Study Guide

Jack Burden in All the King's Men

By Robert Penn Warren

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Jack Burden

Jack is more than a narrator telling us about Willie Stark. In fact, near the end of the novel Jack tells us, "This has been the story of Willie Stark, but it is my story, too. For I have a story" (10.436). The bizarre thing is that Jack doesn't realize that he has a story, or that he is a full human being, until this point. Why? Because Jack, for all his talent and swagger, has a major inferiority complex, and barely sees himself as a real person.

Does this inferiority complex have anything to do with why Jack works for Willie Stark, doing his "dirty work"? Possibly, but the answer is a bit deeper, as we will see in the following sections.

The History of Jack's Love for History

Whether he's reporting for The Chronicle, investigating people for Willie, or working toward a Ph.D. in American History, Jack is neck deep in history. He tells us that when he was in college, he was "hiding from the present" and taking "refuge in the past" (4.23). This sounds rather contrived, but he actually came to studying history naturally. He first became interested in history in Judge Irwin's library, with Irwin as his guide, and later decided to pursue history for pleasure after he walked out on his law degree.

So maybe Jack hides from the present in the past for most of his life. For most of the story, he's ashamed of his own history. Heavily impacted by what he's heard people say about his father, Ellis Burden, Jack thinks the man isn't a "man" if he left Jack's mother. In Jack's mind, if Ellis isn't a man, then Jack can't really be one either. So he hides in the histories of others to try to forget his own.

Somehow, the history of relative, Cass Burden, seems to indict Jack, and he can't take it. After studying Cass for a year and a half, he walks away. It's not clear to either Jack (or to us for that matter) exactly what disturbs him so much about Cass's story, or why he thinks it might implicate him. But he can't steer clear of history. For one thing, as Jack tells us, he's an extremely curious guy. But something deeper is driving him. Even though he runs from Cass's story, we can see it as a force that combines with his curiosity to make Jack keep digging. At the end of the story, Jack still doesn't understand Cass. But, he feels that it's important for him to try. The last thing he tells us is that he plans on writing a book about Cass Mastern.

Jack's love for history is evident in his job with Willie. When Willie hires Jack, neither of them knows exactly what his job will be. His talent as a historian just naturally comes out, and before you know it Jack is digging around in everyone's stories, past and present. In our introduction to Jack's "Character Analysis" we wonder why Jack would work for Willie. In part it's because Willie mainly asks Jack to do what he is already naturally inclined to do, dig around in the past and discover people's secrets.

But, we can't forget that there are deeper meanings to Jack's digging. Most importantly, Jack wants to use history and the past to help create positive change in the present. He believes that, as governor, Willie is helping the people who really need help. From Jack's perspective, Willie might have his own "methods," but it comes down to it, he's using his talent to help as best he can.

Even though Jack doesn't know exactly why he's digging half of the time, or why he cares so about revealing the truth, the answer emerges when he inadvertently forces his mother to reveal that his true father is Judge Irwin. Through Jack's interest in history, All the King's Men claims that we can only hope to heal the personal and political present if we can understand the past.

A Piece of Furniture

For much of the novel Jack thinks of himself as a piece of furniture. In Chapter One when we first see Sadie and the Boss together, Jack tells us, "I had been a piece of furniture a long time, but some taint of the manners my grandma taught me still hung on and now and then got the better of my curiosity" (1.255).

In addition to making us wonder why the heck Jack thinks he's furniture, the passage highlights a driving force behind everything Jack does – his curiosity. If he wasn't so curious, he wouldn't be a good student of history or investigator for Willie.

Back to the furniture issue. It starts to make sense when Jack tells us about visiting his mother's house. Apparently, the woman is obsessed with furniture, with "spinets, desks, tables, chairs, each more choice than the last" (3.33). When she sees Jack she treats him like an object, too, or at least he thinks she does. Remember this uncomfortable scene:

I let her pull the arm. […] I let myself go, and keeled toward her. I lay on my back, with my head on her lap, the way I had known I would do. She let her hand lie on my chest, the thumb and forefinger holding, and revolving back and forth […] and her right hand on my forehead. (3.11)

Jack is 35-years-old at the time of this scene (1933). A little old for mommy's lap. When Jack hears his step-father, Theodore, coming, he tries to get up, but his mother hold him down until her husband sees them like that. No wonder Jack thinks he's furniture! (We get deeper into this in Mrs. Murrell's "Character Analysis.")

