Study Guide

All the King's Men Themes

  • Visions of America

    All the King's Men argues that the U.S.'s history of slavery continues to haunt generations of Americans and impacts Americans' view of themselves. The novel questions how a hopeful vision of America is possible with such a shameful past. It also provides an answer: truth. For all the potential risks and repercussions of truth telling, only truth can give us hope for a positive future of America. By exposing issues concerning the environment, labor, football, politics, education, welfare, journalism, history, and the skeletons in the closets of the antebellum South, All the King's Men interrogates American's practices and hopes to find a way to a better and truer vision of America.

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. Does this book change your own vision of America? If so, how and why? If not, why not?
    2. Does this book provide a definition of the American dream? If so, what is it. Is the American dream an illusion, or is it something real? What does it mean to you?
    3. How does symbol of the highway mirage contribute to Jack's vision of America? What does the symbol of the train mean to Jack? To Ellis Burden? To Mrs. Murrell.
    4. Do you think Jack will eventually change his name to Jack Irwin? What do names and naming have to do with Jack's vision of America.

    Chew on This

    Transportation is a major aspect of the American dream in All the King's Men as we see by the repeated images of cars, roads, trains, and the like.

    The Cass Burden story is the skeleton in the closet of the American dream.

  • Politics

    Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece gives us politics from an insider's view. Jack Burden, ace historian and thorough "student of history," breaks down the seamy side of southern politics, while chronicling the rise and fall of Willie Stark. Over the course of the novel, Willie goes from being "cousin Willie with the Christmas tie," to being the most powerful man in the state. As a result of Jack's relationship with Willie, he also ends up discovering some dirty politics. Whatever you think of the different political tricks and maneuvers found in All the King's Men, by the end, you will definitely have learned a thing or two about politics.

    Questions About Politics

    1. Is Willie sincere or is he just another corrupt politician? Would you vote for him? Why or why not?
    2. Does Willie remind you of any real life politicians, besides Huey Long?
    3. Speaking of Huey, how are he and Willie the same? How are they different?
    4. Jack says Sadie is talented in politics. Why? Do you agree with him? Do you think she would ever run for office or win an election? What kinds of people might vote for her?

    Chew on This

    Willie's political techniques are justified by the results.

    Willie could have found a way to solve his political problems without resorting to blackmail.

  • Memory and the Past

    Jack Burden, the narrator of All the King's men, just can't stay out of the past. The book itself is one extended memory that Jack has after events detailed in the book have already happened. The story Jack tells is a collection of a bunch of memories. Every moment leads him to a memory of the past. But, he's not content to remember his own past experiences. Jack also wants to discover secrets from the past that certain people don't want to share. While digging into the past, he also uncovers pre-Civil War secrets, which reveal shameful practices of slavery that are close to home. At the novel's end, Jack realizes the understanding one's true past is necessary for a satisfying life in the present.

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Which of Jack's memories is the most compelling?
    2. How does Jack's memory change when he learns the truth about Judge Irwin?
    3. How might Anne's memories of her summer vacations with Jack differ from his?
    4. Does Cass Mastern's story become part of Jack's memory? Your own memory?
    5. Do you see Cass's story as historical fact or historical fiction? How can you tell the difference?
    6. Why does Ellis Burden try to destroy his memories of Jack, his mother, and Judge Irwin.

    Chew on This

    While knowing the truth about his past gave Jack the keys to unlock his present and future, it's not so easy when it comes to the "other" past in the novel, the past of slavery in America.

  • Transformation

    All the King's Men is about the subtle and extreme ways characters change over the course of a novel, and the events that factor into these changes. It's also about a transforming America, which tries to reconcile its history of slavery with the present post-slavery reality. It's also about how secrets can transform both people and places, how new information sheds light on mysterious childhood memories, and how historical truth can transform a hopeless present into a hopeful one.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Which character changes the most in the novel? How do you know? Which character is most stagnant?
    2. How does Jack change after he reads the story of Cass Mastern? After you read Cass's story, did it transform your feelings about this book? If so, how. If not, why not.
    3. As a young girl, Sadie Burke's face was transformed by small pox. How does this impact her future life? Does it comment on the novel as a whole? If so, how.
    4. Is Willie's state transformed after he runs it for almost two terms? If so, how? In what ways do you think it will stay the same?

    Chew on This

    A look at Anne Stanton's subtle transformation will help us fill in the gaps in Jack's description of her.

  • Education

    Education finds its way into just about every aspect of this novel. In fact, it's a contract to build a schoolhouse that gives Willie Stark, the novel's hero, his inroad to politics and power. Through the narrator, Jack Burden, and political hero, Willie, All the King's Men shows two very different ways of becoming educated. One man has the benefits of the best education money can buy; the other the benefits of self-education. The novel also deals in another kind of education – an education in history. The more one knows about history, the novel seems to say, the more one can understand and empathize with his or her fellow humans. Provided, of course, that the history is accurate.

    Questions About Education

    1. How would you describe Jack's education? Willie's? Anne's? Sadie's? Who do you think is the most educated character? Why?
    2. Does All the King's Men attempt to educate us about something? If so what? Intentions aside, have you learned anything from this novel?
    3. How is does the faulty school fire escape work symbolically with regard to education? Have you heard of anything like this happening before? What? When? (You might want to do some outside research for this question.)
    4. Do you think we could use the same technique as Jack to find things out about people?
    5. Does Jack have to be brave when he uses his technique? Is that something he learned? Or a natural part of his personality.

    Chew on This

    Lucy Stark is the character most closely associated with schools and education.

