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Free Study Guide-All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren-Free Book Notes
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The plot of All the King’s Men is well knit, though it is complex. In the words of Maugham, the novel ends "with a full stop." There are no loose ends left. The book follows the usual pattern of development from the Situation to the generating circumstances, the rising action and the climax to the Denouement. The situation shows Willie Stark, the Governor of the State supported by his admirers but feared by his rivals. Holding a powerful position, he is faced with problems, which he tries to tackle to the best of his ability. Power makes him corrupt and success makes him arrogant. This generates circumstances in which he takes liberties with the sentiments of the people like Tiny Duffy, Sadie Burke, Gummy Larson, Adam and Anne Stanton.

The action in the novel rises after the accident of Tom when Stark decides to take back the contract from Gummy Larson, thus hurting and insulting Tiny Duffy. Stark also calls off his relationship with Anne and Sadie Burke. These decisions of Stark spark off animosity in the characters concerned. The climax occurs when Sadie encourages Tiny Duffy to call up Adam and inform him about the affair between Stark and Anne with a view to provoke the doctor against the Boss. When Adam hears the news he is shocked and humiliated. In his anger, he leaves home in search of the Boss. The Denouement shows Adam encountering the Boss and shooting him down. In turn he is shot by the Sugar-Boy. Stark receives fatal injuries and dies in the hospital.


As stated earlier, the dominant Themes of the novel are ‘Power corrupting those who wield it,’ ‘The role of history in individual lives and the ‘Repercussions of one’s actions.’

All the characters who have held power in the past and who hold it in the present are corrupted by it. Even respectable men like Governor Stanton and Judge Irwin commit an impropriety while they are in power and thus blacken their fair name. Willie Stark who presents himself as an honest and idealistic man when he is the County Treasurer for Mason City, throws scruples to the wind after he becomes the Governor of the State. Power makes him arrogant and headstrong. Thus he threatens Judge Irwin and warns him of adverse consequences if he failed to withdraw his support to MacMurfee candidate. When Tom recklessly drives a car along with a girl friend and meets with an accident, Willie does not reprimand his son but is irritated with the girl’s father who threatens to take action against the junior Stark. After MacMurfee impeaches Byram White for involving himself in an illegal deal with an estate agent, Willie Stark gathers support through forceful canvassing and pressure tactics to reject the case against his auditor. Finally, he tries to subdue MacMurfee by giving the contract for the building of the hospital to Gummy Larson. Stark sacrifices his principles and stifles his conscience in order to outwit his enemy.

The other prominent theme of the novel is ‘the role of history in individual lives.’ Many of the characters in the novel are haunted by the past and are influenced by it. Jack Burden is an ardent student of history, as he loves dwelling into the past of people. Thus he chooses to probe into the life of Cass Mastern for his doctoral thesis and almost completes his job. However, he abandons his research because the attitude and behavior of Mastern puzzles him. Jack seems to understand Mastern’s emotional involvement but is unable to comprehend his desire for penance. The history of Mastern thus throws light on the perceptions of Jack and its relevance to his life.

Jack Burden digs up the past of Irwin in order to find incriminating evidence against him. In the process, he unearths information about Governor Stanton and himself. In the past, Governor Stanton had indiscreetly aided Irwin to become the Vice-President of American Electric Company and thus, had committed an impropriety. This piece of history about their father shocks both Adam and Anne. Their moral fabric gets shaken and they become reckless in their actions. Thus history plays an important role in carving their destiny.

Jack Burden’s inability to understand his past. He urges him to expose the past of Irwin but in the process, he himself gets exposed. By exposing the guilt of Irwin, Jack indirectly becomes responsible for driving the old man to his end. After Irwin’s death, when his mother reveals to him his true identity, he feels guilty for killing his own father. This revelation initiates a process of transformation in Jack, which gives him peace and contentment in the future.

‘Repercussions of one’s actions’ is another important theme of the novel. The actions of most of the characters in the novel affect the lives of others. The arrogant ways and high-handed behavior of Willie Stark not only affect his life but the lives of those who are related to him. His ruthless manner and callous actions mar his married life. Lucy condemns his dishonest dealings and looks down upon his encouraging Tom to lead a reckless life. True to her fears, Stark creates enemies through his behavior and lands in trouble through the scandals of Tom. Willie is often rude to his sub-ordinate and insults them openly. Men like Tiny Duffy bear the abuses heaped on them silently but nurture a spirit of revenge against the Boss. Thus when an opportunity presents itself through Sadie Burke and Adam Stanton, Tiny takes his revenge on the Boss.

Willie Stark gets involved with other women without thinking of the consequences of his action. Thus Sadie Burke takes him for granted and becomes possessive about him. Anne depends upon him for giving her security in the future. However, when conscience troubles him after the accident of Tom, he severs all relations with them. Both Anne and Sadie feel helpless. While Anne takes it in the right spirit, Sadie becomes rebellious and decides to harm Willie. Thus she makes Tiny provoke Adam against Stark. All the people he had inadvertently hurt in the past rally around him to take his life. The indiscreet actions of Willie Stark thus affect the lives of those that are connected to him and lead to his own ruin.

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