An overarching theme in All the King’s Men is history and how it affects the present. Structurally, the entire novel can be viewed as the history of Willie Stark’s political rise and fall, mimicking in many ways the rise and fall of the real-life southern governor Huey P. Long. Willie uses his associates’ personal histories to get them to do his bidding. He believes that all people have something in their past that they do not want known.
Warren places the history of Jack Burden’s search for identity and maturity alongside Willie’s history. Burden studied history in college and wrote about an ancestor’s journal in his abandoned doctoral dissertation; the excerpts of Cass Mastern’s journal add yet another layer of history to the novel. In fact, Jack is a repository for histories. Some are secret histories, such as Anne’s information about her affair with Willie, and some are not-so-secret histories, such as Cass Mastern’s journal.
When Jack has had enough of political machinations, he leaves town and drives to the West, where, he imagines, there is no history—or at least history does not matter and a person can start again without a past.
Finally, when Jack comes to terms with his life and his own past at the end of the novel, he states that he and Anne will “go out of the house and into the convulsion of the world, out of history and into history and the awful responsibility of Time.”
Political Power and Corruption
The novel tracks the career of Willie Stark, an absolute expert on wielding political power and achieving what he wants done. Willie receives his baptism by fire into the brotherhood of politicians as an unwitting part of Joe Harrison’s scheme to cheat Sam MacMurfee out of the rural vote in a gubernatorial primary. Before he is told of the scheme, Willie is an earnest, if naïve, public servant, traveling throughout the state giving dry but factual campaign speeches. He is motivated by the desire to do good for the little people in the state. The knowledge that he has been duped lights a fire under him, and he gives a speech that makes people realize he has potential as a politician.
When Willie becomes governor, he does not lose the desire to help the voters, but he has acquired the savvy about how that must be done. He now believes that in the world of politics the ends justify the means, and he does everything possible to make sure that his vision succeeds, no matter the cost. Willie believes that sometimes bad things must be done before good can be accomplished and that “goodness” is made out of “badness” because there isn’t anything else to make it out of. During a rally in chapter six, Willie tells the supportive crowd, “Your will is my strength,” and “Your need is my Justice.”
While Willie will swing a contract a certain way to get something accomplished, he feels less comfortable buying out an adversary and...
(The entire section is 1216 words.)
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History, the drama of conflicting ideas and forces in politics and society, brings about the fatal collision of Willie Stark, the "man of fact," and Adam Stanton, the "man of idea." Warren's novel suggests that both the pragmatist and the idealist are merely actors whose choices often produce ironic and tragic consequences.
Although the action of the novel focuses on Willie Stark and the results of his manipulations, the central theme is Jack Burden's search for values and faith in the meaning of life. Burden's life, at the beginning of the novel, has been a series of disappointments: his father, Ellis Burden, the "Scholarly Attorney," is a futile and beaten failure; his mother is domineering and sexually promiscuous; his adolescent romantic idyll with Anne Stanton has ended in frustration; his years as a graduate student in history have produced only a failed dissertation because of his inability to comprehend the motivations of Cass Mastern, the central figure in his study of the Civil War; his marriage to Lois has proved meaningless. As a publicity man and troubleshooter for Willie Stark, Burden's disbelief in nearly everything can be subordinated to his loyalty to a man who at least believes in the efficacy of ruthless and pragmatic action.
Burden's deepest problem is that, like T. S. Eliot's J. Alfred Prufrock, he is unable to take any set of values or cause seriously, or to commit himself to any purpose in life other than observing others. In his worst nightmares, Burden is haunted by the fear that life is nothing more than the "Great Twitch," the dance of blood along the arteries and veins. When his life comes to a crisis, Burden takes refuge in the past and retreats to a state of moral limbo, the...
(The entire section is 708 words.)