Many people — students and critics alike — have some difficulty with this fourth chapter of All the King's Men. The reason for this difficulty is that the story of Cass Mastern is told in this chapter, and this story has nothing to do, directly, with the story of Willie Stark. If this novel is read strictly as the story of Willie Stark, then this chapter is, indeed, a flaw in the novel. To read the novel in that way would, however, be a serious error. Such a reading would relegate Jack Burden to the status of being only a mere narrator, and he is much more than that. At the very least, Jack Burden and Willie Stark stand as equally important main characters.
A case can even be made for considering Jack Burden as the sole central character of All the King's Men; we certainly learn far more about him in the course of the novel than we do about Willie Stark. Furthermore, Willie Stark makes the emotional and rational adjustments necessary to survive politically, but this does not mean that he grows and develops; Jack, on the other hand, gradually learns a great deal about himself, and he matures to the point where he can accept himself and his past. His experiences with Willie Stark are extremely important to Jack Burden's learning process — indeed, these experiences seem to trigger the process and to nurture it — and it is for this reason that Willie Stark assumes such a major role in the novel.
Now, it may be too extreme to assert that Jack Burden is the main character in All the King's Men and that Willie Stark is only one of the minor characters. Willie Stark's characterization is too well developed for us to consider him to be only a secondary character in the novel. Furthermore, the story of Willie Stark embodies many of the major thematic concerns of this novel. It is, thus, as fruitless to consider All the King's Men to be only Jack Burden's story as it is to consider it to be only Willie Stark's story; Willie's and Jack's lives and their stories are intertwined, held together by their relationship to one another.
Chapter Four, then, is a direct part of the story of Jack Burden's growth and development; any relevance it may have to the story of Willie Stark is indirect, but it is of thematic importance. The story of Cass Mastern in this chapter is a "framed story"; that is, the beginning and the ending of the chapter provide a look at Jack Burden as a graduate student in history, and the story of Cass Mastern is told in that context, since it was to have been the subject of Jack's Ph.D. dissertation. Quite obviously, this story is intended to reveal something critical about Jack Burden's maturation, some lack within him, for he does not complete his Ph.D. degree because he never felt that he understood Cass Mastern sufficiently.
The description of the place in which Jack lives as a graduate student, which begins this chapter, is a clear contrast to the description of his home in Burden's Landing that began Chapter Three. Whereas Jack's home in Burden's Landing is spacious and well-kept, his apartment is cramped and cluttered. And whereas the furniture in his home in Burden's Landing is elegant, the furniture in his apartment is old, poorly cared for, and decrepit. In contrast also is Jack's mother, who is well groomed and well dressed, as are the others who live in their neighborhood at Burden's Landing. Yet Jack and his roommates are filthy, unkempt, and poorly dressed. Quite obviously, Jack takes some pride in maintaining a place to live that is the direct opposite of the place in which he grew up and of what his mother would prefer to see him living in. Indeed, when his mother visits him, Jack makes every attempt to emphasize this difference, and when his mother sends money for Jack to buy some decent clothes, Jack squanders it all on a five-day binge with his roommates.
Before Jack relates the story of Cass Mastern, he makes the point that, whereas his two roommates were trying to escape the future (they did not look forward to the teaching positions that awaited them in the "real world" when they completed their degrees), he was trying to escape the present. Instead of playing cards with them, he sat with the papers of Cass Mastern, trying to make sense of them. As noted in the commentary on Chapter Three, Jack felt cut adrift when his father left, when he was sent off to school, and when his mother remarried. His attempts to make sense of Cass Mastern's past is, then, an attempt to regain and understand his own past, since Cass was a brother of Jack's supposed paternal grandmother.
Jack does not complete his dissertation. He has all the information he needs to produce an acceptable dissertation, but he says that he does not understand Cass Mastern and his motivations, and he feels that he must be able to do this in order to put his materials, his "facts," in order. At the same time, however, Jack seems afraid that if he does understand, he will somehow find himself lacking in something essential.
Why is the Cass Mastern episode so hard for Jack to understand? Essentially, it seems to be because Cass accepts responsibility for his actions and because Cass comes to see that life is, in Jack's words, like a spider web, with all its parts connected and radiating from a common center. That is, Cass Mastern has an affair with Annabelle Trice, the wife of his close friend Duncan Trice. Duncan kills himself when he learns that his wife has taken a lover, and, afterward, Annabelle Trice sells the slave who found her husband's wedding ring under Annabelle's pillow, where he put it to let her know why he killed himself. When Cass learns of these things, he accepts full responsibility for his friend's death and for the sale of the slave, who is later sold and separated from her husband; he also accepts responsibility for Annabelle Trice's agony and for her perpetuating the system of slavery.
Now, it is true that Cass carries this matter too far, for he does not consider the responsibility that others also have in these events. That is, he does not consider that Duncan Trice made his own decision to shoot himself or that he, Duncan, did have other options open to him. Cass Mastern does not consider, either, that Annabelle Trice was at least as eager to begin the affair as he was and that she made the choice to sell the slave girl. Instead, he idealistically shoulders all of the responsibility for these events. In addition, he overlays this responsibility with a rather Calvinistic sense of sin and guilt. Then he spends the rest of his life trying to expiate his sin.
Jack Burden cannot, of course, understand this sense of sin and guilt. Even more to the point, though, he cannot accept the idea that he is responsible for his actions or the idea that all things are interrelated. He points out that both of his roommates suffered as a result of their huge spree, but he — the one who provided the opportunity for it — was untouched by it, and he is unconcerned about the consequences to his roommates — one of them leaves, disappears, and is never heard of again, and it is all the same to Jack. Then, one day after being unable to understand Cass Mastern, Jack Burden just drifts away himself, leaving everything behind; and even though his landlady sends his books and papers to him, he never looks at them again; he never even opens the box.
Jack's attitude toward his present job is identical to the attitude that is clearly established in this chapter. That is, Jack Burden works for Willie Stark because Willie gives him a purpose and a direction, but also because it doesn't matter much to him whom he works for. He digs up people's unsavory pasts for Willie to use, not caring how Willie uses the "facts" nor what effect they might have on people Jack takes no responsibility for what he does, nor does he see any relationship between what he does and other events. Even when Willie tells Jack to find out what evil lies buried in Judge Irwin's past, a man who has been like a father to Jack, Jack treats this assignment as a historical exercise, as an abstract problem.
The Cass Mastern-Annabelle Trice-Duncan Trice triangle is also paralleled with several other such triangles that are revealed in the novel, and these parallels will be discussed as those other triangles arise.