Study Guide

All the King's Men Analysis

  • Tone

    Reverently, Cynically, and Hopefully Memorial

    From the first page we get the sense that we are about to get wrapped up in something of sweeping importance, or at least in something that is sweepingly important to Jack. You could even say he worships his memories, and brings them to life. He treats facts delicately, never assuming, but always getting proof. This guy won't rest until all layers of the past are peeled back, or at least as many layers as possible. Jack's adventures in memory and history imply that America was founded on slavery and racism. As a result, this country and everybody in it is cracked at the foundation. So much of what he says is tinged with cynicism, sarcasm, and bitter irony. Yet, the very act of rooting around in the past to expose truth is a hopeful act, an act of trust in the truth to heal and cure a broken world. In the final passages his cynicism gives way to hope.

  • Genre

    Literary Fiction; Family Drama; Historical Fiction

    Since Robert Penn Warren won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel in 1947, it has to be literary fiction. You can stick anything in this genre that pays particular attention to character development, form, style, and usually difficult social issues. While plot is important, it is less important than the characters themselves, and the social issues they confront.

    The family drama aspect of this tale peaks in Chapters Eight, Nine, and Ten. Family secrets are exposed, families torn apart, and new families are created. All the King's Men explores not only what family means to the characters in the novel, but to America before and after the Civil War.

    Which brings us to the historical fiction aspect of the novel. Interestingly, in his Paris Review interview Warren denies that he writes historical fiction. Perhaps what he's getting at is that all fiction set in a real time period is historical fiction. If we pigeonhole a story as historical, we might lose sight of the larger issues, which stretch beyond history.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Robert Penn Warren took the title, All the King's Men, from the famous nursery rhyme "Humpty Dumpty," featuring the egg who falls off a wall, gets broken, and can't be put back together. In case you blocked it out of your childhood memories, we reproduce it here:

    Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
    Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
    All the king's horses and all the king's men
    Couldn't put Humpty together again.

    But anyway, what does a violent nursery rhyme have to do with corrupt southern politics, and a few people trying to do the right thing?

    One common interpretation is that Willie Stark is the king and that everybody else in the novel is one of his men (or women, as the case may be). When Willie gets shot by one of his men (Adam Stanton), none of his other men can put him back together.

    You could use that interpretation and write a paper about how ironic it is that Dr. Adam Stanton, the person most likely to put Willie back together, kills him. Still, when you know that Huey Long (on whom Willie is based) made a famous speech called "Every Man a King," the Willie as king theory kind of falls down.

    But, you probably noticed another possible flaw. This theory requires that Willie be both the King, and Humpty Dumpty. Critic James Rouff argues that Willie is Humpty Dumpty, and not the King (source). He claims that the King is actually God, and that everybody in the novel is one of the God's men. Willie is the guy that tries to reach too high (i.e., to be like God) and ends up getting himself broken beyond repair.

    There is a fair amount of evidence to support this thesis. If you like this idea, pick some passages from the text that come to your mind and try to say something interesting about it.

    Still, we like the idea of King Humpty Dumpty. Let's break that idea out of its shell, and see if it works. First of all, notice how the King isn't featured in the nursery rhyme. The speaker makes us aware of the (absent) King only by talking about other things that are closely linked to him. If you hear the word "crown," you think of a royal person. In this case, we know the King is lurking somewhere in the vicinity because we see his horses and his men. The horses and men are symbols of the King.

    But isn't this story set in the United States of America? There are no kings in America, in the sense that there is no monarch. But there is a different understanding of "king" that might apply to All the King's Men. In America, everybody is supposed to be a king, right? This is the land of equality, or freedom, etc. The founders of America came here to get away from monarchy, to establish democracy.

    Is the moral here that if you try to be more of king in America, you'll get knocked off a wall? Well, lots of people try to be king in their own ways in this novel, and lots of people get smacked down. So you could call the title an ironic commentary on America's system of government. It gets even more ironic when we start thinking about the themes of slavery and race in the novel.

    But before we go there, we should mention that a "humpty dumpty" is also a not-so-nice term for a rather round person. This explains why the Humpty Dumpty from the nursery rhyme is often drawn as a kind of half man, half egg. They are also extremely fragile, and, once broken, can't be restored.

    So, we might ask ourselves, what does this novel show as broken? America, for one thing. The novel asks whether the pieces of America, broken by slavery and unequal distribution of wealth, can ever be put back together again. At the same time, the novel suggests that to put together a broken America, the institutions of slavery, racism, and unequal distribution of wealth also must be broken apart.

