Study Guide

Dr. Adam Stanton in All the King's Men

By Robert Penn Warren

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Dr. Adam Stanton

Adam is a brilliant doctor and surgeon, a skilled pianist, a devoted brother, Jack's childhood friend, a loner with no apparent love interest, and a moral man, but also the murderer of Willie Stark. Perhaps we get to know Adam even less that we get to know his sister, Anne. As is the case with Anne, we are dependant on Jack's knowledge of Adam for all details on him. In fact, Jack admits that he and Adam's relationship is based more on the fact that they have always been around each other than on some kind of deep connection. Still, Adam's character has a lot of meat to it. We'll look at the lobotomy scene first to better understand him.


Since "Transformation" is a significant theme in this novel, we think the lobotomy scene in Chapter Eight is important. Adam tells Jack he has a patient with "catatonic schizophrenia," and plans to give the man a prefrontal lobectomy. Adam explains that by removing a certain part of the brain, the man, if he lives, will have a "different personality" (8.37). Sometimes, Adam says, the new personality is "completely and cheerfully amoral" (8.45).

The operation Jack witnesses (and describes in gory detail) shows that a part of the patient's brain isn't just removed, but burned away. Think of the power Adam has in changing someone's personality. The ironic thing is that he's the one whose personality goes haywire in the end.

Adam is a man of science, a rational man. So why does he act so irrationally at the end of the novel and murder Willie? One answer to this compelling question is to look at the irrational acts of other characters we meet in All the King's Men. Viewed in this light, we might say that Adam acts irrationally for the same reason that others in this novel do: a secret is revealed that makes him feel betrayed. (We're thinking about Duncan Trice here, but it certainly applies to others.)

Adam doesn't kill Willie because Willie is sleeping with Anne. If Anne had found a way to tell him about the relationship before hand, he wouldn't have liked it, but he probably wouldn't have killed anybody over it.

Yet, when Tiny Duffy tells Adam he only got the job because Anne and Willie are having an affair, Adam takes the bait without hesitation. On the one hand, this testifies to the insecurity found in even the most talented and powerful among us. On the other hand, it speaks to the very nature of secrets. If Anne has hidden her relationship from him, he's left to assume it must be somehow shameful. In his blind rage, Adam shoots Willie the in the chest, knowing full well that it probably means the very same fate for himself.

Now, we challenge you to use the idea of the lobotomy to analyze other aspects of All the King's Men. Come on. What do you have to lose?

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