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Existential Irony

The concept of existential truth is highly complicated in Warren’s All the King’s Men. Where Jack Burden struggles to come to terms with the circumstances of his life and his powerlessness therein by concocting simple maxims like the Great Twitch, Willie Stark possesses a sure sense of power and self yet routinely presents an ambivalence in regards to truth (and morality). Stark’s existential ease contrasts to Burden’s existential angst yet both figures articulate the novel’s statement on the folly of self-assurance when it comes to a consciousness of “truth.”

Burden simplifies the reality of the world down to one-line phrases out of an obvious need for existential comfort. Willie “the Boss’ Stark claims knowledge of how the world works, in part, in order to excuse his sometimes questionable behavior. Access to existential truth thus becomes ironic and dubious in All the King’s Men.

Adam Stanton’s absolute, black-and-white views of truth contribute also to the novel’s commentary on man’s ironic relationship to existential, philosophical and moral truth (as these views lead Stanton to murder a man based on false information).

Jack Burden’s development through stages of cynicism and acceptance are closely related to the philosophical themes that characterize All the King’s Men. In describing the tale he has told late in the novel, Burden admits that “[i]t is the story of a man who lived in the world and to him the world looked one way for a long time and then it looked another and very different way.” The malleability of Burden’s view of the world stands here as an example of the text’s statement on the nature of man’s ability to conceive of truth – an ever-shifting, always imperfect yet self-assured and glibly confident sense of reality.