All the King's Men By Robert Penn Warren Summary and Analysis Chapter 3

The events described in Chapter Three take place in 1933, two years after Willie Stark is elected governor for the first time and three years before the events described in the first chapter. Chapter Three does two major things: first, it presents some information about Jack Burden's background so that we can better understand him; and second, it establishes the effects that political power has had on Willie Stark by showing us his response to the two impeachment attempts — Byram White's and his own. In addition to these major points of emphasis, this chapter also suggests the attitudes of the citizens of the state to Willie's actions as governor, and it provides several perspectives from which we can evaluate Willie's governorship.

The first part of Chapter Three describes a visit that Jack Burden makes to Burden's Landing; the way that Jack tells about this visit reveals a great deal about him. He has rejected Burden's Landing — but he always comes back. He insists that he does not need his mother or her help — but she still has the power to soothe him, as well as to make him angry. He resents her, and he loves her. Jack has, in short, extremely mixed feelings about his home and his past.

Jack was born and raised in Burden's Landing, a town named for his ancestors. The home that he grew up in is large and well-built, made with the best materials and furnished with the best furniture and accessories that money can buy. It is in the best neighborhood, facing the sea and surrounded by the homes of prominent people, including a former governor and a well-known judge. Jack recalls being very happy in this house until he was about six years old.

When he was six, however, his world fell apart. One day his mother told him that his father wasn't coming home. He wasn't dead, and there wouldn't be a funeral; he just wasn't coming home. His mother told Jack that his father didn't love her. Then, Jack was sent away to school, and his mother married a succession of men. Jack seems to view these men as intruders in his home and in his mother's affections. He resents them, and he resents his mother for bringing them into their home. He also resents his mother because she made life so miserable that her husband, Ellis Burden, decided to leave her and young Jack. But Jack's resentment of his mother is tempered. She is cool and beautiful, and he admires the way that she handles men. He would like to have her approval and her full attention, but he wants those things on his terms, not on hers. That is, he wants his mother to accept him without question even though — or perhaps because — he works for Willie Stark.

Jack's resentment of his father is more absolute. Jack cannot forgive the Scholarly Attorney (he rarely uses his father's name) for walking out on him and his mother. Even more, Jack cannot forgive his father for his religious views, which he mocks every time he thinks of them. Indeed, Jack cannot understand his father, his father's actions, or his father's views; they simply make no sense to him.

In short, Jack seems to feel — although he does not seem at all aware of this feeling — that he was, in a sense, abandoned when his father left and when his mother remarried. He could not understand those events then; no one gave him any sense of security when those things happened; and he has not yet accepted them at the age of thirty-five. As a result, he is still adrift, with no personal sense of direction or of belonging. Indeed, he works for Willie Stark because Willie is an active and vital force; it is Willie's energy that gives Jack a sense of purpose and direction rather than anything within himself. On his own, Jack Burden reacts, rather than acts, and his reactions are usually negative.

When Jack gets back to the capital, he is immediately energized and given immediate, explicit orders by Willie Stark, because a political crisis has occurred: a threat of impeachment against Byram White, the state auditor, is being rumored because of White's taking bribes; the threat of White's impeachment grows, and finally it develops into an attempt to impeach Willie Stark himself. Willie's power is threatened, and he is not willing to relinquish that power, now that he has it. Thus, although the Willie Stark of this chapter has his roots in the Willie Stark whom we saw in the second chapter, he is quite a different person, one who has learned his lessons very well.

The Willie Stark of the second chapter fiercely believed in the dignity of human beings and in their rationality; both in his campaign against the schoolhouse contract and in his first campaign for governor, he tried to use "the facts" and a carefully reasoned plan of action, assuming that the public would respond to those and vote on that basis. Then, Willie was blinded by the prospect of being governor, which he believed to be a lofty and noble position, one to which a person brought one's best qualities.

By the end of that first campaign, however, Willie had learned a great deal about the political realities of his state. Now, not only has he learned his lessons well, but he has adapted to these conditions with a vengeance. He will not be treated again the way that he was treated earlier.

Willie Stark, as governor, acts expediently. He makes plans to immediately right the wrongs that rankled him and bring the benefits of government to the people from his part of the state — to his kind of people. And in order to do so, he is willing to take shortcuts. He has rammed bills through the legislature and stacked the state Supreme Court with his men to make sure that those bills are upheld. He permits graft — in a controlled way — because it helps to get things done. He has increased taxes and the cost of leasing state lands in order to have the necessary money to accomplish the things which he wants done. He has effectively shut the door on those people who previously received the benefits of the government.

