analysis of the book all the kings men by robert penn warren

Analysis of the Book All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren


     Within great works of literature, it is often said that there is a situation whereby art imitates life.  Such is the case with famed southern author Robert Penn Warren.  In the 1940s, Warren, fascinated by the rise and eventual fall of Louisiana governor Huey Long, penned his own fictional novel based on Long’s life and background (Bloom), calling it appropriately enough, “All the King’s Men”.  This research will not only summarize the novel, but will also describe the key characters, themes and concepts of the book.  Overall, upon conclusion of this research, not only will a classic work be discussed at length, but also, many of the facets of human nature will be better understood.

Brief Summary/Key Character Overview

     As this paper was introduced, it was mentioned that Robert Penn Warren based “All the King’s Men” on the real-life exploits of Louisiana’s Huey Long.  To begin, an understanding of the plot of the story and the key players in that story are essential.  In Warren’s book, an unidentified southern American state is the setting, and the governor of that semi-fictional state, Willie Stark is a composite of Long and other powerful men of the era.

     Warren’s main character in the person of Willie Stark is quite remarkable in that Stark rises up from a childhood of abject poverty to become governor of his state.  Upon his rise to the office of governor, he becomes a proponent of liberal policies which are designed to help the poor, but also gain him a fair amount of enemies both in the politically conservative arena, but also among his wealthier constituents (Langford).

     One particularly interesting literary device which makes the tension in the novel build is the use of a omniscient narrator, known as Jack Burden who at times steps out of the plot of the story to move it along and at other times interacts with Stark to do some of Stark’s “dirty work” such as blackmail and manipulation of his enemies, all of which helps Stark to gain more power and leverage over his opponents (Warren).

     Other key characters in Warren’s novel include the following:

Anne Stanton- In a strange irony, not only is Anne the woman that Jack Burden loves, but also the mistress of Stark, putting her in a uniquely tense situation.  Her romantic activities seem to have created a level of confusion in her mind, as she was raised with a strict moral code.

Adam Stanton- Adam is a talented surgeon, close friend to Jack Burden and also Anne Stanton’s brother.  Among the other moral violations that Adam is driven to, he is appointed medical director of a prestigious hospital in a backroom deal orchestrated by Stark.  This, and other factors, eventually drives Adam to assassinate Stark at the climax of the novel.

Judge Montague Irwin- A political opponent of Stark’s, he eventually becomes a victim of a plan that Stark hatches in order to obtain information about some of Irwin’s shady dealings aside from his duties on the bench.  In fact, the threat of exposing Irwin’s crimes eventually drives Irwin to commit suicide, indirectly making Stark the cause of Irwin’s death.

Sadie Burke- Sadie is not only Willie Stark’s secretary, but also is serving a role as his mistress.  In both of these roles, Burke obviously becomes exposed to a great deal of damaging and personal information about Stark himself.  When Stark breaks off his relationship with Burke, she exposes many of his darkest secrets, including his affair with Anne Stanton.  When Adam Stanton learned of this affair, this was one of the several factors which drove Adam to ultimately murder Willie Stark himself.

Tiny Duffy- Serving as Willie Stark’s Lieutenant Governor and taking over the office upon Stark’s death, he is portrayed in the novel as an obese, foul type of a man who garners a bit of sympathy as he is forced to accept Willie’s abuse and insults during the years that he serves as Willie’s second in command.

The Theme of Political Responsibility in the Book

     Within “All the King’s Men”, the plotting, scheming and complicated human relationships aside, the theme of political responsibility in the book is an overriding theme which shapes the plot extensively.  For men like Willie Stark, the use of political power ironically holds a level of responsibility which he uses to help those who, like him, grew up poor and are in need of governmental assistance while at the same time, Stark has no problem in utilizing political power as a means of professionally and/or personally ruining those who would oppose him or those who likewise had the power to cause harm to Stark himself (Langford).

     As will now be discussed, there are theories which figure prominently in “All the King’s Men” which allow the characters in the book to be able to shed responsibility for their actions, even when those actions have foul consequences for others.

“The Spider Web Theory”, “The Great Twitch”, etc.

