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Barron's Booknotes-All The King's Men by Robert Penn Warren-Free Summary
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Jack Burden is both the narrator and the central character of All the King's Men. He tells you about his experiences and shares his reactions to, and reflections on, these events. Thus, the point of view of almost all of All the King's Men is first-person subjective. Jack's biting wit, detached attitude, and suppressed passion are evident throughout the story. He is keenly alert, and, as he tells you, he is a trained historian and an experienced journalist. As such, he attempts to be an objective reporter by recording dialogue, thereby providing insight into the personalities of other characters. But it still remains true that whatever you learn about Willie or Anne or any of the others, you learn from Jack. What you see is what he shows you. Whether you can trust him to give you an accurate account of events is for you to decide.

Only in Chapter 4 does Jack depart from using the first person. Here, he relates the story of another man, Cass Mastern, who lived during the Civil War era, and he uses the third person to tell this story within a story. In fact, during most of this chapter Jack disappears altogether. When he does mention himself, he talks about what Jack Burden-not "I"- did. Using the third-person point of view has the effect of drawing you into Cass's tale of a sour romance. Jack withdraws and gives Cass the spotlight.


Robert Penn Warren's fascination with the concept of time is reflected in the structure of All the King's Men, which moves forward in time and backward in memory. And through the use of flashbacks, Warren seeks to show that past, present, and future are bound up with one another in the web of life. The flashback, then, is the distinctive feature of the novel's structure. Yet, Warren's frequent use of flashbacks-even flashbacks within flashbacks-can sometimes be confusing to readers. The following graph, (see illustration) with its principal events charted chapter by chapter, is designed to let you see how Warren uses time (chronology) and to help you trace the time structure of the novel.


1850s Cass Mastern's college days and romance with Annabelle.

1860s Cass's death from a Civil War wound.

1914 Foreclosure proceedings on Judge Irwin's plantation; Judge's marriage and mortgage payment in full; Jack, Anne, and Adam's youth in Burden's Landing.

1918 Anne and Jack's romance begins.

1920-21 Jack's graduate studies in history and his marriage to Lois.

1922 Willie and Jack meet.

1924 The schoolhouse tragedy.

1926 Willie's first campaign for governor.

1930 Willie is elected governor; Jack becomes his aide.

1933 The Byram White affair.

1936 Willie's visit to Pappy's farm; beginning of Jack's research on Judge Irwin.

1937 Anne's affair with Willie; Jack's trip to California; the Judge's suicide; Willie's assassination.

1938 Anne and Jack's marriage.

1939 Perspective from which Jack narrates novel.

The zigzags on the graph show you how Warren manipulates time in All the King's Men. Making leaps from one time to another is consistent with the way a person's memory generally works and, in this case, reflects the way that Jack associates events. As mentioned in the Style section, the novel presents you with the structure of Jack's thought, but is also a showpiece for Warren's belief that human action and meaning are a consequence of a complex interaction among the past, present, and future.

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

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