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In All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, the theme of the power of knowledge is prominent throughout Jack’s journey within the great web of the world. His path brings to light his true self and along with it the realization that he and everyone else in the web must take responsibility for their actions and the reverberations that they cause. Through Jack’s struggle against his inevitable rebirth, readers see how the power of knowledge affects Jack and all those around him. The knowledge of love, knowledge of truth, and knowledge of one’s self all wield immense consequences for Warren’s characters. It is how each of Warren’s characters deals with this power of knowledge that guides their life.
Through Jack’s narration, readers travel along with him on his path toward rebirth. In the early stages of his adult life, Jack is “huddled away up inside himself,” trying to stay aloof from the knowledge and responsibility of the outside world (Girault 62). Jack finds solace in history and truth and “warm[th] in [his] not-knowing”(Warren 11-12)(Simmons 75). He blindly uncovers facts for Governor Stark, without regard to consequence or responsibility. “Jack loves Truth, loves it voraciously, with a precise, judicious, almost niggling dedication” (Bohner 87). He is focused on the “black line down the center”(Warren 1) of the highway, and later mesmerized by the cones of light that project out in front of him when he drives down the dark highway of his life (Bohner 87-88). This guiding line and guiding light are the direction in Jack’s life and studies. It is this path, however, and his love of truth and fact, which bring the knowledge to the surface that ultimately leads to his downfall and rebirth.
The truth that Jack unearths regarding Judge Irwin ultimately causes the Judge’s suicide. When Jack attempts to blackmail Judge Irwin by confronting him with the Littlepaugh scandal, he is blind to what consequences could result. He has no idea that Irwin is his biological father; he is simply carrying out the Boss’s will, blindly following the path towards the warm solace of knowledge and truth. When Irwin commits suicide as a result of his encounter with Jack, the chain of events that leads to Jack’s rebirth begins2E Jack is awakened by his mother’s “silvery soprano scream” (Warren 348) in the middle of the night. This scream signifies the labor pains of Jack’s rebirth about to come (Girault 61). Jack’s mother is in despair over Irwin’s death and, in her hysteria, she accuses Jack of killing his father. At that moment, Jack realizes that Judge Irwin is his true father. It is knowledge that destroyed Judge Irwin, and it is this knowledge of Irwin’s true identity that gives Jack his revelation and self-definition (61). Through this new knowledge Jack is given a father he can accept in Judge Irwin, and a new mother in the sense that he has discovered through her anguish that his mother is capable of love (61). His mother is no longer the vain and pretentious woman he thought she was, but now has new meaning to him in his re-birth (61). In one stroke, ” [Jack’s] illusory world is shattered,” and he is forced to realize that his actions do have meaning and consequence, as he knows now he is responsible for his father’s death (63).
