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One mark of an outstanding novel is its power to stimulate a variety of interpretations. All the King's Men has generated many interpretations because it offers a wide scope of thematic questions, from politics to psychology, from philosophy to religion.
1. POWER AND CORRUPTION
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men Couldn't put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
You can see that, on one level, All the King's Men is about a great man's fall. If you consider Willie Stark the king (and there is some disagreement on who is the king in the title), one of the main themes of the novel is Willie's moral deterioration. His early political activities were directed toward the welfare of the people. But his growing concern for power and his increased need to preserve it transform the honest politician into a ruthless governor.
Some readers call this the Huey Long theme. Long's early political career was devoted to helping the underprivileged. But as his power grew, wealthy individuals and industries joined his camp; graft, blackmail, and frenzied rhetoric became standard strategies for maintaining control. Then, at the age of forty-three, Long was slain by a physician whose exact reasons for wanting to kill Long still remain a mystery. Long's bodyguards immediately shot the assailant dead.
Very little is known about Long's private life. Whether he experienced psychological conflicts similar to Willie's-that is, internal battles between ideals and results-is uncertain. Thus, although Warren's novel certainly follows the external course of Long's life, it may or may not reflect Long's private character in its depiction of Willie's path of moral decay.
If you are interested in pursuing the Huey Long theme, you may want to read three other novels inspired by Long's assassination. Hamilton Basso's Sun in Capricorn (1942), a thriller about a political scoundrel and one of his victims; John Dos Passos's Number One (1943), the second volume of a trilogy about the aide of a powerful demagogue; and Andria Locke Langley's A Lion in the Street (1945), a study of the proposition that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
2. GOODNESS OUT OF EVIL
Willie believes that goodness derives from evil because there is nothing else from which to make it. This idea comes from the mature, disillusioned Willie, who has become a tough-minded politician after losing his first political job-when he refused to kowtow to the local kingpins-and after discovering he was manipulated by the bosses who wanted to split rural votes. Willie tells Jack, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud." As he sees it, goodness is not an inherent human characteristic. People, basically, are prone to corruption and evil. Goodness has to be made. Adam Stanton hears Willie's philosophy and asks how, then, anyone recognizes what is good. Willie responds, "You just make it up as you go along." And he explains that goodness becomes whatever is in the best interests of society at the time.
Yet, in his innermost being, has the young idealistic Willie been totally annihilated by the mature Willie's pessimistic attitude toward human nature? Has he abandoned all hope in the goodness of mankind? Perhaps the epigraph on the title page of the novel offers you a clue. Warren quotes from Dante's Divine Comedy: "Mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde." ("As long as hope still has its bit of green.") As you read the novel, consider what relation the epigraph has to the novel in general and to Willie's philosophy of human nature in particular.
3. THE SEARCH FOR A SPIRITUAL FATHER
Most readers believe that All the King's Men is more Jack Burden's story than Willie's. Jack is one of the king's men but not one of his stooges. He keeps his distance from the internal politics of Willie's administration. Nevertheless, Jack needs Willie. Some readers interpret Jack's relation to Willie as one of son to father. At an early age, Jack was abandoned by the man who he thought was his father, Ellis Burden. Jack could never understand Burden's actions or respect him. He regarded him as weak. He felt dispossessed and sought a spiritual father in the strong and energetic Willie Stark, but even Willie disappoints him. Thus, Jack's discovery of his actual father-Judge Irwin, whom Jack has always respected-is a turning point in his life.
4. THE SEARCH FOR KNOWLEDGE
Some readers believe that man's search for knowledge is the primary theme of All the King's Men. For them, every aspect of the novel revolves around Jack's journey toward self-knowledge. Jack's path twists through the politics of his times and frequently leads back into the past. Like other characters, Jack finds that his greatest problem is his lack of knowledge. Specifically, he doesn't understand why his parents got divorced, what meaning life holds for him, or how he fits into the patterns of history. Self-knowledge, he learns, is not easily gained. He pays dearly for it, through the deaths of his closest friends-Judge Irwin, Adam Stanton, and Willie Stark. He concludes that "all knowledge that is worth anything is maybe paid for by blood." Perhaps self-knowledge is gained through suffering. It's not a pleasant prospect. What do you think? Do you learn the most about yourself through your successes and good times or through your failures and disappointments?
5. IDEALISM VS. MATERIALISM
Who are the happiest, most self-fulfilled, most admirable people-those who cling to ideals or those who are willing to abandon ideals when they stand in the way of pleasure and power? All the King's Men asks this question by presenting you with characters such as Adam Stanton and Lucy Stark, who live in accordance with traditional values, and Tiny Duffy and Sadie Burke, who seek gratification through any available means. Jack and Willie, however, live the more complex lives; the conflicting traits of being idealistic and practical at the same time are at war in their own personalities. They seem to have a vision of what counts as excellent human attributes, but their behavior often reflects the belief that the world is merely a set of physical circumstances to be manipulated. As you'll see, Willie uses people to put his ideas into action, and Jack embraces the "Great Twitch"- which says that human actions are no more significant than a facial tic-to avoid heartfelt pain. But note that in the end both men return to the importance of such human values as responsibility and loyalty to loved ones.
6. FREE WILL VS. DETERMINISM
All the King's Men in part is an exploration of the age-old philosophical debate between free will and determinism. Jack's theory of the Great Twitch, which he concocts after learning that Anne Stanton has become Willie Stark's mistress, is a deterministic theory. A twitch on an old man's face fascinates Jack because the man is not aware of the involuntary jerks. Jack generalizes from this phenomenon to all of life and says that human action results merely from physical stimuli, not from such ideas as moral principles. This theory allows him to deny his responsibility in what he sees as Anne's fall from purity and to believe that Anne herself is not responsible for her actions. According to Jack, human beings are no more than cogs in the wheels of a mechanical universe. But Jack does not remain a strict determinist, that is, a person who denies the possibility of human will altering the course of events. Throughout the novel, he vacillates between believing that people are tangled in a web of events over which they have no control and believing that they are ultimately responsible-by virtue of their free will to choose one action over another-for what happens to them and to others.