    This is what Judge Irwin means when he defends Willie by saying, "There's one principal [Willie has] grasped: you don't make omelettes without breaking eggs. […] He's broken plenty of eggs, and he may make omelettes" (3.113). By putting this cliché in a novel virtually devoid of clichés, Robert Penn Warren draws our attention to it, helping us to make sense of the title.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    It's difficult to say whether All the King's Men ends happily or tragically. The novel starts ending with the suicide of Judge Irwin. It continues ending with the deaths of Adam Stanton, and then Willie Stark, followed by the death of Tom Stark.

    But the novel doesn't actually end on a tragic note. We wouldn't exactly call this work a comedy either. Comedies typically end in some sort of reunion, often marriage, and present a hopeful order that contrasts with the hopeless chaos of its beginnings. William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night of A Midsummer Night's Dream is a classic example of such a comedy.

    All the King's Men has a double layered ending, this first layer being tragedy, and the second layer being "comedy" in the Shakespearean sense.

    First, the Judge, then Adam, then Willie, and then Tom die. But, as a result of the Judge's tragedy, Jack learns that his real father is Judge Irwin, and that his mother loved Judge Irwin. Previously, Jack didn't think that she loved anyone, so this news of the affair between his mother and the Judge is hopeful. Knowledge of his past gives Jack the power to deal with his family life and his love for Anne. Jack's new outlook also allows him to love, in some way or other, Ellis Burden, whom he brings to live with him.

    The ending seems to argue that tragedy doesn't have to be the end of the story. We have to look beyond the tragedy and into the possible comedy (or hope) waiting in the distance. As such, All the King's Men can be seen as an optimistic book.

    Perhaps the novel's optimism is summed up in these words, "But I still had the money, and so I am spending it to live on while I write the book I began years ago, the life of Cass Mastern, whom once I could not understand, but whom, perhaps, I may come to understand" (10.450). This is where the themes of "Education" and "Memory and the Past" collide. Through continued education, and continued exploration of the past, a more positive future can be imagined.

    But, for all its optimism, the final lines of the novel make clear that realization of the optimism won't be easy. Jack tells us that when he and Anne leave Judge Irwin's (now Jack's) house in Burden's Landing, they will "go into the convulsions of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time" (10.453). This is a little puzzling, but among other things, Jack seems to be saying that with knowledge of history and the past comes a great responsibility – the responsibility to try to make better history in a hurt world, while steal dealing with the repercussions of the past.

  • Setting

    The South, 1810-1939

    You might have noticed that All the King's Men is not a linear narrative. Instead of moving in a straight line from 1810 to 1939, it dips and curves back and forth in time, according to the landscape of Jack's memory. Luckily, Jack gives us all the dates, so we know precisely where we are in time at a given moment – if we take the time to weave together all the loose threads. To help get a handle on the movement through time of the story, we'll break our discussion of setting down into four aspects, starting with geography.


    In Robert Penn Warren's Paris Review interview the author talks about being intensely impressed, at a young age, with a book that argues that geography is the answer to everything. For a long time he believed that he could boil any problem down to geography. He later realized there was no one right answer to the world's problems (source).

    Nonetheless, geography plays a huge role in All the King's Men. While Kentucky, Mississippi, Texas, Arizona, Louisiana, and California are all mentioned, the state in which the bulk of the novel is set is never named. Still, by process of elimination, it has to be Louisiana. We also need a southern state which fronts on the Gulf of Mexico (since we know Burden's Landing fronts the Gulf). That means either Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana, or Texas. It can't be Texas or Mississippi because Jack goes to both of those places from where he lives. The geography just doesn't fit for Florida. Plus, there's no denying that this novel has lot's to do with Huey Long, former Governor of Louisiana.

    But why is Warren so coy about the setting of his novel? We can think of two reasons. The first is to emphasize that this story is a piece of fiction, and not a piece of history. A second reason would be to stress that the state of politics and racism in the 1920s and 30s is not a "Louisiana problem," but rather one that affects the entire South.

    Cass Mastern's Story

    Cass Mastern and Annabelle Trice have their love affair from 1854-1855, when Cass is 21 years old and Annabelle is 29. This is some ten years before the end of the Civil War. If it weren't for this story, slavery wouldn't quite make it as a theme in All the King's Men, even though in the 1920s and 1930s (fifty years after the end of the Civil War) in Louisiana we still see the evidence and impacts of slavery. From Jack's mom to Willie Stark's dad, many characters have black servants, and racism is rampant.

