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.
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.
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.
Willie's political techniques are justified by the results.
Willie could have found a way to solve his political problems without resorting to blackmail.
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.
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.
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.
A look at Anne Stanton's subtle transformation will help us fill in the gaps in Jack's description of her.
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.
Lucy Stark is the character most closely associated with schools and education.
Educationally speaking, Jack and Willie are foils.
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.
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.
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.
By the end of the novel, Jack has learned how to love Anne.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.