled by some random impulse "in the blood." If this is true, then nobody has any responsibility for any consequences their actions may have. This idea is comforting to Jack, who uses his dream to shield himself from responsibility for what he has done in the past. Under the "Great Twitch," nobody is truly responsible for Willie's and Adam's deaths, for Judge Irwin's death, or for the failure of Anne and Jack's relationship.

Over the course of the last three chapters of the book, Jack steadily comes to realize that the "Great Twitch" theory is incorrect. First, he is forced to consider the deliberateness of Judge Irwin's suicide and the clear reason for his action. Later, he places the blame for Willie's death on Tiny Duffy, causing him to realize that if someone is to blame for Willie's death, then people do indeed have responsibilities for certain things, so the theory would be false.

"Spider Web" Theory

The "spider web" theory is the basic idea that all people and events are in some way interconnected, even if certain connections are inscrutable.

The world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle... (260)

The theory implies that if one cares not to hurt others, one must act in an ethical and moral fashion with regard to taking responsibility for one's own actions insomuch as that conduct can have damaging effects on others. This theory is introduced at the end of Chapter Four to describe what Cass Mastern came to realize.

The idea of the "spider web" was formulated not by the young graduate student Jack of the early 1920s or the political muckraker Jack of the mid-1930s, but by the Jack speaking from 1939 after he had come to take responsibility for his actions. This is the concept that Jack, throughout his life, had difficulty comprehending. It is the underlying principle of Cass Mastern's motivations that Jack, as a graduate student, could not or would not bring himself to understand.

Jack's realization of the truth of the spider web theory and his rejection of the opposing ideas of moral relativism and the "Great Twitch" are key aspects of the change he undergoes in the final half of the novel. Hence, the theory is a moral metric by which Jack's own progress towards the realization that he must take responsibility can be gauged.

The Great Sleep

Jack falls into three periods of "Great Sleep": first, after he is unable to finish his graduate thesis on Cass Mastern; second, after his marriage to Lois falls apart; third, after he quits his job as as reporter. The "Great Sleep" is simply a period of prolonged sleeping and idleness in Jack's life. He slips into these periods of inactivity--if not also depression--usually after a failure in some aspect of his life. This pattern functions to depict Jack's deep-seated tendency to try to escape his problems and to escape responsibility for his past actions. It also suggests Jack's general lack of ambition and sense of purpose in life.

History

One of the great ironies of All the King's Men is that Jack is a self-described student of history--the very thing he aims to avoid. Jack's personal history involves a great deal of trauma: his father's departure at an early age, his mother's apparent lack of the capacity for emotional love, and his failed relationship with Anne. Jack can examine and research history with much skill, but he cannot understand it, in part because he cannot understand the motivations of the people involved, such as the penitent Cass Mastern.

Jack's failure to grasp the meaning of history and refusal to examine his own past go hand-in-hand with his refusal to take responsibility for his own actions. Jack Burden does not understand Cass Mastern because Cass is responsible and Jack is not. When Jack performs "historical research" for Willie, he does so with cold precision and without concern for what Willie will use the information for. This is another facet of Jack's chronic denial of responsibility. It is only when Jack comes to face his own history that he is able to take responsibility for his actions (this change occurs at the very end of the novel).

Time

The word "time" appears 579 times in the novel, more than even the word "Willie." Along with History, Time is a key abstract concept in the novel, evinced in part by the fact that the term often appears capitalized. Jack, in his thoughts and descriptions, frequently views Time as a solid dimension, and he uses the solidity or slowing-down of time to emphasize awkward social situations. For example: Jack's father "stared at me ... over the chocolate in his hand through time" (277).

Jack additionally often considers Present, Past, and Future to be physical, locational states. In college, he took refuge in the past, causing himself to physically remove himself from society in the present. At certain points, Jack even questions whether or not his past self is the same human being as his present self due to the gulf in time between the two. Clearly, Jack has a problem reconciling past and present, much as he has a problem seeing a connection between cause and effect.

Jack often personifies time as well and writes about it in terms of the universe, indicating that he sees Time in a supernatural sense. To him, Time is like God; it cannot be understood and ought not be challenged. Thus, Jack lives underneath Time, in a state of fanatical devotion and fear.

Almost the entire novel is written in the past tense, while the very end is in the present tense, indicating that Jack has overcome his disastrous obsession with the past and found the ability to live in the present as well as the future. The last two paragraphs in particular are written in future tense, describing his plans with Anne after his father's anticipated death. He writes that he will go back to the Row with her to reminisce only "a long time from now, and soon we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time" (602). By going "out of history," Jack will leave both his mental bondage to the past, and the bondage of the recent tragedies he has taken part in. By going "into history and the awful responsibility of Time," Jack will enter the world where he will hold himself accountable for his actions, hence the "responsibility of Time." Jack ultimately reaches the understanding that his events in the present become the history of tomorrow, and the novel ends where it began, within the realm of Time.