    But in the Cass Mastern story, slavery becomes the focus, completely overshadowing the sordid tale of adultery and suicide featured in the beginning. This aspect of the setting is important to the novel because it helps us see how slavery directly impacts current times.

    "The Case of the Upright Judge"

    The story of how Judge Irwin saved his wealth by driving a man to suicide runs from about 1910 to 1915, after which Governor Stanton puts the lid on it. It remains hidden for some 22 years before Jack digs it up again. This is important for the same reason as the antebellum setting of the Cass Mastern story – it shows us how the past directly impacts the present.

    Willie and Jack

    The novel actually begins in 1939 – three years after 1936 when Jack and Willie pay Judge Irwin the midnight visit that has such profound implications for most of the characters. As we learn in the novel's last pages, everything that happens in the book is being remembered by Jack in 1939. Still, we want to give you a linear timeline of the novel's important events:

    • 1922 – Jack and Willie meet in Mason City at Slade's.
    • 1925 – The schoolhouse collapses and Willie starts gaining an audience.
    • 1927-28 – Willie runs for governor and wins.
    • 1932 – Willie is reelected as governor.
    • 1936 (May) – Jack and Willie visit to Judge Irwin at midnight.
    • 1937 (March) – Jack and Willie visit Miss Lily
    • 1937 (May) – Jack finds our about Anne and Willie's affair.
    • 1937 – Later in the summer, Willie learns Sibyl Frey is pregnant, probably by Tom.
    • 1937 – Judge Irwin shoots himself, and Jack learns that the Judge was his father.
    • 1937 – During the weekend before Thanksgiving, Tom is injured, and Willie and Adam are shot.
    • 1939 – Anne and Jack are married and taking care of the Scholarly Attorney.
    We realize there are some holes in our timeline, but we have to leave you guys some work.
  • What's Up With the Epigraph?

    Mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde
    – La Divina Commedia, Purgatorio, III

    Thanks to the Princeton Dante Project, we are able to translate this for you. In English, the epigraph reads, "As long as hope maintains a thread of green." This is the last bit of a longer phrase, which is, "By such a curse as theirs none is so lost/ that the eternal Love cannot return/ as long as hope maintains a thread of green." (For more on Dante's Divine Comedy, check our Shmoop Guides on Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.)

    It's not hard to see what Warren is getting at, whether you've read the Divine Comedy or not. This epigraph sends us a message of hidden hope, which we don't see much of until the end of the novel.

    The "green" in the epigraph speaks to the kind of return to innocence that Jack finds when he learns the truth about his childhood. The love between him and Anne must have maintained "a thread of green" through all the trials and tribulations, though we can't necessarily say their love is eternal.

    The third and fourth paragraphs of the novel deal with this theme explicitly, and provide a set-up that carries itself through the novel. To get to Mason City from the Capitol (presumably Lafayette, Louisiana), one passes a view of "red hills now, not high, with blackberry bushes along fence rows […] and then a place where the second-growth pines stand close together if they haven't burned over, there are black stubs" (1.3).

    Then, Jack explains that, "There were pine forests a long time ago but they are gone. The bastards got in here and set up the mills and […] paid a dollar a day and folks swarmed out of the brush for the dollar" (1.4).

    The "black stub" imagery is the key. We see it again when Jack creates a memory of the beginnings of the relationship between Ellis Burden and Mrs. Murrell. He says, "I have not seen the town [in Arkansas]. But I have seen the town in my head" (3.171).

    The town where Ellis finds Mrs. Murrell is mill town and Jack imagines them walking together, out beyond the houses, where the stumps are located. Jack says he can "see them standing in the middle of the ruined land" (3.173).

    So, we find out that Jack is a bit of an environmentalist. This is important in terms of his political profile. He thinks that there are more ways for people to make money than by milling forests. Jack's sadness over the "ruined land" is evident. But, being Jack he connects this to the larger issues of both the novel and his life. The ruin of the land parallels the ruin of the lands people. The aftermath of slavery has left the people like the "stubs." This is obviously very problematic language. But in Jack's mind, this is what slavery has done to the black people of America.

    Jack thinks that the same lack of reverence for life that allowed slavery to occur also allowed the destruction of the natural environment. We aren't in any way implying that the burning of forests is on the same level with the treatment of slaves in the South. Still, it's important to notice that Jack (whether you agree with him or not) sees these two evils as springing from the same source.

