Jack Burden Escapes Responsibility Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men explores the idea of the relationship between the actions of individuals. Jack Burden does not understand this element, resulting in his escaping responsibility and lacking direction and ambition. Jack, when needing to accept responsibility and face the relationship of actions, runs away through Great Sleeps, living in the past, evading the future, and the Great Twitch theory of human motivation.
There are many things that happen to Jack throughout the novel that provoke a feeling of breaking away from reality and escaping into a world of solitude and sleep. Jack calls these episodes Great Sleeps. Jack presents the Great Sleeps in the order in which he thinks of them. The first Great Sleep, in the novel, occurs after Jack quits the Chronicle. He quits as a result of refusing to take sides in the upcoming gubernatorial campaign. Jack dives into a long-lasting sleep, which arouses a feeling of worthlessness in the things that he believes he wants.
He compares these material objects to playing cards within a deck. " Maybe the things you want are like cards" (Warren 99). An individual wants these cards because in a certain circumstance -a card game- they have a purpose. Without a game however, there is no need for these cards. While in a Great Sleep, Jack does not need material things, because there is no life. Like cards, the things you want have to be a part of a great complex to have a purpose. The reader can hypothesize that Jack really does not live while in a Great Sleep. He simply wishes to cease to exist.
The first Great Sleep that occurs in the novel is a preview to the reader that shows how Jack handles the situations in his life that require responsibility. The second Great Sleep occurs after Jack quits his college education and does not finish his dissertation in American History. This happens after Jack looks into the life of his great-uncle Cass Mastern. Many things contribute to this particular Great Sleep. The first is that Jack does not understand the motivation behind Cass' actions. This lack of understanding pushes Jack into a Great Sleep. Jack was also afraid that if he did begin to understand the meaning and relationship of the actions of Cass, he might see a connection with his own life.
The third Great Sleep that Jack enters into is after his marriage with Lois. His relationship with Lois is strictly physical. He only sees her as a sexual object that has no purpose other than to please him. However, when Jack starts hearing words come out of her mouth, he begins to see her as a person. This frightens Jack, because he never loves Lois as a person. Jack, like before, runs away from a situation that requires his taking responsibility.
The first three Great Sleeps that occur in Jack's life are different than the last. That particular Great Sleep is a product of Jack knowledge that Anne is having an affair with Willie.
He runs from his problems to California where a very big advancement in Jack's character is made. He realizes that it is a fault within him that has led Anne into Willie's arms. Willie has direction, ambition, and an energy that is attractive to Anne. Jack has none of these qualities. This is the final Great Sleep, because Jack starts taking responsibility and finding a direction. The Great Sleeps show that Jack Burden reacts to situation, not acts, and these reactions always seem to end in the desertion of responsibility. It is only speculation to say that Jack will never have another Great Sleep, but it is clear that as the novel ends, it becomes less likely.
Jack also dodges responsibility for the present and future by living most of his life in the past. Jack is a student of history, and the reader can clearly see that he prefers to live in the past. Jack's preference for the past is shown in the Cass Mastern story. There are many purposes for the Cass Mastern chapter. One of the most important is to show how Jack focuses most of his life on the study and examination of the past.
It is clear that Jacks avoids the present. Jack tries, throughout the course of the novel, to figure out why Ellis Burden abandons his family. Jack, as he does with Cass, does not see the motivation behind Ellis' desertion. No one gives him any feeling of security when these important events happen in his early years; it is clear that Jack has not accepted them as an adult. As a result of this lack of security, Jack feels lost, with no personal sense of direction or ambition. This is the reason why Jack works for Willie. It is Willie's energy that gives Jack a sense of purpose and direction rather than anything inside himself.
Associated with Jack's living in the past, is his avoidance of the future. All throughout the novel, Jack makes no attempt to focus on his future. The reader sees that Jack is without ambition and direction. Jack even admits to this. "The subject of my future, as a matter of fact, was one on which I had never cared to dwell. I simply didn't care.....I had no ambitions" (285). This lack of ambition is the main reason why Anne does not marry Jack. It does not matter to her what Jack does, as long as he works for something. She is looking for direction, and she finds this in Willie.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Jack's lack of responsibility and ambition is his explanation. While in the Southwest, Jack happens upon an elderly man who has a twitch in his face. This twitch has been a part of the man for so long that he does not realize it is there. This is the basis of Jack's Great Twitch Theory. This theory is his explanation of human motivation, which denounces the idea that actions are related and affect others. The theory, in so many words, states that something outside the human realm sends out pockets of energy, and somewhere, somebody twitches, and does something. There is no reason why people do things or why things happen to human beings. Therefore, there is no human responsibility for one's actions.
Jack does not have goals or direction, because he feels that he has no power to control his actions. He simply believes forces direct him and lead him into the actions he performs. On the contrary, Cass Mastern believes in the Spider Web theory. This theory states that the world is interrelated, that the actions of one affect another. Jack does not believe this theory. He thinks that anything that happens to have the appearance of being interrelated and mutual is simply the forces acting in their own unmanageable way.
Jack calls himself an idealist early in the novel. He lives by the principle of idealism which he read in a book while in college. Jack describes the principle by saying, "What you don't know don't hurt you, for it ain't real" (30). This is one of the reasons why Jack formulates the Great Twitch theory. He does not want to admit that his actions are real and that they do affect others. By creating the Great Twitch theory, he refuses to admit the presence of free will. At the end of the novel, Jack starts to take responsibility for his actions. He realizes that by asking Adam to take the hospital job, Willie and Adam both lose their lives. Cass Mastern was right by accepting the idea that life is a spider web, by which one move can trigger a chair reaction that affects the whole. It is safe to assume that by the end of the novel, the Great Twitch theory is proven to be incorrect.
Through Great Sleeps, an avoidance of the future, living in the past, and the invention of the Great Twitch theory, Jack runs from responsibility and lacks direction and ambition in his life. During the course of the novel, Jack shows the reader how far he will go to escape responsibility. It's not until Jack sees that life is like a spider web, when he starts to accept responsibility and gain a direction and purpose within life.