    Educationally speaking, Jack and Willie are foils.

  • Slavery

    Most of All the King's Men is set in the 1920s and 1930s in the American South. For almost an entire chapter, though, we are plunged backwards in pre-Civil War times. This antebellum narrative seems at first to be about adultery and suicide, but we soon learn it has much more to do with the institution of slavery in the American South. When we notice how all the black people in the novel's "present" are either servants or cotton pickers, we realize that this "old" tale has extreme relevance in the here and now.

    Questions About Slavery

    1. Did the things you read about slavery in the Cass Mastern story shock you? If so, which parts? Do you think Cass is a reliable narrator? Do you trust what he tells us? Why? What external evidence could you use to prove that the things Cass describes represent historical facts?
    2. Why do you think Robert Penn Warren decided that Cass shouldn't find Phebe? How does this comment on slavery in general?

    Chew on This

    Though Jack doesn't understand how the Cass Mastern story fits with the other stories in the novel, if you remove Cass's story, none of the other stories resonate as deeply.

    Jack's extreme response to the Cass Mastern papers is because that kind of information was being actively hidden from the public in those days.

  • Love

    By the end of All the King's Men we realize that our narrators long journey down memory lane is a labor of love for the truth, and for the belief that the truth will set us free. Over the course of his journey we meet some unforgettable characters who are all searching for love. Sometimes the quest for love leads to secrets and betrayals, which have weighty consequences in both the present and the future. In most of our main characters we also see an overriding love for humanity – though this love is sometimes only born after great struggle and even tragedy.

    Questions About Love

    1. Why do all the ladies love Willie? Does Willie love them? Can answer these questions accurately considering that we only see Willie through Jack's eyes?
    2. Do Jack and Willie love each other? How do you know? Either way, why are thee two men so close?
    3. Why does Jack's knowledge that Judge Irwin is his father lead him to love his mother more?
    4. Do you think Jack and Anne's marriage will work out in the long term? Why do these two get a happy ending? Is it supposed to tell us something? Or is this just the random way life works.
    5. Does Jack come to love Ellis Burden?

    Chew on This

    By the end of the novel, Jack has learned how to love Anne.

  • Race

    All the King's Men is set mostly in the Deep South in the 1920s and 1930, and you don't need us to tell you that racism was rampant and harsh in that setting. Since all of the main characters in the novel are white, racism seems to be a minor theme in the novel. But by the time all the stories are told, it's clear that issues of racism and slavery are hugely important to the novel. The novel suggests that exposing historical racism, and exposing hidden secrets of antebellum (pre-Civil War) life are our only hope for overcoming racism.

    Questions About Race

    1. How do you feel about Jack's racially charged language? Why does he use it? Is it because of his place and time? Because he doesn't know any better? Because it what he's been taught.
    2. Does Jack feel superior to non-whites? Does his racist speech continue throughout the book? If not, when does he stop? Does Jack's racist speech consistent with his actions, or is there a contrast?
    3. Is racism a political tool in the novel? If so, how is it used?
    4. Why are the people in the state so stuck in the slavery moment, years and years after the Civil War?
    5. Do Jack and Willie succeed in their quest to bring the people up into the present?

    Chew on This

    All the King's Men offers us a fictional history of racism that helps us understand racism in real life.

    When we realize that the Mason County boys are just using racism to cover up their greed, we understand that the extent to which greed can corrupt the human race.

  • Religion

    All the King's Men doesn't delve too deeply into religion, but it does look at the role of religious rhetoric in politics, and at some other ways people use religion as a tool. Not to say that the novel is devoid of a more "genuine" religious experience. Our narrator, for example, even invents his own sort of religion (called the Great Twitch), which lets him pretend that nothing in the world really matters. Another character finds comfort in a more traditional belief in the God. Whatever your views on religion, the religious aspects of this novel should at least get you thinking.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Is Willie religious? If so, what is his religion? If not, how do you know.
    2. Does Lucy undergo a religious conversion in the novel? If so, what is the nature of it? If not, how have her religious views changed.
    3. We argue that the Great Twitch is a kind of religion. Do you agree with us? Why or why not?
    4. Is Ellis Burden a religious fanatic? Does Jack continue to believe that he is at the end of the story?
    5. Why does Jack constantly compare Willie to Christ in the early days?
    6. Why does Willie compare himself to Christ in his speeches? Would this strategy work with any contemporary audience? If so, which ones?

    Chew on This

    Through Jack Burden and Willie's constituents, All the King's Men shows how religion is used to justify bad behavior.

    Ellis Burden shows us how religion is used to cope with trauma.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    The theme of "Drugs and Alcohol" in this novel is closely related to the theme "Transformation." Alcohol plays a big role in transforming protagonist Willie Stark into the enormous powerhouse he becomes. Based on all the drinking that goes on, you sure wouldn't know that All the King's Men is set during the period of American Prohibition. Though alcohol use is a theme in the novel, the novel doesn't seem to be making a specific argument on the morality of its use. Instead it seems to be commenting on the power of alcohol to change a person's personality.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. Is Jack an alcoholic? What makes you think so? If so, is he more or less addicted than Willie?
    2. Do you think that if Willie had stopped drinking, he would have lost his political power? Why or why not.
    3. How might alcohol contribute to the novel's tragedies?
    4. What are some of the reasons that people in the novel drink? Why do you think that Jack drinks?

    Chew on This

    By introducing Willie to alcohol, Jack helps create a monster.

    In contrast to a story like John Updike's Rabbit Run, this novel makes a fairly positive argument for alcohol use.