    Being Jack, he also connects this to his personal problems – i.e., the "black stub" of his past, the mystery of Ellis Burden and Mrs. Murrell. Before Jack knows the truth about them, he most closely associates them with the picture of "ruined land," and so too himself. Until he understands things, he sees himself as the messed up byproduct of a land of human and environmental disasters.

    By the end of the novel, Jack realizes that, in America, "hope maintains a thread of green" and that with proper food, care, and love, the thread will do its best to grow, like "the second-growth pines," in spite of much adversity.

  • Writing Style

    Flashbacks and Freeze Frames

    The flashback style in All the King's Men is dazzling, like the highway mirages Jack warn of on the road to Mason City. It sometimes seems as if Jack can never move forward, because he is always brought back to the past. That the novel relies heavily on Jack's flashbacks and memories of the past reinforces this point. Even as he helps propel Willie into the future, Jack is lured by the past, by what he calls "that dark backwood and abysm of time" (emphasis ours; 1.153).

    You might have noticed that this is a wry appropriation of Prospero's question to Miranda, in William Shakespeare's The Tempest, when she asks him about the past: "What see'st though else in the dark backward and abysm of time?" (1.2.13-14)

    In other words, "What else do you remember?" Like many of the older people in All the King's Men, Prospero has past secrets he doesn't want to be made public.

    In Jack's case, it is literally a backward journey into the backwoods. Backwoods are wooded areas that haven't been cut down or otherwise touched by human beings. It also means an area lived in by an community that has "backward" ideas – like heavy duty racism and corruption in the case of All the King's Men. We can see this in some form in nearly every flashback. In the case of the story of Cass Mastern in particular, what we witness is brutal and shocking.

    By repeating elements of these flashbacks throughout the story, and by continually bringing up reconstructed images and sound bites, we get a freeze frame effect. That's what all the nicknames and defining phrases are all about (The Young Executive, Cousin Willie with the Christmas Tie, the Scholarly Attorney, etc.). Jack's mind freezes on these moments; they come to define the people behind them.

    The image of Anne floating on her back with her eyes closed and the seagull flying overhead defines her in Jack's memory for a long time. This image is so powerful that he flashes on it after taking off all her clothes. This image prevents him from having sex with her, a decision that deals a blow to both their self-esteems and their relationship.

    These freeze frames are also open to manipulation. Jack and others are fascinated with how changing someone's "picture of the world" can radically influence his or her behavior. The novel can be seen as a history of the changes in the pictures in Jack's head (and sometimes in the heads of other characters).

  • Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

    The Chorus of Old Men

    Did you notice that Jack can be pretty rough on the elderly? Think of Miss Lily Mae Littlepaugh. Not only does Jack approach her creepily (somewhat like his midnight visit to Judge Irwin with Willie), but also he "[shakes] her matchwood arm" when she tells him about Governor Stanton (5.520).

    At least until near the end of the novel, Jack seems to hold the older generation in contempt and anger. One big reason for Jack's animosity is that the many members of this generation were deeply involved in the exploitation of African-Americans. In addition, many of them continue to foster racist attitudes, and so have lost respectability in Jack's eyes. Jack also believes they know dirty truths, but try to keep them hidden. He doesn't say any of this. But we have a hunch.

    In addition, Jack finds this older generation to be extremely judgmental: they judge everything around them, but never turn their judgments on themselves. They want to freeze progress, to remain complacent, to stop the march of history. This aspect of the elderly in the novel manifests itself in a chorus of old men that we meet twice. Like a traditional Greek chorus, they also represent some predominant opinions held by the larger community.

    The first time we meet them is in Chapter One when Jack and Willie are driving out to Burden's Landing. In this case the chorus is in Jack's mind. He images the old men talking to him, his father, and his mother. He tells us, "You come into the town at night, and you hear voices" (1.316).

    This chorus of old men comes to life in Chapter Two, when Jack remembers the time he was investigating the school contract situation in Mason City. He tells us that, "Time and motion cease to be […] if you are sitting on a bench in the middle of the afternoon in late August with the old ones" (2.18).

    Jack knows just how to get information on these guys. He waits. Then throws out the bait. Then waits again. The old men finally reveal that the school contract was denied to the low bidder on racist grounds – or at least that's what the old men have been told.

    And this is 1922, almost 60 years after the end of the Civil War. Progress is slow.

    The Great Sleep

    The Great Sleep happens twice in Jack's life. The first time is when he's gotten the full story of Cass Mastern, and the second is when he realizes his relationship with Lois is a sham. In both cases Jack doesn't know how to deal with the new knowledge that has crept into his brain. So he shuts down until he can figure out how to deal with it. In the case of Lois, he tells us exactly what happens. He begins to realize that she's a human being, and not simply a beautiful sex object.

