Jack Burden and Willie Stark are, of course, the paired central characters of All the King’s Men. Jack Burden is important because he is the narrator of the novel and because he is the character who undergoes the greatest change; he is also the character about whom, ultimately, we learn the most. Willie Stark, on the other hand, is the most powerful, the most dominating character in the novel, and it seems to be, primarily, his story that Jack Burden tells. Each character needs the other: without Willie Stark, Jack Burden’s life would be insignificant; without Jack Burden, Willie Stark’s life would have little shape or meaning.
Both Willie Stark and Jack Burden are complex characters, and both of them are presented complexly. Both of these men act in ways that seem contradictory, but these apparently contradictory motivations are rooted in the past, in the things that they did or that happened to them when they were younger. The events of the past, then, are necessary to an understanding of these characters in the present. In fact, these events out of the past make Jack Burden and Willie Stark both more complex and more understandable.
Between the late summer of 1936 and the early fall of 1937 — the present time of the novel as far as Willie Stark is concerned — Willie exhibits a number of characteristics, some of them seeming to contradict others. One of the main characteristics which he exhibits is his enormous energy. Indeed, the man seems hardly to need to sleep; for example, when they return to his father’s place after visiting Judge Irwin, Willie Stark goes for a walk in order to think things through rather than go to bed, even though it is three o’clock in the morning. Later in the novel, he spends hours working on plans for the hospital which he has sworn to the people that he would build. Furthermore, all of the evidence points toward the idea that he has always been a person who needs little sleep, one who has the drive to use every waking hour profitably. We have many scenes of Willie Stark studying law late into the morning hours after putting in a full day’s work. There are also suggestions that Jack has been awakened from his slumbers and is summoned because Willie Stark is working on some project. There are also the whirlwind visits to Willie’s political opponents at unusual hours of the night when he is threatened by impeachment. All of this evidence shows us that Willie Stark has immense amounts of energy and drive.
Not only does this energy go into the projects and crises which he faces, but it is also channeled into all of his other activities. His sexual appetite is apparently great; he has Sadie Burke and Anne Stanton as “regular” mistresses, and he takes other women to bed with him whenever the opportunity presents itself. He shows great enthusiasm for the football team, especially when Tom is performing well; he yells and jumps and throws his arms around people. When Tom is in the hospital, Willie paces the halls and refuses to rest until some kind of resolution is reached. Even in death, Willie Stark hangs on to life more tenaciously than he might have been expected to.
Another of Willie Stark’s primary characteristics is his ability to hold a crowd spellbound, to move them emotionally as he wishes them to be moved. He does just the right things in the drugstore in Mason City in order to make sure that the crowd’s allegiance to him is reinforced. When he makes a speech in the town square a little later, he makes sure of two things: that he has this crowd spellbound by his oratory and that his speech makes good copy for the newspapermen who have accompanied him on this trip.
Although this ability to hold and to emotionally capture a crowd seems to be an innate ability, he did not always use it as effectively as he does in the novel’s present. His speech to the crowd in Mason City is effective in uniting the crowd behind him; Jack can recognize that Willie is going to give them the “Stark treatment,” the mannerisms that have developed over the years, particularly the bulge and the glitter in his eyes. The speech after the impeachment attempt has been curbed is effective in controlling a much larger crowd and calming it, just as are his speeches across the state when he needs to rally support for himself as the impeachment attempt is mounting. His speeches against Joe Harrison effectively rouse the anger of the people of the rural areas of the state and ultimately contribute to Harrison’s defeat.
It is these speeches against Harrison that mark the beginning of Willie Stark’s career as an effective public speaker, and the difference between his later speeches and the earlier ones shows a change in his attitude, both toward himself and toward the people to whom he speaks. Willie’s earlier speeches reflected his idea that the people of his state were interested in good, effective government and that they would decide rationally on the basis of a reasonable plan that is rationally organized and rationally presented. As a result of this belief, his earlier speeches are filled with facts and figures and explanations. Furthermore, he delivers these speeches woodenly and calmly, more in the manner of an uninspired college professor delivering a dry and dusty lecture. He wants nothing to get in the way of a rational consideration of his program. In contrast, his later speeches are delivered emotionally, with great intensity. They are filled with devices that rouse the audience — inciting its anger and inviting its response. These speeches are designed to project an image of Willie Stark as the kind of person whom these people can trust, the kind of person who works for them and follows their wishes. These later speeches recognize the emotional nature of the people whom he addresses, and Willie Stark seems almost contemptuous of them as he manipulates them as he wishes.