Luckily, he doesn't feel that way by the end of the book, due in part to the fact that his mother finally comes confesses that Judge Irwin is his father, and that she loves him. When Jack understands that his real father was the guy who loved him and spent so much time with him, and that his real father and his mother did love each other, he in turn feels loved. It is at this point that Jack is able to break out of his own objectification.

Jack's Idealism

Jack tells us that when he was working for Willie he was a "brass-bound idealist" (1.225). According to Jack, idealism is very simple: "What you don't know don't hurt you, for it ain't real. […] If you are an Idealist it does not matter what you do or what goes on around you because it is not real anyway" (1.225).

This sounds like the same thing as the Great Sleep and The Great Twitch (see "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more). All of the above are mechanisms for coping with pain. Jack is in pain because of his disconnection with Anne, and he feels unloved in a larger way because he believes that his "father" abandoned him when he was young. Then there's the final source of pain that plagues Jack. As we see when Jack goes to Mason City to find out about the schoolhouse deal, he can't ignore the legacy of slavery, the racism going on around him.

Of the racist Sheriff and Commissioner Jack says, "They ain't real. […] But I knew they were. […] Oh, they are real, all right, and it may be the reason they don't seem real to you is that you aren't very real yourself" (2.104).

Jack is starting to find the flaws in his idealism. If he imagines away the racist people in power around him, he has to imagine away himself, too. His idealism is further damaged when he learns that these guys are just using racism to get the people on their side. Their choice of contractor has more to do with getting kickbacks than with racism. So now Jack, according to his idealism, has to imagine away the Sheriff and Commissioner, but all the people in the town, too.

This is connected to why "the name Mr. Jack Burden [is] fading slowly" from the parcel containing the Cass Burden papers. The longer he imagines away what the parcel contains, the more he imagines away himself.

When Jack finally does face the facts of the past and the present, he realizes some awful things, but also some beautiful things. He realizes that he is loved. Like the velveteen rabbit, Jack becomes real when he becomes loved. By the end of the novel he trades his idealism in for humanism.

Not A Ladies' Man

Jack is definitely not the ladies' man of the novel (that title would go to Willie). Jack had a bit of a scandal just after he left law school, and he had his marriage to Lois, but unless he's holding back, that's it in the female department. He sort of tries to put the moves on Sadie, but she quickly shoots him down saying, "I like mine with vitamins" (2.205).

Really, it's been all about Anne from day one. No one can ever quite compare to her, even as Jack tries to convince himself she's nothing special. Jack's love for her drives his almost subconscious quest to find a way to live in the present, by understanding the past.

Before he can love Anne, and before she can love him – before they can become real for each other – they must understand their pasts. The fact that their pasts are intricately intertwined explains Jack's bond to Anne: she holds precious pages in the history of Jack Burden. Anne's own history and the story of her family, once revealed, shakes up the old order. When it comes to Anne, we see once again that accurate knowledge, and accurate vision of the past is the key to a satisfying life in the present.

Changing the Picture

Transformation is a major theme for Jack Burden. In fact, he's obsessed with it. Yet another reason Jack loves history is because it helps him make people transform, and because it transforms him.

This is part of why Jack wants to watch the lobotomy (which we talk more about in Adam's "Character Analysis"), and why he compares it to both "a hanging" and to the horses being burned in a barn. Hangings and horse burning are transformations from life to death. A lobotomy is similar. It kills or burns away parts of a person's the personality.

In some ways this is what Jack does all the time, but instead of surgical tools he uses history to bring about change. When he wants Adam to take the job as hospital director, what does he do? He alters the picture in Adam's head by showing him that Judge Irwin and his father aren't the people he thought they were.

Yet, that is just practice. The real picture Jack wants to change is the one in his own head. The Big Twitch and the Big Sleep (see "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for more) are both examples of Jack doing personality operations on himself. He compares his experience in Long Beach with baptism and conversion. This is ironic because his so-called "baptism" leads to a theory in which he rejects traditional religious beliefs and standard conceptions of reality. In what he calls "The Big Twitch," Jack comes back from California understanding human existence as a collection of blind electrical impulses.

There is one important aspect of Jack's persona that must change before he can love himself and others, and it is revealed in this line: "Perhaps that was the curse of Jack Burden: he was invulnerable" (4.21). In some ways this holds true to the end. Jack Burden could have met a bullet just as easily as Adam and Willie. But somebody has to stay alive to tell the story. That fits better with his role as journalist and history student.

Though Jack doesn't die tragically, he does learn that he isn't invulnerable after all – not to love, pain, compassion, life, or history. His recognition that he isn't invulnerable dovetails with his rejection of idealism, and opens him up to life, with all its pleasure and pain.

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