     The following quotation from “All the King’s Men” introduced one of the major concepts of the novel itself:

“The world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter and the drowsy spider feels the tingle” (Warren, p. 260).

     For the characters in Warren’s book, this so-called “Spider Web Theory” has several different implications.  Individuals who wish to do no harm to others, if this theory is to hold out, must be very careful in life, so as not to offend other people, let alone to cause them any ill effects.  Conversely, those who wish to grab power, destroy others, and theoretically keep everyone relegated to a subordinate role can use the “Spider Web Theory” to create shock waves that literally, like a spider in a delicate web, can upset someone’s entire world and sense of safety (Blair).

     There is another theory in which, if the characters in Warren’s book feel guilt for their destruction or harm of others, can find solace: “The Great Twitch”.  Within the intracies of this Theory, people do what they do, good or bad, based on instincts that literally are found in the blood of the individual so that, much like an animal behavior, what they do cannot be helped.  Therefore, one can find a sort of pardon for the wrongs they have done, based on the “fact” that people are simply the way they are as a matter of their human composition, rather than based on choices, morals and such (Bloom).

     When the “Spider Web” and “Great Twitch” are discussed and compared side by side, what is seen is a combination of all events, and indeed people, having a direct effect on others through what they do, do not do, or allow to happen.  Additionally, there is a means of escaping responsibility for one’s bad behavior in the shelter of the “Great Twitch”, if they choose, under the premise that they haven’t chosen what they have done, but are doing what was predestined for them to do.  With these pieces in place, it is easy to see how men like Willie Stark, as well as their real-life counterparts, are able to behave badly and still sleep soundly at night- there is always an escape mechanism which essentially allows them to walk away from the chaos they have created like one finds shelter from the rain.

Other Elements/Themes of the Book

     As is quite apparent at this point, “All the King’s Men” is not only a tale of political intrigue, human conflict, and the like- there are other elements and themes of the book which are worthwhile to present and discuss here.  Central to the actions of all of the characters of Warren’s book is the broad theme of the old versus the new South.  For Stark and his contemporaries, the South in which they grew up-one where poverty was commonplace, the lower class was held in check by a powerful upper class, and minority genders/races were oppressed.  With the passage of time and the progression of social, economic and political ideas, the South was rapidly changing before the eyes of the characters in the novel.  The “new South” and its accompanying clashes between the classes, races and genders seems to have brought out some of the worst in human behavior- greed, promiscuity, betrayal, and behavior bordering on, and often reaching, the illegal.

     Lastly, several other themes figured in Warren’s book and are worthwhile to identify/discuss briefly:

TRUTH- Generally speaking, truth was a major catalyst in “All the King’s Men”, creating much of the tension between the characters and the eventual climax of the story- Willie Stark’s demise at the hands of an assassin with whom he was closely associated.  Stark used the truth-in the form of damaging information about his rivals- to blackmail and control his enemies.  For men and women of moral fiber, such as Adam Stanton and Sadie Burke, their collision with the truth eventually led to their downfall.

VALUES- The idea of values played a part in “All the King’s Men”; as was discussed earlier, the conflict between old style and newer, more progressive values motivated much of the conduct of the characters in the story.

ETHICS- While ethics varied by character in Warren’s novel, ethics themselves played a part in the plot, as evildoers in the story used a sense of ethics to manipulate people who were basically pure of heart and character, while those with ethics tried to guard against those that would do harm to them.


         Robert Penn Warren’s “All the King’s Men” is a complex novel, combining semi-biographical information, contemporary American history and in-depth character studies to comment not only on the dark side of the human condition, but also about the hunger for power,  the moral dilemma of doing the right thing in the face of dire personal consequences for doing so, and the fallout from such behavior.  Therefore, in conclusion, what can best be said about “All the King’s Men” is that it speaks volumes on many of life’s greatest challenges and mysteries.

Works Cited

Blair, John. “”The Lie We Must Learn to Live By”: Honor and Tradition in ‘All the King’s Men.’.” Studies in the Novel 25.4 (1993): 457+.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

Langford, Richard E., ed. Essays in Modern American Literature. 1st ed. De Land, FL: Stetson University Press, 1963.

Warren, Robert P. “All the King’s Men”. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1996.

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