Willie Stark has been labeled as a political demagogue because of the nature of his speeches and because of the way that he manipulates people. Willie Stark did not begin that way, however. He was forced out of his belief in the basic goodness and rationality of people. He discovered that the public would not or could not respond rationally to his rational proposals. When he got angry about his treatment by the Harrison people, he discovered that the people would respond to his emotion and to his appeals to their emotions. He also discovered that he could manipulate the emotions of a crowd very effectively.
Willie Stark is a political demagogue, but his ability to move a crowd is only part of what makes him a demagogue. Much more important is his sense of mission, his vision of what could be. A major part of his mission is to bring the benefits of government to his kind of people, to the rural parts of the state. For years, the state has been run by people from the Gulf areas, and the benefits of government have gone to the people and the businesses there, leaving the other parts of the state with few benefits. Willie Stark’s original program, which he worked on and polished nightly during his first campaign for governor, was a program to bring such things as decent roads into all parts of the state and to spread the tax burden to those who were paying less than their fair share. Although his methods of achieving his goals seem to have changed, the goals themselves have not. Willie began with an idealistic vision of what he could accomplish as governor, and he retains that vision to the end, with the hospital, which is to provide care for all the people of the state, regardless of their financial position, as the most concrete manifestation of his dream.
In any evaluation of Willie Stark, two things have to be weighed. On the one hand, he has provided many things for his state, and he has done so in the face of stiff opposition from the MacMurfee faction of the party and from the other, older entrenched interests in the state. On the other hand, his methods are less than savory. He has stacked the state courts to make sure that his changes are adjudged legal (remember, though, that U.S. presidents have done the same thing for the same reasons). He also allows some graft in order to have things proceed more smoothly (but remember that previous administrations did the same kind of thing — sometimes for less worthy purposes, as in Governor Stanton’s protection of Judge Irwin). Willie Stark also uses blackmail to make sure that his power is left intact and that his goals are met (a comparison of his tactics with those of his opposition will, however, suggest that he is only fighting fire with fire). In other words, there seems to be no question that Willie Stark’s aims are admirable. There also seems to be little question that his methods of achieving his goals are reprehensible in an absolute sense — but also that they are conditioned by established practice and by the methods used against him. Just before his death, of course, Lucy Stark persuades her husband that his methods are wrong, and on his deathbed, Willie does tell Jack that things “might have been all different.”
Perhaps it is not so much the methods that Willie Stark uses to achieve his goals that are reprehensible, but rather the attitudes which he has, the ways that he applies the methods. He comes to think of the people whom he must deal with as “scum,” and he treats them that way. When Bryam White is caught trying to get some extra money for himself, Willie decides to protect White. This decision is made strictly on the basis of power: Willie wants to protect the power that he has, and he will use whatever means necessary to do so. In dealing with White, however, he does not simply tell the man what he is going to do; nor does he merely be-rate him for his stupidity and venality; instead, Willie Stark makes White cringe and grovel before him, and he appears to enjoy doing so. He heaps abuse on Tiny Duffy, even spits on him — and he seems to enjoy watching Tiny stand there and take it. He seems to enjoy watching the state legislators capitulate when he lets them know what he has on them. He is obviously cynical about human beings, believing that something to discredit them can always be found and that the threat of having this information revealed will always bring them to their knees (at least figuratively, but sometimes literally). He even seems cynical about his speeches, using them to manipulate people, while conscious of the fact that he is doing so.
Even here, however, it is not simple to evaluate Willie Stark negatively. For one thing, he says that he would like to see one of these people stand up to him (unfortunately, he is not alive to appreciate the fact that Tiny Duffy finally does something about the way he has been treated). Willie also admires people like Adam Stanton who will not bow down before him, although he is not prepared for someone like Judge Irwin, who kills himself rather than accept the choices which he is offered. Furthermore, a part of Willie Stark’s negative view of people seems conditioned by his religious background. That is, although he is not a religious person, and although religion does not play a major role in the novel, there are indications that the ideas of original sin and of the sinfulness of man are pervasive in the culture in which Willie Stark grew up. Although Willie Stark may use these ideas for his own purposes, there can be little question that he is drawing on an important part of his background when he does so.
Willie Stark is a complex character, filled with conflicting desires and motives. There can be no easy judgments of him or of his actions. Likewise, Jack Burden is also a complex character, and simple judgments of him are also likely to be mistaken.