The truth that Jack digs up about Irwin also reaps great consequences for Adam and Anne Stanton. Throughout their lives, Adam and Anne have held high moral standards as a result of their well-respected father, Governor Stanton. In Jacks discovery about Irwin, he also finds that Governor Stanton was involved in these underhanded activities. When this knowledge is revealed to the Stanton children, their once high moral standards are dashed, and they take part in actions that they originally would not have considered. Adam, the “man of idea,”(Bohner 92) has an idealist view of the world, where morality and good deeds are key (92). When his idealist view of his father is crushed, he is able to go against his previous moral standards and become the head of Willie Stark’s hospital. Adam’s views originally contrasted with those of the Boss’s proclivity for “stark” truth (93). The Boss feels that one must generate good from bad, and that the ends justify the means. In Adam’s ideal view, good deeds must be carried on throughout all actions. In the real world, however, these ideal actions are not always possible to achieve a goal. For Anne, the knowledge of her father’s mistakes causes her to break previous moral standards and become Willie’s mistress. After this affair with Willie, she reveals to Jack what allowed her to act the way she did. “Then you told me- you told me about my father. There wasn’t any reason why not then. After you told me” (Warren 325). The power of knowledge is evident here, for Jack’s simple revelation of the truth caused himself much anguish and lowered the moral status of the girl he loves, the girl which he has been trying to see as perfect all his life (Girault 62). Before this confrontation, when Jack first receives knowledge of Anne’s affair with Willie, he is sent into a state of withdrawal and heads west. Alone in a hotel room in California, Jack attempts to revert to his “womb-like” state of innocence where Anne is still perfect in his eyes (62). Jack, however, must learn that this innocence is impossible to retrieve, for he cannot deny the knowledge he has just received. His westward movement is a symbol of his realization of that fact, a “stage in his intellectual and spiritual development” (Bohner 91). Jack also realizes that he is responsible for changing Anne’s view of the world, a consequence Jack never considered, but which results from his blind search for truth.Warren further explains the implications of Jack’s westward journey through Jack’s observation of Adam’s surgery on a schizophrenic patient. The catatonic schizophrenia the lobotomy patient endures parallels Jack’s attempts to return himself to the state of “not-knowing” (Simmons 74). The symptoms of “gradual withdrawal from reality, the sudden loss of animation, a tendency to remain motionless for long periods of time, some degree of emotional apathy and periods of stupor alternating with those of intense activity” (74) are all evident in both the patient’s condition and Jack’s states of the “Great Sleep” (74). In a sense, Jack’s final withdrawal to California is his own “lobotomy.” Jack emerges in “good spirits,” socializing and remaining “perfectly happy” (78). Jack’s mood parallels Adam’s description of the cured state of the lobotomy patient: “relaxed, cheerful and friendly… He will be perfectly happy” (Warren 336). The joyfulness, however, is a falsely induced feeling. The lobotomy patient is simply joyful because he has lost some of his brain, which has been replaced with the emotion of another man (Simmons 78). Similarly, Jack’s happiness is simply a result of repressing his emotions and avoiding any humanistic interpersonal relationships. He realizes that by being in such a personal relationship with Anne, she was no longer the piece of “machinery” to him, but rather a human. The same applied for Lois, from whom Jack was forced to separate when he could no longer distinguish “Lois the person” and “Lois the machine” (78-79). When Jack comes to know people in this way, it only brings him hurt and suffering, which leads him to his states of withdrawal and the “Great Sleep.”
The other major event Jack’s search for knowledge causes is Willie’s death. The chain reaction that leads to this event is complex and has a wide variety of causes. In the end, almost everyone, including Jack, is responsible. It is ironically Willie, however, who triggers the bizarre series of events that lead to his demise. Because Willie asks Jack to uncover knowledge to blackmail Judge Irwin, he has indirectly caused Anne to have an affair with him. One of the results of this affair is Sadie Burke’s anger. With her irritation at yet another of Willie’s affairs that isn’t with her, Sadie sees the opportunity that both she and Tiny Duffy have been waiting for, the opportunity to kill Willie Stark. She takes action, and passes her powerful knowledge of Anne’s relationship to Adam, with the help of some truth twisting from Duffy. They tell Adam that Willie’s affair with Anne is the only reason he was offered the job as head of Willie’s hospital. Adam is furious, and tells Anne that he “[will not be] pimp to [her] whore” (Warren 391). Adam then acts as expected and, standing symbolically under the towering statue of his father, critically wounds Willie Stark, only to immediately be shot and killed by Sugar Boy. These tragic events were all set in motion by the immense power of knowledge. Knowledge led Anne to Willie, knowledge pushed Sadie over the edge, knowledge caused Adam to kill Willie, and the same knowledge caused Adam’s death. “The end of man is to know” (Warren 9).