Willie, meanwhile, sees time as an instrument of justice. His statement following his County Treasurer loss concludes thus: "Time will bring all things to light." Willie lives for the future's bounty: his national political aspirations, his son, and his own legacy (the hospital). He dismisses the shady dealings in his administration as means to an end; the end here is not simply the plight of the poor citizens of the state, but also the future of Willie Stark, where he would be remembered for his populism and not for his corruptions. In many ways, the transience of politics validates this strategy--for Governor Joel Stanton and Judge Montague Irwin, their cruel deed from years past went unremembered. Yet in his premature death, Willie was forgotten by all but his wife.

Solipsism

Jack frequently thinks that the people he encounters do not exist. In Chapter One, when he hears someone open the gate and approach him while he is alone on the fence, he thinks:

If I didn't look around it would not be true that somebody had opened the gate with the creaky hinges, and that is a wonderful principle for a man to get hold of. (43)

In Chapter 2, after meeting with two torpid, corrupt Mason County officials and treating both with heavy sarcasm, he professes:

They ain't real, I thought as I walked down the hall, nary one. But I knew they were. ... when they got old they lost their reasons for doing anything and sat on the bench in front of the harness shop and had words for the reasons other people had but had forgotten what the reasons were. ... Oh, they are real, all right, and it may be the reason they don't seem real to you is that you aren't very real yourself. (81-82)

This feeling is a manifestation of Jack's own feelings of insecurity. He is not "very real" himself because he feels that he is strongly apart from the culture of corruption, gullibility, duplicity, megalomania, and ignorance that constitute populist politics in the state.

Thought he constantly faces suspicions and fears, and as he tries to escape, Jack is also a journalist, historian, and blackmail researcher who is intricately linked to every deleterious element of politics in reality--indeed, he may be the novel's single most important link between the political corruptions and the tragedies presented. Additionally, in thinking that other people do not exist, Jack is once again trying to mentally avoid his realization that he is a cog in a pernicious political machine, one from which he has no will (or, perhaps, ability) to escape.

Furniture

Jack's mother compulsively purchases new furniture to be arranged in her home, moving older pieces to the attic. The transient furniture in Jack's mother's home mirrors the transience of his mother's marriages: "The furniture changed, but the people in it changed, too" (158). Due in part to his mother's tendency not to settle on a single arrangement, Jack is intensely cynical about the future and the duration of earthly things:

So now I sat and looked at Theodore and at the new Sheraton break-front desk, and wondered how permanent they were. (160)

Money and Financial Dependence

Financial dependence is a central marker of power relationships in the novel. Jack is dependent upon his mother financially, even as he tries to liberate himself from her meddling. After his real father Judge Irwin dies, Jack ponders whether inheriting Irwin's estate makes him complicit in the Judge's past misdeed.

Money was a key motivator in the Judge's past. Financial insecurity caused him to take a bribe, and it caused the suicide of Mortimer Littlepaugh. In Willie's life, his willingness to tolerate graft made his administration run smoothly, but it drew the ire of his opponents, the Judge, and his Attorney General, Hugh Miller. Willie's downfall was in part financially motivated: Tiny Duffy is vengeful enough, from Willie's cancellation of a tainted business deal that would have given Duffy a substantial kickback, that he places a call that ends Willie's life.

"Yet by their curse we are not so destroy'd ..."

Yet by their curse we are not so destroy'd,[BR]But that the eternal love may turn, while hope{BR

Retains her verdant blossom. (Dante, Purgatorio III, 129-131)]

Dante referred to excommunication and redemption in these lines of the Purgatorio. In quoting these lines for the novel's epigraph, Warren sets forth a parallel theme of rebirth that would appear variously in the novel: in Willie's political rebirth after being used as a dummy candidate; in Willie's moral rebirth after Tom falls comatose; in Tom's child, Willie's virtual reincarnation; and, at last, in Jack's own rebirth and redemption at the end of the novel.

The Cost of Change

This is the idea that all change "costs" something; that is, running the state effectively would require tolerating some amount of cost, if not also corruption. A corollary view is that the course of history is morally neutral; that is, means and processes of history should be judged by outcomes alone. For example, if a morally bad process, such as blackmail, causes a morally good deed, such as building a hospital, then the entire event is good: the end justifies the means. This is another aspect of moral casuistry. These are ideas about which Jack muses shortly before Willie's and Adam's deaths.

Willie clearly adheres to these ideas, while figures such as Hugh Miller and Lucy Stark--moral absolutists--reject these ideas. Adam and Anne both start out rejecting these theories as well, but ultimately they end up aligning themselves with Willie. It is difficult to be a good leader in a corrupt environment.

Ultimately, the message of the novel is against moral relativism and the view of corruption as a historical cost, since these ideas in practice lead to Willie's death. If the ends are mixed and not simply good or bad, there is not a clear standard for judging the efficacy of the means.