    Jack certainly doesn't dehumanize all women. Lucy, Sadie, his mother, and Anne are all flesh and blood creatures with beating hearts. So, his dehumanization of Lois probably is in large part due to his deep love for Anne, and the pain he still feels at the failure of their relationship. If Lois isn't human, and therefore unlovable, Jack can't get hurt, and can't hurt Lois. When he realized he's just using her, he has to sleep his way through the situation until he decides to leave her.

    Jack isn't sure or doesn't tell us exactly why the Cass Mastern story makes him crawl under the covers of the Great Sleep. We think it also has to do with dehumanization. Jack already knows that slavery dehumanized both the victim and victimizer, but the story of Cass suggests that slavery so deeply taints humanity, America, and the South, that there is no hope. This might also explain why he falls into the second Great Sleep when he realizes he's dehumanized Lois. He may have felt that his dehumanization of her was like an extension of the mindset that allowed people to justify the enslavement of other human beings.

    The Great Twitch

    We understand The Great Twitch as an extension of the Great Sleep. Like the Sleep, the Twitch is a coping mechanism that allows Jack to continue functioning in the world after he learns that Anne and Willie are having an affair.

    This testifies to the depth of Jack's love for Anne, and probably for Willie too. The knowledge of their affair colors his world in a particularly ugly way. In fact this affair emphasizes all the other ugly aspects of life that Jack has already experienced. He has to "change the picture in his head" to survive. He has to dehumanize Anne and re-dehumanize Lois to deal with the movie of Anne and Willie that is playing in his brain. He says, "In the end you could not tell Anne Stanton from Lois Seager" (7.190).

    The Twitch is his attempt to lobotomize himself like Adam's patient. If nothing has any meaning, if all life is electrical impulse, then feelings and pain are just an illusion. Jack dreams up the Twitch as a way to keep functioning in spite of his hurt and disillusionment.

    The fact that he does keep functioning, that he does keep on seeking the truth even after the Twitch eventually allows him to renounce the Twitch at the end of the novel. He gives it up in favor of empathy and embracing the humans still left standing, including Anne and the Scholarly Attorney.

    In the end, the Twitch is revealed as a temporary shield against the pain of a land soaked in the horrors of slavery. Jack's removal of this shield is like his peeling back layers of history to get to the truth. In both cases hope is only possible when the facts are all out in the open.

    The West and Secret Knowledge

    Jack is all about "secret knowledge," and he thinks the Big Twitch is the ultimate in secret knowledge. So much so that he has to go all the way to Long Beach, California to get it. This is part of American mythology: going west to fulfill your dream.

    Jack is "drowned" in these dreams, "drowned in West," and reborn into somebody who can't be hurt by the world in which he has to live and work (7.187). This leads to the Great Twitch, but also to a fearlessness and resolution in his search for the truth.

    It's also kind of funny that Jack is so excited about having secret knowledge, and finally not having to "envy" other people that have secret knowledge. Isn't that what he always has? Isn't that what he does for a living? Isn't that what sent him hurtling west "doing seventy-five" in the first place? (7.1)

    The Roar of the Crowd

    Willie and Tom are both associated with the roar of the crowd. Willie brings the roar with his speech (and the action behind it). Tom brings the roar by making the right plays on the football field. Football and politics and the roar of the crowd. Nothing says American dream quite like either one. In contrast to the chorus of old men, the roar of the crowd represents the positive judgments of the community (though the crowd can switch from boos to roars very quickly).

    The football thing isn't hard to figure out. Tom plays well and he gets the roar.

    Willie's roar is more complicated. What a crowd will roar for says a lot about the crowd. Did you find anything odd about Willie's speeches? Here's an example of an excerpt from a typical Willie Stark speech: "'I have seen blood on the moon! […] Buckets of blood, and boy I know whose blood it will be. […] Gimme that meat ax!'" (3.92). As Jack tells us, "It was always that way, or like it" (3.93). When Willie is mild-mannered and calm, nobody listens to him. To get the roar, he has to constantly evoke violence. Willie's crowd is angry and confused. He succeeds with them by representing himself as "one of them," and by giving voice to their anger at having been cheated by the fat cats who get rich while others go hungry.

    The Ring

    Duncan Trice's wedding ring is the big symbol in the Cass Mastern story. Like many of the symbols in All the King's Men, the ring is a powerful symbol of judgment.