To a certain extent at least, Jack Burden can be described as being a “frozen” personality. That is, most of his attitudes and perceptions are frozen into a mold created when he was six years old. When the Scholarly Attorney left his family, Jack was bewildered; he didn’t understand his father’s desertion, and he had no idea of the motivation behind it. When Jack’s mother sent him off to school and remarried, he felt completely abandoned; he didn’t understand her actions, either. Now, it would be too much to claim that Jack is emotionally a six-year-old, but it would be accurate to say that some of his patterns of response were created when he was six.
For example, Jack takes a perverse delight in contradicting his mother whenever he can. He chooses to attend the state university because she wants him to go to an eastern university. He squanders the money she sent him for clothes on a drinking spree. He argues with her about his working for Willie Stark, and he is candid in pointing out why Willie Stark has done what he has done when his mother’s friends bring the topic up. He sneers at the furniture with which she has filled the house. He resents her, and he resents her ability to get through his defenses, yet at the same time, he wants her to care about him, to soothe him as she sometimes does. He keeps returning to see her, and he watches over her after Judge Irwin’s death. Indeed, one of Jack’s major problems is that he is not sure that she cares for him, and his doubts about this have their roots early in his life. What she wants for him may be a concern for him, but he feels that she is probably just trying to get her own way and to arrange things for the sake of appearances.
Jack does not understand his mother’s motivations, and he does not understand human motivation in general. As a result, he does not understand human emotions. During the summer in which he falls in love with Anne Stanton, he has no idea of what Anne is going through or why she does the things she does; he can only react and observe and try to flow with the tide. He doesn’t understand at all what Anne wants of him when she asks what he’s going to do. He does not understand that she could have doubts or feelings for anyone else, even temporarily. Jack does not understand why Lois Seager married him, nor does he understand what she was feeling during their arguments — if he even understands that she had feelings. He does not understand the Scholarly Attorney’s religious philosophy, his choice of a place to live and of a way to live, nor his concern for the unfortunate. Even though Jack has seen Willie Stark’s career develop, and even though he has seen the changes take place in Willie Stark’s attitudes and methods, he does not understand what it is that drives Willie. Jack does not understand how Willie feels about the hospital nor does he understand Willie’s obsession about fulfilling his promises to the common people. And, of course, Jack does not understand why Cass Mastern acted as he did; he simply has no comprehension of the emotions that drove Cass Mastern to act as he did.
Because he does not understand human motivations, then, Jack Burden finally formulates the theory of the Great Twitch. This theory postulates that all human actions are caused by the same forces that produce the tic in the face of the old man whom he meets: somewhere, an impulse originates, and somewhere else somebody does something. This idea, however, is merely a more formal statement of the thought that guides most of Jack Burden’s opinions, since he has long believed that there is no real reason behind the things people do; they merely act as some mysterious impulse dictates, or they react. Because this is the case, there is no responsibility involved in the way a person acts. Because he believes this, Jack can simply go ahead and do his job. He can dig up all of the sordid information that he can find on someone, and it doesn’t mean a thing to him personally. That person is not responsible for his actions, and Jack feels that he has no responsibility for what he finds nor for what he uses to destroy someone else nor what Willie Stark does with that information. One person’s actions do not affect another person in any way — or so Jack believes throughout much of the novel.
Jack is, quite predictably, emotionally removed from the things that happen around him. He felt nothing when his college roommates were kicked out of school; he felt no responsibility for that, even though he financed the spree that caused it. When he is forced to become emotionally involved with Lois, he walks out on her. He is acutely embarrassed when Sadie Burke vents her anger about Willie Stark’s affairs in front of him. He is uncomfortable when he must face Lucy Stark’s open and honest emotions. Yet he cares nothing about the people about whom he digs up information, and he feels no responsibility for what happens to them. He asks Anne and Adam Stanton for information about Judge Irwin, totally disregarding any feelings that they might have. Jack even holds Willie Stark at arm’s length.
Because Jack feels no attachments to anyone or to anything, and because he feels that human actions are without cause and without effect, he has no direction in his life, no motivation to do something on his own. He is entirely dependent upon external forces seizing him and pushing him in one direction or the other. Falling in love with Anne Stanton was simply something that happened to him, and he flowed along with the tide of events without even attempting to exert any kind of control over what was happening; the closest he came was to argue with her over her actions. His choice of college was a reaction to his mother’s choice, rather than a positive choice of his own. He seems to have drifted into his job at the Chronicle and into the study of history. He falls into the Great Sleep when he cannot summon up enough will power to complete his Ph.D. dissertation about Cass Mastern and again when he is near the end of his marriage to Lois. He quits his job at the Chronicle in reaction to an assignment to write columns supportive of a political stance he objects to, and he again spends a great deal of time sleeping until Willie Stark finds him and offers him a job. While he is working for Willie Stark, he simply accepts the assignments which Willie gives him; he never takes the initiative in any action. As long as there is some external force to give him direction and to push him forward, however, Jack does his job very well, indeed.
