Study Guide

All the King's Men Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Robert Penn Warren

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.