Maturing Jack Burden: The Responsibility Of The Converted, Nihilistic Idealist

Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men features Jack Burden as the narrator. This fictionalized Warren is Jack Burden. Jack is a fictionalized version of Warren’s views. His views are at first nihilistic. Cynical. Escapist. He tries to distance his actions and himself from the darkness that surrounds them, while simultaneously absolving all responsibility. Jack’s transformation is revealed by four events at the end of the book: Ellis Burden’s departure, the Case of the Upright Judge’s deaths, the death of three men and Anne, his youthful relationship. Jack is forced to accept responsibility and believes in the Spider Web Theory. He also rejects moral relativism.

Jack’s early cynicism stems from his past. Jack’s father Ellis Burden leaves Jack at six years of age to become a street-corner evangelist. His mother tells him that Ellis left because he did not love his mother. He should therefore consider his father dead (114). Jack interprets Ellis’s abandonment as abandonment until he learns the reason he fled years later. He feels angry, rejected, and confused. This leads to Jack’s insistence on denying responsibility and his inability to understand human motivation. Jack doesn’t consider the possibility that Jack may have been motivated by his mother to leave. Inadequacy also shapes Jack’s outlook on life. Jack, a grown-up, is embarrassed when he visits Ellis. Jack is ashamed of Ellis’s generosity and happiness, while Ellis feels weak. Jack sees the problem. He hasn’t inherited the traits that will make him successful. He is destined to live a life of indecision and boredom. Jack’s lack of ambition is a result of his observations about where his father’s ambition has taken him–the street corner. Jack even states that Ellis Burden had done a lot to show Jack that he was not worthy of his good deeds (353). Jack doesn’t have any dreams or hopes partly because he doesn’t have a father he could emulate. Jack is so influenced by his life that he identifies himself as three distinct, standing identities. Jack the Graduate student is another such identity. Jack cannot understand other people’s motivations. After a period of one and a-half years, he decided to leave his PhD dissertation on Cass Mastern because he believed he “knew Gilbert Mastern” but “realized that Cass Mastern was not what he thought” (188). Jack the Graduate student could not create a complete picture of Cass Mastern’s reality without knowing the man behind it. Jack the Graduate is unable to see the past and make sense of it, even though his attempts to withdraw from the present are unsuccessful.

Jack doesn’t want to touch the past because it causes him pain. Jack, the adult Jack is telling this story, is responsible and mature enough to take on the responsibility of explaining the past. He has the courage and direction Jack the Graduate Student did not have. Jack the earlier Jack couldn’t understand why Cass Mastern was not his friend, but Jack (who is Jack Burden), looks back at years past and tries to explain why” (188). Jack the younger saw the papers as “an accumulation, odds and end” (189). Jack is an idealist who treats the environment and those around him as imaginary. He is also nihilistic, deconstructionist and he sees only the real. He can even see through people close to him like Anne, Adam and Willie. Jack the Narrator could see what he had missed. He was still trying escape his past and to understand the events that have impacted on him through his history study and reverence for time. He was still trying to discover the truth.

Jack the Narrator discovered the truth about the spider web, just like Cass Mastern. Jack the Graduate Student can’t see it. Jack the Narrator says he understands Cass’s motives because he knows what Cass discovered in his quest to free Phoebe. This world is “all in one,” as a “large spider-web” that vibrates when touched. It prepares the web for what it will eat. This is the core of the spiderweb theory. These ideas were beyond Jack throughout his entire life. Jack finally gives up and accepts his failure. Cass Mastern was responsible for Jack’s inability to understand it. Jack wasn’t responsible. Jack has trouble reconciling past and future, but he is equally unable to accept and understand cause/effect. In the second half, Jack’s irresponsible acts continue to harm him.

