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He is the observer-narrator through whose eyes the characters and their lives in the novel are viewed. Thus the story of Willie Stark is related in his voice and the happenings in his life are seen through his eyes. As he traces the career graph of the protagonist from a County Treasurer of the Mason City to the Governor of the State, he shows glimpses of his own past and its relation to the present.
Jack Burden is a complex character, but he remains passive. His attitude to life and reactions to situations are often puzzling. Only towards the end of the novel the readers can surmise the reason for his intriguing behavior. However, in the novel he presents himself as a shadow of Willie Stark from whose energy and vitality, he derives sustenance. He never acts but only reacts. As a young man, he lacks initiative and enthusiasm to pursue his goal in life. Only after Anne questions him about his future, he qualifies himself before taking up a job as a reporter of a newspaper. He decides to write his doctoral thesis on Cass Mastern when his guide suggests that he do so. After he gets employed by Willie Stark, he does whatever his Boss asks him to do. Thus, he digs up the past of Judge Irwin at the insistence of the Boss. Jack Burden acts like a puppet, whose strings are pulled by those who influence him.
Jack Burden has a laid-back attitude to life. He takes life as it comes. He has no burning ambition to achieve results. Thus, as a student writing his doctoral thesis on Cass Mastern, he abandons his research when he is almost on the point of finishing it. He feels no urge to complete his work. Also he experiences no feeling of remorse at discarding his research. Similarly, when he loses his job, he has no desire to look for another job. He makes the most of his leisure hours and gives no thought to his future or his responsibilities in life. When the Governor offers him a job, he accepts it without protest.
The best qualification that Jack Burden possesses is that he is a good historian. He takes great interest and succeeds in unraveling the past of certain characters like Cass Mastern and Judge Irwin. Past fascinates him, as it is a way of escape for him from the present. Thus, as a student in college he becomes serious in dwelling into the past of Cass Mastern, while his roommates try to enjoy the present. He does research on his subject systematically; by reading the matter carefully, analyzing it and then arranging it in order. Thus he succeeds in almost completing his thesis. In the case of his research on Irwin, he betters his previous record by meticulously tracking down the evidence he needs to incriminate Irwin. It is not an easy job since he had no clue to arrive at his thesis in the beginning of his research. By his logical ability, he arrives at possibilities and follows them up till he reaches a definite conclusion. Thus he excels as a student of history.
Jack Burden is a hard core realist who undertakes a task because he has been given a responsibility. So, he never gets emotionally involved in his work. He agrees to find incriminating evidence against Irwin, even though the Judge had remained a good neighbor and friend to him. He is hard-hearted and indifferent to the feelings of others. When Anne asks him to meet the Scholarly Attorney on humanitarian grounds, he shows his reluctance to meet the old man. Later, he meets the Attorney not because he feels concerned about his welfare but because he needs information about Irwin from him. In the case of Irwin, he not only lays his hand on the shady past of the Judge, but also confronts the old man with the evidence against him. Neither his motherís pleas nor Irwinís affectionate welcome stop him from acting in an arrogant manner.
Jack Burden gets transformed from a heartless man to a caring individual only after the death of Judge Irwin. He feels guilty for taking the life of a respectable man of society who bore him no ill will. Also the disclosure that he is the son of Irwin and his mother had loved the Judge through the years makes him understand the value of love and relationships. He feels secure about his identity and feels confident about his motherís love. Thus he bids an affectionate goodbye to his mother after promising to keep in touch with her. He marries the girl he had loved all along and settles down to a life of peace and contentment with her. Feelings start surfacing in his heart again and he invites the Scholarly Attorney to spend the remaining days of his life with him. Jack Burden changes himself from a mechanical robot to a caring human being.
Willie Stark is a full-blooded human being, endowed with the ability to feel and act in equal measure. In the beginning of the chapter, when he is the County treasurer for Mason City, he is shown as a frustrated young man who is unable to convince Pillsbury against building the School house through J. H. Moore whose rates are high but quality is low. He voices his protest against Pillsbury and expresses concern over his undertaking. He feels dejected when his suggestion goes unheard. However, when the building collapses under its weight, people remember Willie Stark and his warning.
