Earlier in the novel, when he talked about his days as a graduate student of history, Jack Burden said that, whereas his roommates were trying to escape the future, he was trying to escape the present. To that end, he buried himself in the study of the past, particularly in the study of Cass Mastern’s papers, trying to understand Cass Mastern. From the perspective of the completed novel, it is easy to see that Jack Burden felt cut off from his past, from a past with which he could identify, and that he was trying to find, in his study of history, something that would give shape and meaning to his life in the present, without which he could not face the present, much less the future. When he fails to understand Cass Mastern — and thus fails to understand his past — he simply leaves it all behind and drifts, letting the various forces control his direction.
It is only in this last chapter that Jack’s past is fully restored to him, so that he can face both the present and the future. These crises — the death of Judge Irwin, as well as the knowledge that Judge Irwin had been bribed and was, in addition, his father; the knowledge that the Scholarly Attorney was not his father and a general understanding of why the Scholarly Attorney had walked away; the feeling that his mother had loved Monty Irwin; the knowledge that Anne Stanton had become Willie Stark’s mistress; the deaths of Willie Stark and Adam Stanton — all of these things, and the events surrounding them, provide most of the building blocks out of which Jack can reconstruct his past. The keystone — the one piece of the past, the one bit of information, that gives the final shape to this reconstruction and locks the pieces into place — is provided by his mother.
Although Jack has been totally unaware of it, his mother has also been locked into a pattern by the events that have happened in her life. She seems to have been as shocked by the fact that Ellis Burden abandoned his family as Jack was. Her succession of husbands seems to have been a result of her desire to prove she could attract a man and hold him in the face of this rejection, and her methods of dealing with Jack — which have both attracted him and repelled him — have been attempts to make sure that Jack does not leave her, too. After hearing her scream when she heard that Monty Irwin was dead, Jack wondered why she had not married the judge after his wife had died, often attributing harsh motives to her for not doing so. In this chapter, she fills in the final information he needs by telling him that it was not until Monty Irwin died that she realized that he was the only man whom she ever truly cared for. With this knowledge, and with a good deal of thought, she has decided to leave Theodore Murrell, her latest husband, and to let him have the house, since her decision had nothing to do with him and since living on the Row means so much to him (knowing that Jack does not particularly care for that house). This revelation tells Jack that his mother did, indeed, care for someone and that events have shaped her actions, as they shaped his. As a result, he can accept the idea that she did, indeed, care for him, and this makes a great deal of difference in his ability to accept her and his past.
Before he can put this keystone into place, however, Jack has to assimilate other events that have drastically altered his life. In particular, he must assimilate the death of Willie Stark — the Boss, the governor, the man who gave focus and direction to those he came in contact with. For a time, then, Jack lives at the Landing, spending the days quietly with Anne Stanton, preserving a fragile balance for both of them, never mentioning what has happened. For a time, that is enough. The matter of Willie Stark has not been fully resolved, however, and that begins to trouble Jack. In finding his resolution to his relationship with the Boss, Jack must do three things: he must find out who was responsible for Adam Stanton’s decision to kill Willie Stark; he must decide what he will do with that information; and he must sort out his feelings about Willie Stark and come to some viable conclusions about him.
The first task is done simply enough, for he finds Sadie Burke, who tells him that she told Tiny Duffy to do it and how to do it. She did this in the heat of the moment, just after Willie told her that he was throwing her over and returning to Lucy. At first, Jack believes that Tiny Duffy’s action was strictly cold-blooded, using another man to get something he wanted. Later, however, Jack reviews this idea, and he isn’t quite so sure. He comes to believe that Tiny Duffy is human after all and that he used the opportunity to gain revenge for all those years that Willie had “spit on him” in one way or another. In other words, Tiny Duffy cared about how he was treated, although he chose to accept the treatment he got.
Deciding what to do with this information is more difficult. Jack’s first impulse is to spread the word and, thus, to “get” Duffy. He quickly sees that this is not a truly satisfactory solution. For one thing, it would involve Anne Stanton, dragging her through the mud and making her relive the entire sequence of events that cost her her brother and her lover. For another, Jack has the opportunity to refuse an offer of a job from Duffy and to tell Duffy exactly what he has found out. This gains him a great deal of satisfaction at the moment, but that satisfaction is short-lived. He realizes that he treated Duffy as Willie Stark had. He realizes that he tried to use Tiny Duffy to absolve himself of any responsibility in the events that led to the deaths of Willie Stark and Adam Stanton. He realizes that Tiny Duffy was sure that Jack Burden would take the job offered to him because their interests were substantially the same. He sees himself as being a “brother” to Tiny Duffy.
This idea, which is essentially the acceptance of his own guilt and responsibility, paralyzes Jack for a time. He goes through another period of numbness as he assimilates all of this. His reaction now, however, is different than it was earlier. Before, he tried to escape from his problems, either by retreating into the Great Sleep or by physically running from his troubles. This time, he drifts about town, avoiding people, reading a good deal in the public library, and seeing many movies. Perhaps he does not actively confront his problems, his new realizations, but neither does he try to avoid them or to seal himself off from them.
It takes Jack about six months from the time he decides to find out who was behind the killing of Willie Stark until he has assimilated everything and resolved, to his own satisfaction, how he will live in the future. One event that has, apparently, a great deal to do with changing the direction of his thinking is his chance meeting with Sugar-Boy O’Sheean in the public library. Jack toys with the idea of telling Sugar-Boy that Tiny Duffy was behind the Boss’s death. As he probes to find out what Sugar-Boy would do if he had this information, he discovers that Sugar-Boy’s devotion is absolute, that he would do anything for the Boss, even after the Boss is dead. As Jack almost acts on impulse, however, he suddenly recognizes that telling Sugar-Boy would be exactly the same thing that Duffy did when he called Adam Stanton. It also dawns on him that he can make a choice not to act in the same way. As a result, he tells Sugar-Boy that he was only joking, that he doesn’t have the information — even though he realizes that Sugar-Boy might well kill him for that kind of joke. Although he feels that this was the right decision, as he thinks about it, he also comes to understand that killing Tiny Duffy would have given Sugar-Boy’s life a meaning it will otherwise lack, for it would have given him a chance to do something for the man whom he admired so much.
This meeting takes place in February, about half-way through Jack’s hiatus, and it is not until May that Jack takes up his life again. The first step is to go out and visit Lucy Stark. Her faith has kept her going, and one aspect of this faith has led her to adopt the child who Sibyl Frey had claimed was Tom’s. She does not know for sure that the child is Tom’s, but she accepts that on faith, and it allows her to have something of her son continue on (Tom died approximately the same time that Jack met Sugar-Boy). In addition, she believes that Willie Stark was a great man — a man who erred, perhaps, and who did some things he should not have done, but a man who contained the seeds of greatness. It is this article of faith that helped her to keep going in the past and that now helps her to continue. It seems as though Jack has come close to attaining this same kind of faith in Willie Stark’s potential greatness, for he visits Lucy in order to have this faith confirmed and strengthened.
Having come to these resolutions about his relationship with Willie Stark and his administration, as well as having come to final terms with his past, Jack Burden is ready to pick up the pieces of his life and to move forward. Part of this assessment and motivation involves taking responsibility for his past and tying up the loose ends. Thus, Jack marries Anne Stanton and brings the Scholarly Attorney home to live out his last days with them. He also plans to write the book about Cass Mastern that he abandoned years before. When the book is written, he says, and when the Scholarly Attorney dies, that chapter in his life will be closed. Jack and Anne will then leave Burden’s Landing to start a new chapter — without abandoning the past.