Jack spends the majority of the novel playing Jack the Muckraker or Irresponsible Cinic. His focus is on the “The Case of the Upright Judge”, where he finds information that will lead the way to the demise of several women and men. While he starts off with a suspicion about the Judge’s financial situation, Jack gains little from his pseudo-father, the Scholarly Advocate, who talks of “foulness and all foulness!” (202) regarding Jack’s past with Irwin. Jack is able to hint at the fact that Judge was once poor. Anne calls Jack, to tell him Irwin had married into financial gain. However further research into Mabel Carruthers history in Savannah shows that Mabel Carruthers has been just as financially troubled as his first wife (218). Jack digs deeper into Irwin’s past to find more information. Jack discovers Judge Irwin used 500 shares American Electric Power Company stock as an bribe to dismiss a Southern Belle Fuel Company case. He then used the money he made from selling stock to save his plantation. Jack attempts to get the truth from Lily Mae Littlepaugh through bribery and guile. After learning the truth, Jack discovers that Irwin had “killed Mortimer in a deal” (225), and that Stanton was also involved. It will force unexpected decisions from those who have it.

Jack’s transfer of Stanton and Irwin evidence to Anne and Adam leads to Willie’s demise. Adam refuses Willie a job when Jack first proposes to Adam. Jack informs Adam that Adam’s failure is due to his need to “do well” and his Christ Complex. Anne begs Jack not to let Adam do the job. Adam’s moral code places him in opposition with Willie Stark. Jack’s decision that to tell Anne the truth and give Anne the evidence resulted in many changes for Stantons. Jack informs Anne that Irwin’s murder (249) was covered up by her father, which is contrary to the moral absolutism Governor Stanton displayed before his children. He gives her proof to examine. Adam agrees that he will be the chief of staff for Willie Stark’s soon constructed hospital. Anne told him, “He said to me to tell ya that he would. It was possible. That was it. (254). Adam’s hope is crushed by the discovery of his father’s corruption. Adam is now allowed to work in Willie’s hospitals because of his spider web.

Jack’s actions cause harm to Anne Stanton. Jack’s discovery causes Anne to lose her ideaslism. Willie was initially a turnoff for Anne, an aristocratic lady who values power over direction. Jack asks Anne whether Willie promised to deliver the speech he gave. Jack responds, “How can I know?” (262). Anne gets engaged to Willie due to his willpower. Sadie felicitates Jack for introducing the new woman to Willie’s family. Jack must go to Anne to speak with her. She confirms that Willie has made her his new mistress. This knowledge has shattered Jack’s spirit. The loss of one of Jack’s closest friends, the woman he adored for her Old South morality & ideals, is a painful experience. He caused Anne emotional and physical pain by his actions.

Jack’s relationship with Anne in the past taught him how it feels to love. This is also where many of Jacks character flaws lie. Jack finally falls in love at 21 with Anne, thinking “you’re in love” (277). On their walk together, he kisses Anne. She goes to her bedroom to think about it. Anne asks Jack where he is going next. Jack says he doesn’t want to let Anne starve. Jack lacks ambition and direction, which causes Anne to hesitate about becoming more serious in their relationship. The couple fight constantly and fail together to find a way to be together. Jack discovers that Anne’s Maine return was not what it used to be (300). Anne meets Willie and finds the direction she needs. She accepts Willie’s new affair, even though her father is clearly wrong. Jack is paralysed and indecisive, and Anne suffers the consequences. Jack begins to view all of life as “a flicker in the blood,” and believes he is not responsible for any events that occur. He believes that “you cannot lose the things you’ve never had” (311). He becomes more bitter, cynical, indecisive from this new misinterpretation of truth.

Jack makes his final defense against accepting the responsibility for the spider web. Jack finds an old hitchhiker and discovers the Great Twitch Theory. He then derives the Great Twitch from this phenomenon, which says that all human actions can be attributed to random phenomena. This understanding will make you “one with the Great Twitch.” (314). These auspices allow Jack to do whatever he wants without feeling responsible for any of it. Jack is free from all worldly responsibility, which makes it difficult to interact with Anne, Willie and Judge Irwin. Jack decides that he will present the evidence to the Judge in his own manner. His encounter with the Judge will test his newfound comfort zone.

Jack is able to redeem himself and be reborn by challenging Judge Irwin’s newly-founded theory. Judge Irwin is unflinching when Jack presents evidence about Irwin’s bribe, and the consequences. Irwin refuses to plea for Jack to spare his biological father, as Irwin says, “I could just… just tell you that…something…But I won’t” (347). The judge instead commits suicide. Jack concludes that the judge committed suicide. A man who knew how to live would not die if he did” (353). Jack forgoes the “good and weak father” (354). He is relieved to learn that his father was not the weak Ellis Burden. He is an example for moral uprightness, courage. Jack isn’t able to display these qualities, but he can try to emulate them.