    First and foremost, the ring represents the betrayal of Duncan Trice. It also represents a deeper betrayal of human beings when they are put into slavery. Remember that Cass wore the ring around his neck while he was fighting to free slaves.

    Furthermore, the ring symbolizes Phebe's humanization in Annabelle's eyes. Remember the intense moment when Annabelle tells Cass about finding the ring?

    " – and there lay the ring on the palm of her hand – […] – and I knew it was his ring but all I thought was, it is gold and it is lying in a gold hand. For Phebe's hand was gold – I had never noticed how her hand is the color of pure gold. Then I looked up and she was still staring at me, and her eyes were gold, too, and bright and hard like gold and I knew that she knew." (4.88)

    Annabelle realizes that Phebe, who she legally owns (like she legally owns the ring), is precious and beautiful, and her moral superior in every way. What she can't live with is the fact that Phebe knows this too. This is why Annabelle can't "bear [Phebe's] eyes upon" her (4.151). Annabelle has a deep shame with no visible outlet and this leads her to further degrade herself by selling Phebe "downriver," delivering her into sexual bondage and severing her from her husband.

    For Cass, this episode becomes humanizing. He accepts the burden Annabelle hoists upon him, and sees a way to redeem himself. Cass believes he has found a way to alleviate his pain – from betraying his friend and being a plantation owner himself – and do right by everyone involved.

    Though he can't locate Phebe, Cass does effect rapid change in the community by radical means. He frees the slaves on his plantation, and pays them to continue working. His plan doesn't work in the long run, but people like Cass are important because they try to break down barriers of inequity when the odds against them seem insurmountable.

    In addition to being symbol of judgment, and an agent of both humanization and dehumanization, the ring is a symbol of hope. Cass wears this heavy-duty symbol against his chest until his death. The ring slowly makes its way to Jack Burden so that its story can be told.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central/Peripheral Narrator)

    Other than a few sections where Jack Burden talks about himself in the second or third person, All the King's Men is strictly first person. Jack is both a central and a peripheral narrator. He tells us, "This has been the story of Willie Stark, but it is my story, too" (10.656). Within their two stories, we also get two other stories: the story of Cass Mastern and the story of Judge Irwin. But we also hear the stories of the other people closest to Jack and Willie. Since Jack can't tamp down his inner "student of history," he becomes a filter for these different stories and is compelled to preserve them for future generations.

    Even though Jack is dedicated to finding "the truth," he still isn't the most reliable narrator in the world. As we discuss in "Writing Style," the whole narrative is a collection of layered flashbacks and imaginings. Memory is notoriously faulty and unpredictable. Plus Jack has heavy-duty baggage. He's carrying around trunks and suitcases of bitterness, anguish, shame, and brokenhearted-ness. At times, he is too emotional to be a reliable narrator.

    Especially, perhaps, where Willie is concerned. Even when Jack likes Willie the least, he seems to hero-worship him. It is clear that Jack places Willie on a pedestal when he talks about him to others, and when he recalls memories of the Boss. At the same time, Jack is so involved in his own story that he doesn't quite penetrate to Willie's depths. In some ways, Willie remains a character in a story, while Jack seems more like a real person.

    When looking at the other characters in the book, we should remember that we encounter them through Jack's perspective. As much as we adore Jack, we have to admit that he can be an unreliable narrator, who doesn't always have things right.

    We should add that there is actually another first person narrator in the novel – Cass Mastern. Much of Cass's story, as told to us by Jack, is quoted from Cass's journal, which is written in the first person.

    • Plot Analysis

      Initial Situation

      Driving directions

      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.


      Bodily Injuries

      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.

    • Three Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      The first act begins in Judge Irwin's library, with Jack and Willie trying to bully him. We would close the curtains after Judge Irwin's suicide, and Mrs. Murrell's revelation to Jack that she loved Judge Irwin, Jack's biological father.

      Act II

      The second act begins with Tom's football game. We could cut right to the chase, and show Tom getting injured. The curtains close the curtains after Willie's funeral, just when it seems like things can't get any worse.

      Act III

      Jack makes his second visit to Sadie in the Sanitorium. You know, when she admits to Jack that she put Tiny up to that call that kills both Adam and Willie. Then we'd switch to Lucy with Willie Stark, II . Next would be a shot at the train station to see the soon to be ex-Mrs. Murrell off on her trip to Reno. Finally, we'd show the cozy scene inside of Judge Irwin's house, which Jack has inherited. We picture he and Anne can be holding hands while taking religious dictation from Ellis.