"All the King's Men" by Robert Penn Warren: Summary and Response

Essay by tribbleHigh School, 10th gradeA, October 2007

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Summary:

All the King's Men was written by Robert Penn Warren and published in 1946. It is about a politician named Willie Talos, who becomes the governor of a state somewhere in the South. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947, and was made into a movie in 1949. Willie Talos suddenly becomes well known throughout his state because of the collapse of a schoolhouse. He had warned the people not to use that contractor, who was known to use inferior materials, but no one listened to him. When the schoolhouse collapsed, killing three children, Willie's idea that state government made some kind of secret agreement with the contractor was brought to many people's attention. Sadie Burke and Tiny Duffy, working for another candidate, convince Willie to run for governor so the votes for the others would be split. When Willie finds out, he is furious, and makes an emotional speech that the crowd loves.

But he drops out of the election, and campaigns against Sadie and Tiny's candidate. Four years later, Willie becomes governor and hires Jack Burden as an addition to his pack of political cronies, which already includes Tiny Duffy, lieutenant-governor, and Sugar-Boy, Willie's reckless driver and bodyguard. Jack Burden is a reporter who admires Willie Talos. Jack is also a historian, having studied American history at the state college where he also researched and started to write the biography of Cass Masters, one of Jack's ancestors. Jack is used by Willie to research his opponents and find unpleasant facts about them.

Response:

Throughout the book, the story shifts in time. The main time periods are the present, three years ago, and fourteen years ago. Although this can be a little confusing, it makes it easy to see the changes in Willie's personality. He goes from being quiet, careful, and always honest, to a bullying governor who is seeking revenge on the Judge for not supporting him.

Summary:

Judge Irwin makes himself an enemy of Willie by backing an opposing candidate, and Jack is asked to "dig up some dirt" on him. But Jack hesitates, since he has known the judge his whole life. The judge was like a father to him. But he decides that there is probably nothing to find, since the judge has such a good reputation. Willie knows better. He says that everyone has some secret, and the judge is no exception. After Jack had researched the judge for seven months, he discovers that Judge Irwin had once accepted a bribe, and that Joel Stanton, the governor and the father of Jack's childhood friends Adam and Anne Stanton, had covered it up. Jack hopes that he never has to reveal this. But when Willie wants Adam to become the director of his new hospital, Jack has to tell Adam to persuade him. Willie's free hospital is his plan for helping the poor of the state and boosting his own popularity. Willie's actions become more dishonest by the day.

Response:

Jack has always liked the judge, and is shocked to learn that he took a bribe. Despite his claims that the purpose of the free hospital is to help the poor people in the state, it seems that Willie is building to more for himself. He wants to be remembered as good for the state.

Summary:

Sam MacMurfee, a powerful enemy for Willie, threatens Willie with a paternity suit against Tom, Willie's son, if Willie runs for the Senate. After trying several ways to stop him, Willie remembers the research Jack had done on Judge Irwin, who has the power to control MacMurfee's threats. Willie orders Jack to blackmail the judge into helping him. Jack obeys Willie, telling Judge Irwin that if he does not help Willie, people will find out about his bribe. Instead of bending to Willie's will like Jack, Judge Irwin kills himself. In the commotion following Judge Irwin's death, Jack learns that Judge Irwin was his real father. Willie strikes a deal with Gummy Larson, a building contractor and friend to MacMurfee. Willie gives Larson the contract to build the hospital, and Larson persuades MacMurfee to drop the case on Tom.

Response:

Here is more proof that Willie would stop at nothing to get what he wants. Jack obeys Willie and threatens the judge, causing him to commit suicide. Jack seems to be more of a puppet than a person. Judge Irwin once called him Willie's "body servant" after seeing Willie tell Jack to get him a drink, and Jack going to obey blindly.

Summary:

Just as things were looking alright for Tom, he has an accident playing football and is paralyzed. This causes Willie to take a long look at his life, and what has happened to him since he got into politics. He cancels all the plans for the hospital, which angers Tiny Duffy. To get even with Willie, Tiny tells Adam that his sister Anne is Willie's mistress. Adam is furious and shoots Willie. Then Sugar-Boy, loyal to Willie as always, kills Adam. Willie, unable to recover from the serious wound, dies a few days later. Now Jack is trying to figure this all out, and make sense of his own life. He marries Anne and finishes the biography of Cass Mastern.

Response:

If this novel has a moral at all, it's probably about power and truth. Power changed Willie and caused him to do things that he'd never have dreamed of doing before he got into politics. Truth and the fear that people would find the truth caused Adam to kill Willie and Judge Irwin to commit suicide. Morality is probably a big part of it, too. The main idea at the end of the book was that if you drop your morals, everything else goes, too.