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Barron's Booknotes-All The King's Men by Robert Penn Warren-Free Summary
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CHAPTER 3

SECTION ONE: JACK BURDEN

It is 1933 and Jack, now a research aide to Governor Stark, has come home to Burden's Landing for a visit with his mother. He is reluctant to see her, knowing that his visit will end in argument. Nevertheless, he finds her charm irresistible and takes comfort in her affection. For instance, as he rests his head on her lap, she strokes his forehead and expresses concern over how tired he looks. His feelings toward his mother are ambivalent, but he doesn't exactly know why.

While he sits in her parlor, he notices a new breakfront desk. In his memories of this room the years unfold as a series of changes in furniture and changes in men. He remembers that when he was six years old his mother told him his father had gone and was never coming back. His father went away because, she said, "he didn't love Mother." After that Jack had a series of stepfathers. First, there was the Tycoon, who died and left Jack's mother very rich. Then there was the Italian Count, whose passion was riding horses. And now there is the Young Executive, Theodore, who at forty-four is eleven years younger than Jack's mother.

Jack has cute titles for all his mother's husbands, including his father, the Scholarly Attorney. These titles reveal his cynicism and a disrespect for his mother. But they also reveal a desire to give some order, through a categorization of his mother's men, to his family life. About the argument that ends this visit home, an argument about working for Willie, Jack says: "Not that it mattered much what we rowed about. There was a shadow taller and darker than the shadow of Willie standing behind us." What do you think he means by this?

NOTE:

Some readers suggest that Jack's resentment toward his mother stems from an unresolved conflict in early childhood, from the lack of an opportunity to turn away from dependence on his mother toward an identification with, and respect for, his father. In Freudian terms, this source of adult personality disorders is called an Oedipus complex. (In Sophocles' famous drama Oedipus the King, about 430 B.C., Oedipus, without knowing it, kills his father and marries his mother.) Jack loses his father when he is six and then endures a series of stepfathers. Although none of the stepfathers appears to harm him in any way, perhaps Jack saw himself as competing with them for his mother's affection. Could the theory of an Oedipus complex explain Jack's ambivalent feelings toward his mother? Could it explain his emotional detachment in general? You'll soon see that Jack has an abiding love for Anne Stanton. Consider whether she is a mother substitute for Jack.


While in Burden's Landing, Jack is invited to Judge Irwin's home for dinner. All the guests, except Jack, are opposed to Governor Stark's new programs. To the wealthy class of Burden's Landing, Willie is an ignoble Robin Hood who overtaxes the rich to help the poor and uses disreputable means for passing his programs through the legislature. Coming to Willie's defense, the Judge says, "You don't make omelettes without breaking eggs." In other words, the Judge, an experienced politician himself, realizes that Willie has had to use questionable ways and means for reaching admirable ends so quickly. Nevertheless, the Judge is not one of Willie's supporters. Does he defend Willie out of friendship for Jack? When criticism of Willie grows harsher, in a spurt of enthusiasm Jack defends Willie's methods for helping the poor. His outburst bewilders the guests. They know, of course, that Jack works for the governor, but they assumed that Jack's heart was really with them and the other Southern aristocrats of Burden's Landing.

In this section you should note the ways in which Warren has revealed aspects of Jack's character-for example, his ambivalent feelings toward his mother, his tendency to clutch old memories, and his attitude toward Willie. Keep in mind that what you learn about Jack is what he, as narrator, chooses to tell you. To understand him well, you have to draw psychological lines between his memories of the past and the immediate objects and events that trigger his memories.

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