During the elections, when Willie becomes aware of the dirty plan of Harrison, he feels insulted. He frets and fumes about the injustice done to him but when he recovers from his depression, he exposes the hypocrisy of Harrison and declares his withdrawal from the contest. Stark, thus, acts in spite of being emotionally disturbed. After he becomes the Governor, he faces numerous problems, which affect him emotionally but he always takes stock of the situation and plans the course of action accordingly. Stark is an emotional fool but he is also a man of action.
Willie Stark is a man with a vision and a mission. Earlier, he had envisaged building a sturdy Schoolhouse, which would give confidence to its students to learn well and put in their best efforts. When he becomes the governor, he plans to use the State funds for developmental activities like making good roads and building hospitals. He decides to build a model hospital, which would provide the best facilities and medical treatment to the patients. With this in view, he invites the efficient Adam Stanton to take charge of the hospital.
Willie Stark is a political demagogue who can hold the attention of the people and induce them to act according to his wishes. This is the reason why people cheer him when he speaks and support him in his endeavor. Thus when MacMurfee threatens him with the impeachment of Byram White, he is able to win over the people to his point of view and earn their support in defeating the case.
Stark is energetic, enthusiastic and charged with vigor. These primeval qualities attract people around him. Thus his staff comprising of Tiny Duffy, Byram White, Sugar Boy and the like dance to his tunes without protest. Even intelligent individuals like Jack Burden become his slaves. Burden performs all the duties assigned to him even though he may not be always convinced about their propriety. Women are captivated by his manly and imposing personality. Thus the sensible Lucy, assertive Sadie and sophisticated Anne fall for his charms.
If Stark is sensitive and strong-willed, he is arrogant and high- handed too. As long as people listen to his views and support him, he is good to them. However, when any one opposes him or does any thing against his wishes, he leaves no stone unturned to punish them. Thus he repays Harrison and MacMurfee in their own coin. He threatens Irwin and pressurizes him to support him. He showers abuses on Tiny Duffy, whenever the man acts contrary to his wishes.
Stark believes in the principle of Ďend justifying the means.í His auditor commits an impropriety by making substantial profits through his ties with a real estate firm. He condemns the act and Lucy also requests him to turn against White for indulging in an unfair deal but Willie decides to support Byram White because MacMurfee was taking advantage of the situation to defame him. Similarly, his enmity against MacMurfee forces him to blackmail a respectable man like Judge Irwin. When Adam acts difficult before accepting the offer made by the Boss, Stark convinces him thus: "Goodness. Yeah, just plain, simple goodness. Well you cannot inherit that from anybody. You got to make it Doc, if you want it. And you got to make it out of badness... And you know why? Because there isnít anything else to make it out of." Stark is trying to justify his bad actions through a good end.
Robert Penn Warren has succeeded in making Willie Stark vibrant and alive. His well-rounded personality comprising of both good and bad qualities make him highly human. It is this quality that endears him to others and makes him a loveable character.
Adam is the idealist doctor-friend of Jack Burden who possesses high principles, high integrity and high sensitivity. He is a perfectionist who believes in doing the best in his chosen field of activity. As a student he had been good in studies and as a doctor he is well known for his devotion and dedication to his profession. He is able to make the right diagnosis and offer the right treatment. Jack narrates how deftly and patiently Adam performed a major brain operation on a Schizophrenic patient. Later, when Tom meets with an accident and injures his skull, he shows his prowess as an expert surgeon does, by performing the difficult operation. This is the reason why Willie Stark chooses him to head his medical center.
As already mentioned, Adam is highly principled. He works hard and performs his task righteously, without thinking of the rewards that it may bring him. He does not hold a high opinion of Willie Stark. In fact he considers him unscrupulous and opportunistic. Thus, when Jack persuades him to accept the post of Director of the Medical Center to be opened by Stark, he does not show interest. Later, when he is made to understand that he would be doing well by offering his services to patients, who are in need of it, accept the offer.
Adam is hypersensitive and touchy. When he is tempted with the offer made by Willie Stark, his conscience rebels and he feels restless. To give vent to his suppressed feelings, he plays jarring music till he gets exhausted. Later, when Jack shatters his moral values by exposing the guilt of his father, he reacts in a similar manner. After Hubert Coffee comes to bribe him, he feels insulted. In retaliation, he hits the man and later, writes his resignation letter to the Boss. Finally, when he hears about the liaison between Stark and Anne and presumes his sisterís influence in procuring him the job, his ego is hurt and he feels frustrated. In desperation, he shoots the Boss and he himself becomes the target of a bullet. Adam brings about his doom through his super-sensitivity and anger.