The culmination of Jack’s rebirth occurs when he is given the chance seek vengeance on Tiny Duffy. In the basement of a library, knowing Sugar Boy’s pistol is tucked away under his shoulder ready for action, Jack refuses to give Sugar Boy the knowledge he needs to lead him to kill Tiny. This decision clearly demonstrates Jack’s realization that he was wrong in thinking his actions were “neither good nor evil, but meaningless” (Girault 63). By not sinking to Tiny’s level, he walks boldly into the “convulsion of the world and the awful responsibility of Time” (Warren 438). Here, everything is connected, and the power and limitations of human knowledge are known, and man knows the moral responsibility that he holds as a result of his actions (Girault 66).All of this knowledge, truth, and action are linked together in the gossamer spider web introduced in Cass Mastern’s journal. Through the journal, Warren illustrates his belief that all actions send effects to the “remotest perimeter” (Warren 188) of the “fabric of the world” (178). Jack divulges into the past of Cass and brings forth this theory of responsibility that, through his journey and rebirth, he must learn to accept (Cottrell 118). Jack’s first reaction to the theory is to shut it away, “put aside the journals and boxed up three-by-five cards”(118). As a result, Jack is plunged into his journey, with the words of Cass Mastern etched upon his memory (121). At first Jack cannot accept responsibility or even the fact that his actions have such effect; however, through his experiences he must come to terms with the Spider Web theory. The synchronicity between Cass’s revelations and Jack’s life emerge as Jack begins to see the consequences of the twitching of the web he causes, “whether or not [he] meant to brush the web of things”(Warren 189). Warren also draws a parallel between the idealism of Cass and Adam, as well as the realism between Cass’s brother and Willie (Cottrell 121). Jack observes this parallel by contemplating “…perhaps the Gilbert Masterns are always at home in any world. As the Cass Masterns are never at home in any world”(Warren 162). Through this observation, Warren illustrates that the idealist man is always uncomfortable with the true immoral nature of the world, whereas the man who will allow his ends to justify his means will be able to adapt to any situation and at least make some good out of it (Cottrell 121). Reflecting on Judge Irwin’s suicide Willie Stark’s assassination, Jack can trace the order of vibrations back to his actions. Even though Jack did not “brush the web”(Warren 189) purposely, he must take responsibility and assume guilt for his actions. Cass illustrates this quality through his attempt to save the slave girl, Phebe, who was sent off by Annabelle for her “knowing eyes” (119). In the end, Jack sees the true power of the Spider Web, and that “all are equally balanced, equally vulnerable, on the infinite Spider Web of God” (123). By realizing this equality, Jack is able to separate himself from being simply an idealist or a man of results, and therefore is able to deal with the good and evil he encounters while at the same time taking responsibility for how he balances the two forces (123).
The fragile web that holds together Jack Burden’s world transfers knowledge and truth through its fibers, bringing into light the true necessity of accepting responsibility for one’s action. Through Jack’s narration, the reader gains insight into Jack’s journey towards rebirth and acceptance of the Spider Web theory. The knowledge and experiences Jack gains allow him to learn the importance of acceptance of responsibility. Each of the characters in Warren’s novel deals with knowledge in their own way that ultimately decides their fate. For Willie and Adam, “the end of man is to know;” (Warren 9) however, in Jack’s enlightened state, it is only the beginning.
Bohner, Charles H. Twayne’s United States Authors Series: Robert Penn Warren. New Haven: Twayne Publishers, 1964.
Cottrell, Beekman W. “Cass Mastern and the Awful Responsibility of Time”. Twentieth Century Interpretations of All the Kings Men. Ed. Robert Chambers. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1977. 116-126.
Girault, Norton R. “The Narrators Mind as a Symbol: An analysis of All the Kings Men.” Robert Penn Warren: Critical Perspectives. Ed. Neil Nakadate. Lexington: University Press, 1981. 60-76.
Simmons, James C. “Adam’s Lobotomy Operation and the Meaning of All the King’s Men.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of All the Kings Men. Ed. Robert Chambers. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1977. 73-84.
Warren, Robert Penn. All the King’s Men. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1946, 1996.
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