All the King's Men
by Robert Penn Warren
Analysis: Plot Analysis
Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.
Yep, that's how the novel opens. Jack telling us how to drive to the fictional town of Mason City. By the time we get to the conflict, both Jack and Willie have us in their clutches. We are intrigued, though we know we are dealing with some rather shady characters.
Jack and Willie pay Judge Irwin a midnight visit.
In the conflict stage we learn that Willie and Jack aren't playing around. These are the guys you don't want to find lurking outside your door in the night. Yet, since they got our sympathy in the initial situation, we face an emotional conflict. The fact that Judge Irwin is old makes it seem even worse. We don't yet know how deep it goes, but we know Jack and the Judge have a close friendship. So this is also a big conflict for Jack and the Judge. We don't understand why Jack would treat his long-time friend and mentor this way. On the other hand, Willie is resigned to do what it takes to break the state out of its sorry situation.
"Little Jackie made it stick, all right."
That's the very last sentence of Chapter One, but Jack repeats it a bunch of times. Even though he walked out on his degree, Jack is one mean "student of history." He can't stop himself. If he gets some kind of historical question in his head, he has to get to the bottom of the issue, or as close to the bottom as he can get. What he unearths in the case of Judge Irwin goes back to 1914. Complication number two is the Sibyl Frey becoming pregnant with Tom Stark's child. The two complications come together: using the dirt Jack has dug up on Irwin seems the only way to get's Tom's scandal under control.
We have multiple climaxes going on here. The first one is when Jack learns that the Judge shot himself in the heart, and that the Judge was his dad. But when Jack gets back to the Capitol, all the other dominos start falling too. Tom breaks his neck, and Willie and Adam are both shot dead – all in the space of about 48 hours.
Every thing is so dire during the suspense stage that it almost makes us want to have a Great Sleep. Adam is dead. Tom is completely paralyzed, and we've already known since the beginning of the book that Willie dies. The suspense rests on Jack. We want to know if this is going to be any light at the end of the tunnel for him.
A Little More Investigating
Jack is tired of nagging questions at this point, but he just has to find out precisely who made that phone call to Adam that led him to kill Willie. It's not hard to find out, and it's not like Jack didn't suspect that it was a Sadie Burke-Tiny Duffy deal. Yet, Jack has no momentum left, and he lets it all wind down. The knowledge that Judge Irwin was his father, and that his mother loved him gives him the strength to live in the world again.
A Happy Ending for Jack
Jack tells us early on that the curse of Jack Burden is that nothing ever happens to him. He's no less a candidate for a bullet than any of the people who were shot. And yet he always seems to emerge unscathed. In the end, Jack and Anne get married, and they live with Ellis Burden, the Scholarly Attorney. At least something works out well in the novel.