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Barron's Booknotes-All The King's Men by Robert Penn Warren-Free Summary
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JACK BURDEN

Jack Burden is the narrator of All the King's Men. He is supposedly telling Willie's story. Yet, you will begin to sense, after reading several chapters, that Jack is using Willie's story as a vehicle for clarifying the meaning of his own life. Warren says that he chose Jack as the narrator because he is one of the empty, powerless people who need a character like Willie to bring them to life. Also, because Jack is intelligent and perceptive, he is the best one to tell Willie's story. But still this does not explain why Jack becomes the central character, the most complex character and the one who undergoes the most changes. Why does Jack dominate the novel? Why is he embedding his own story inside of Willie's? Jack, like most people, is not easy to understand. Nevertheless, by examining several facets of his character, you can glean some insights into his motivations.

In contrast to Willie, who has a well-defined goal-to do good for the poor folk-Jack drifts without direction. He is a keen observer of the meaning that other people give to their lives. For instance, he knows that Willie's wife, Lucy, finds satisfaction in family life, and that Willie's secretary, Sadie, seeks fulfillment by subordinating her talents to the careers of powerful men. But Jack sees no meaning in his own existence. Why does such an intelligent, articulate man lack purpose? Does the cause stem from his childhood, from having been abandoned by his father and then having to compete with a series of stepfathers for his mother's affection? Was he spoiled by the luxuries of his aristocratic upbringing? Is he disillusioned because his love life has not come up to his expectations?

But Jack does have a love life, although, until the novel's end, it is no more than memories and fantasies. He still loves his childhood friend, Anne Stanton. The only goal he ever had, it seems, was to marry Anne. Thus, a second aspect of Jack's character to consider is his deep attachment to Anne. What is it about Anne that causes him to be obsessed with her? Or, looking at it from another angle, what does his memory of her do for him that no real woman can do? His failed marriage to Lois Seager was based on sex, not love. And since his divorce, he has not established any meaningful relationships with women, except perhaps with Lucy Stark. Jack admires Lucy's devotion to her family and her strength of character. But he pays more attention to her appearance than to her personality or character. On each visit to Lucy's farm, he describes in detail her hair, clothing, and furniture.

A third facet of Jack's character, then, is his inability to become emotionally involved-with women, with friends, or with a career. When Jack was in graduate school studying American history, he was on the verge of becoming involved in the life of a man, Cass Mastern, who had died in the Civil War and whose motivations perplexed him. His Ph.D. project was to write a historical account of Mastern. But he walked away from the project and never received his doctorate. As an aide to Willie Stark, he completed an extensive research project-finding a scandalous incident in Judge Irwin's past-and refused to let his friendship for the Judge obstruct his objectivity. "Emotions begone! Truth to the fore!" seemed to be his guiding principle. How could Jack be so detached from his own professional possibilities in graduate school and from his feelings of friendship for the Judge during his research?


Jack, as you'll see, becomes a tireless researcher when he begins to work for Willie; he doesn't let go of a project until he has discovered the truth-regardless of how ugly it may be-of a person's past. As such, a fourth facet to note is his attitude toward history and truth. Jack Burden carries with him the burden of history, and while rejecting his own past, he takes refuge in investigations into the pasts of other people. Nevertheless, he has no more than a dim notion-at least until the end-of why history is important. The technical aspects of historical research fascinate him and, at the same time, help him to avoid confronting his own lack of personal historical consciousness. Why does Jack do Willie's bidding? Why is he interested in the phenomenon of Willie Stark? When does he realize his own vital significance in the flow of history?

Finally, you should consider the question of self-knowledge in trying to understand Jack. Some readers believe that the quest for self-knowledge is subordinate to, and supportive of, all other facets of Jack's character. Such periodic episodes as the "Great Sleep" and the comfort he takes in the mechanistic theory of the "Great Twitch" reveal that Jack is escaping from reality. In a sense, he is a modern-day Rip Van Winkle, who lets the world around him change while he waits and hopes for his life to fall in step with the times. Jack doesn't actively seek self-knowledge. The changes in his attitude, in his willingness to get involved and to accept responsibility, appear to result from events outside of his control. Or do they? Is Jack an active seeker of self-knowledge or a fortunate man who comes by it through no effort of his own? These, then, are some aspects of Jack to consider while attempting to understand him. Other facets of his character will emerge as the novel unfolds.

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Barron's Booknotes-All The King's Men by Robert Penn Warren-Free Summary
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