Adam is a good brother and a dear friend. He cares for Anne and is protective about her. Thus he feels hurt when he hears about her affair with Stark. To Jack, he is dear friend and companion in distress. He listens to Jackís suggestions and gives in to his wishes when it does not contradict his conscience. Adam is a good man with a generous heart but a sensitive soul.
Anne Stanton fits into the mould of a heroine, as she possesses both beauty and brains. Her physical charm captivates Jack Burden and he falls madly in love with her when she is hardly seventeen. However, she is no dumb beauty who loses her head and heart to her lover without thinking of the consequences. Even as a teenager, she is sensible enough to ask Jack to settle down in life before marrying her. She is practical. She expects her life-partner to establish him before shouldering on the responsibility of a husband.
Anne is not only intelligent but also large-hearted. She uses her education to serve people. She becomes a volunteer in a Childrenís home. In order to run the home efficiently; she seeks the help of Willie Stark. Towards the end of the novel, after she marries Jack Burden, she decides to gift her house to the childrenís home.
Anne, as Adam, sets a high standard for herself in life. Like Adam, she wants to serve people and contribute her might to society. However, when Jack breaks her moral fabric by exposing the guilt of her late father, she is shattered. She becomes insecure. Thus when she meets Willie Stark, she finds him dependable and hence, develops physical intimacy with him.
Anne is refined in her manners and polished in her behavior. These superior qualities of hers makes her an object of envy to people like Sadie Burke who lack such refinement. However, her sophistication is alluring to men and they find her pleasant company. This is perhaps the reason why Willie Stark gets attached to her.
Anne is devoted sister and a good friend. She is younger to Adam but feels responsible for his actions and is protective towards him. She wants the best for him and desires to see him happy. She understands his feelings and is concerned about his reactions. Thus, whenever she finds Adam disturbed in mind, she seeks the help of Jack to resolve the situation. Jack is Anneís friend and philosopher to whom she turns whenever she is faced with a problem. By talking to him, she feels relieved because she has faith in his capacity to find solutions to her problems. However, when jack is in the wrong, she is quick to point it out. Jack is her savior, but she is his conscience.
Sadie Burke is dynamite as she is as energetic and excitable as Willie Stark. This is the reason why both of them are attracted to each other. They are always restless and get provoked easily but they are efficient in their work. During the elections, Sadie helps Stark in organizing his meetings, and after he becomes the Governor of the State, she acts as his secretary by managing all his affairs.
She is shrewd as she keeps her eyes and ears open to the happenings around her. She exposes the dirty plan of Harrison to Stark and makes him aware of his position. When Irwin decides to support a candidate of MacMurfee, she gets the information and passes it on to Stark post haste, so that he can take adequate action. Whenever Willie gets carried away by charm of a girl and starts flirting with her, Sadie gets a wind of it and takes him to task. When Stark gets involved with Anne, she gets a scent of their affair and reveals it to Jack.
Sadie Burke is not a delicate darling like Anne; she is rough and crude. She voices her protest loudly and curses people openly when they try to hurt her. She abuses both Stark and Anne when she comes to know of their affair. She expects to be treated decently and justly by others.
Sadie Burke is very possessive. She wants Willie Stark all to herself. She forgets that he is married to Lucy and hence, owes allegiance to her. To her, Lucy is non-existent. She hates Stark flirting with other women or having secret relations with them. She is does not want to share Willie Stark with any one else. Starkís friendship with other women makes her feel insecure. Ironically it is not the other women who snatch away her security but Lucy who does it in her own silent way. After Tomís accident, Willie decides to stay faithful to Lucy and thus calls off his affair with both Anne and Sadie. Sadie feels humiliated, deserted and helpless. In her desperation, she becomes vindictive. She induces Tiny Duffy to provoke Adam against Stark. Her possessive love makes her destructive.
Sadie Burke, who had held the powerful Willie Stark by the leash, loses hold on him. Thwarted by Stark, she feels isolated. She loses her mental balance and lands herself in a Sanatorium. She cuts off her ties with the world. Sadie Burke thus falls down from the height of glory to the depths of despair.