Jack has withdrawn into himself, refusing to reach out to others. To a large extent, his withdrawal is the result of three emotional traumas which he has suffered. He loved his father (the Scholarly Attorney), and he felt secure with him, but Ellis Burden withdrew from him without a word, not even a goodbye. He loved his mother and wanted her to cherish him, but she sent him away to school, and she married a succession of men. He fell in love with Anne Stanton and felt loved by her, but she withdrew from him. Jack is afraid — al-though he may not be aware of it — that he will be hurt again if he allows his emotions full rein, if he becomes involved with another person.
Beneath his self-constructed shell of cynicism and indifference, however, Jack is a vulnerable and even a caring human being, but it takes a series of jolts to jar him out of the cocoon he has built around himself. Although he accepts the assignment to dig out negative information about Judge Irwin in the same way that he accepts other such assignments, he discovers that he actually cares about the results of this investigation. He catches himself hoping that he will not be able to find anything. He also seems disappointed when he does find out about the bribe, although this is muted because he has prepared himself for it. Jack is shocked by the revelation that Anne Stanton has become Willie Stark’s mistress — so shocked, in fact, that he reviews his relationship with her and admits that his attitude, his personality, had something to do with their cancelled engagement. He is also sufficiently shocked that he reviews his marriage to Lois Seager and realizes his emotional detachment from her. Jack is jolted by Judge Irwin’s refusal to accept the choices offered to him, by the judge’s willingness to accept the responsibility and the consequences for his actions, and by the judge’s suicide. He cares enough to admire Judge Irwin’s stand, even though he thinks that it is impractical, but he cares enough about what happens to Judge Irwin to urge him to reconsider and to give him the time to do so. He cares enough about Judge Irwin to hope that — and to ask whether — his death was clean and quick. Jack is also jolted by the discovery that Judge Irwin was his father; this knowledge releases a number of emotions in him — pride, relief, sadness, and tenderness being most apparent. This knowledge also provides a key piece of information that gives Jack the beginnings of an understanding of his own past. The final, shattering blow to Jack Burden’s shell is delivered by Adam Stanton when he kills Willie Stark. After that event, Jack has little choice but to restructure his life, a process he had already begun after Judge Irwin’s death.
What kind of person is Jack Burden after all these events have taken place? The novel ends before the process of redevelopment is complete, but some indications are provided.
In the first place, Jack shows signs of caring for other people and of respecting their feelings. He returns to be with Anne Stanton, to just be there and to give her what support he can, without intruding on her grief. He accepts Sadie Burke, and he accepts her verbal jabs and her anger without flinching or moving away as he once did; he also makes a special effort to visit her and to comfort her. He recognizes and respects Sugar-Boy’s feelings about Willie Stark. He visits Lucy Stark without the embarrassment he once felt, and he empathizes with her need to believe that her husband had the seeds of greatness in him. He brings the Scholarly Attorney home to live with him, and he no longer feels the need to make fun of the old man’s religious beliefs. To a great extent, then, this ability to care about, and to accept, other people is the result of Jack’s learning to accept himself, at least to some degree.
A second major change in Jack’s character is seen in the last chapter of the novel, when he begins to take charge of his own life and to make plans for the future, rather than just drifting through situations as he has done most of his life. Most of these plans involve tying up many of the loose ends in his life. Thus, he marries Anne Stanton. He now plans to write the book about Cass Mastern that he abandoned many years before, and he plans to sell Judge Irwin’s house, which is now his, and to cut his physical ties with Burden’s Landing. In addition to such plans as these, however, Jack also makes tentative plans for moving into the future, plans that will tie his past and his future together. That is, he anticipates becoming involved in Hugh Miller’s campaign for governor.
To be sure, the change in Jack Burden is by no means complete by the end of the novel, but he has recognized that a person must be responsible for his or her actions and that one person’s actions do affect other people. He has also come to accept his emotions, and he can care for other people. He is no longer as cynical as he once was. In short, he is ready to move into the future, no matter how tentative those movements may be at first.
Thus, the story of Willie Stark is the story of Jack Burden; their lives are, for many years, intertwined and largely inseparable. Nevertheless, the life of Willie Stark ends, and this causes the life of Jack Burden, which continues on, to take a new direction. Even then, however, the effect of Willie Stark on Jack Burden will never be obliterated.