His actions have made him many enemies, and the evidence that Byram White has arranged for substantial profits through his ties with a real estate firm has given these enemies a vantage point from which to attack Willie. Strategically, Willie decides to protect White, not because he likes White, and not because he approves of the deal which White made (he neither likes White nor approves of the deal), but because Willie will not relinquish any of his power to the opposition, and because he wants to make sure that White and certain key men in the legislature will do what he wants. Almost immediately, then, Willie becomes a target for impeachment proceedings.

Willie responds in two ways. First, he covers most of the state, telling the people what is going on and enlisting their support. He has become a master at crowd control, refining the natural talent which he exhibited when he campaigned against Joe Harrison. It is not just Willie's ability to manipulate the crowds that enlists the support of these people; he is bringing the benefits of government to them, making government work for them. They voice their approval when he speaks to them, and they show their support by invading the capital city when the vote on impeachment is to take place. Second, Willie — through Jack — gathers as much incriminating information as possible about as many of the legislators as he can, and by the time it is done, he has a great deal of information, for Jack is very good at his job. Willie then uses this information to coerce — to blackmail — those who are supporting impeachment into dropping that support. He is very thorough, and he does much of this job himself: He visits these people at their homes, he has them brought to his office, and he hunts them down if they try to hide. He tells them exactly what he has on each of them, and, suddenly, their demands for impeachment are silenced.

In quelling this threat to his power, Willie Stark exhibits great energy, drive, and attention to details; it is easy to see why someone like Jack Burden needs, and clings to, someone like Willie Stark. Willie Stark also exhibits a ruthlessness and a contempt for the people whom he is dealing with. This ruthlessness and contempt border almost on being sadistic as he makes people like Byram White grovel; at the same time, however, he seems to hope that these people will challenge him, show some backbone, rather than abase themselves before him.

There are, basically, four ways of evaluating Willie Stark's actions, and each of these can be clearly seen in this chapter. First, the people who were previously in power or who received the benefits of the government — the people who attended the party which Jack went to at Burden's Landing and the MacMurfee faction — are upset because things are being changed; they want things to be the way they were. Second, some people approve of what Willie is doing and either ignore or approve of the methods that he uses; Jack Burden and many of the people in the state, especially those who flock to the capital to support Willie, seem to evaluate Willie's behavior in this way. A third position regarding Willie Stark's methods as governor is taken by Hugh Miller, the attorney general. Miller believes that much of what Willie has tried to do is badly needed and that Willie's methods have been necessary (even Judge Irwin suggests this idea); however, Miller is reluctant to protect people like Byram White, and, by implication, he is reluctant to endorse the methods Willie will use to fight the impeachment proceedings. Thus, he resigns. The fourth position taken in response to Willie Stark's activities as governor is the most uncompromising and the most negative. Lucy Stark believes that there are absolute rights and wrongs that everything can be judged by, the means as well as the ends. It is clear that she does not approve of Willie's methods, and she is morally outraged by his decision to protect White. Although she will do nothing to harm Willie, she does withdraw from him.

Evaluating Willie Stark, then, is a complex matter, one without any easy solution. On the one hand, he is accomplishing what he set out to accomplish, and these goals are supported by many of the people in the state. Furthermore, the things that he causes to happen provide benefits that are badly needed by many of the people in the state. On the other hand, his methods are, at the very least, unsavory. Even Willie seems to recognize this dichotomy, for he vows to build an outstanding medical center if he survives the impeachment attempt, and he struggles to make sure that the proposed center is kept free of political considerations.

One other change in Willie Stark is revealed in this chapter, and this change is important because it plays a role in his downfall and death. There is every reason to believe that Willie Stark was sexually inexperienced when he married and that he was strictly faithful to Lucy until he became governor, or at least until his last campaign. After he becomes governor, however, he begins to have extra-marital affairs, beginning with the blonde skater in Chicago. In addition, he has already taken Sadie Burke as his mistress by the time he has his affair in Chicago.

Sadie Burke is an interesting character. Her entire life has been a struggle to reach a position of some security and influence. She is intensely devoted to Willie and would do anything for him, but she is also intensely jealous and possessive. Finally, her jealousy over one of Willie's sexual conquests triggers a series of events that will end in the death of Willie Stark.

Chapter Three of All the King's Men, then, provides some of the background that will help us to better understand Jack Burden, and, in addition, it also charts the changes that have taken place in the character of Willie Stark. The lives of these two characters are, as Jack points out, closely intertwined.

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