Jack is able to see the bigger picture with a greater sense responsibility. Jack feels a greater respect for his mother, and her ability to love a woman. As he comes to terms with the actions taken by the Scholarly Advocate, he feels pity and sorry for Ellis Burden. He was “cuckolded [Judge Irwin]” (353). And he was driven from the home. Jack sold his humble Old South morality in exchange for power, and he’s now starting to regret it.

Jack’s final redemption will not be peaceful. Jack’s conscience is destroyed by the suicide attempt of Judge. This will set the stage for the dramatic events to come. Jack is moved to tears by the news that the judge has given Jack the plantation. This was his most open display of emotion since Anne’s relationship. Chapter Eight’s closing sentence, which has a double meaning, essentially prefigures the future: “It seemed like the ice was breaking apart after a long winter.” And the winter was long” (354). The ice created by Jack’s emotionlessness, carelessness, and cold temperatures has started to melt. The Great Twitch will similarly be affected by the death of Judge Irwin and Adam Stanton.

Jack’s death is a significant event. Willie and Adam are shot to death one after another, accelerating Jack’s transformation. Adam is manipulated by the caller to accept the story of Anne’s affair with Willie. Also, the caller tells Adam about Adam’s new replacement at hospital. Adam failed Willie’s son. Anne confronts him and he flees. Jack is unable to stop Willie from shooting Adam because he fails to locate Adam. Jack calls Adam, but he doesn’t hear Jack call him. Jack initially thinks Adam is just going to shake Willie’s hand. Jack witnesses Adam shooting Willie twice. Sugar Boy then the State Trooper also shot him twice. Jack is used to the Boss controlling the situation. However, this is not the same situation as Tom Stark’s fate. Willie pleadings that “things could’ve been different” (400). He has moral relativism left, which he opposes to moral absolutism Adam would have given his life for. Jack must reject this relativism. Jack must accept his responsibility for Willie’s death and come to terms.

Jack’s final transformation was based on the realization that everyone must take responsibility. He must admit that he was involved in many of the tragedies and events in the second part. He would not have started researching the Judge to create the tragic and ironic sequence of events in the final chapters. This confirms Jack’s belief that men do not have responsibility for the events they experience. The Great Twitch is thus defeated. Jack blames Tiny Duffy’s death on Willie (413-5). Tiny must take responsibility. Everyone else must do the same. Tiny believed Jack would be a good fit for him, as Jack was only another cog in the political machinery. Jack must understand that he was a key player in Willie Stark’s and Adam Stanton’s deaths. This realization will break the Great Twitch’s and Jacks sense of self-righteousness.

Jack is able to see all things as one. He can now see that if you cannot accept the past with its burden, there is no future. For only out of this past, you can create the future. Because all Jacks now have one Jack, he is capable of handling his transformation. Hugh Miller will be his new employer, and Jack will return to politics. Anne will accompany him on their journey, “out of History into History and the terrible responsibility and time” (438). Jack is willing to accept responsibility for his actions as well as his life. Jack is now transformed, and he’s able to take responsibility for his actions. He has rejected Cass Mastern’s Great Twitch. And as the current narration, he can understand Cass Mastern’s thesis, understand the truth about the spider web, and write it. Jack Burden is therefore a trinity. He can be either an immature, impressionable youth or a disillusioned, irresponsible, disillusioned adult. He is a person who evolves and becomes the best version of himself.


  • makhiknapp

    Makhi is a 34 yo educational blogger who is passionate about writing and exploring new content ideas. She has a degree in English from the University of Utah and is currently working as a teacher in a public school in Utah. Makhi has been published in numerous online journals and has been featured on national television networks.



Makhi is a 34 yo educational blogger who is passionate about writing and exploring new content ideas. She has a degree in English from the University of Utah and is currently working as a teacher in a public school in Utah. Makhi has been published in numerous online journals and has been featured on national television networks.