Chapter One ended with Willie Stark giving Jack Burden the assignment of finding something corrupt about Judge Irwin, something that might change Irwin's mind about supporting MacMurfee's candidate for the Senate or that might be used in some other way against Irwin if he continues to support Callahan.
The events in Chapter One took place in 1936, the time at which the present action of All the King's Men begins. If All the King's Men were simply a conventional novel concerned with what happens, the events in Chapter Two would have been those that followed the events in Chapter One, and so on through the novel. In All the King's Men, however, Warren is concerned with why events happen as they do, and in order to explore this question, he — and the reader — must explore the events in the past that have a significant bearing on the present. Thus, Chapters Two through Four deal with events that take place between about 1920 (approximately when Jack is a graduate student in history) and 1933; if the story of Cass Mastern is considered in its own right, it takes place much earlier, probably in the 1850s. These three chapters provide clues about how Willie became the political kingpin who will now try to use blackmail to gain his ends and about how Jack Burden becomes the sort of person who would agree to dig out information that might be detrimental to the man who had been like a father to him. Since Jack is an extremely complex person, more and more of his past must be slowly revealed in the course of the novel in order for us to fully understand his later actions.
Chapter Five returns, then, to the night of the visit to Judge Irwin; it follows the process by which Jack Burden, the dispassionate student of history, ferrets out the information that can be used against Judge Irwin. With the background provided in Chapters Two, Three, and Four, it is easier to follow and to understand the events in this fifth chapter.
Several facets of Jack's search are noteworthy. One of these is the visit to the Scholarly Attorney — his father — to try to get information about Judge Montague Irwin, who had been his father's best friend. Obviously, Jack has had some contact with the Scholarly Attorney over the years, for he knows exactly where to find him, and he knows exactly what to expect when he does find him. Ellis Burden, the Scholarly Attorney who left a child, a beautiful wife, a fine home, and a thriving law practice in Burden's Landing, now lives in one of the poorest sections of the capital, where he proclaims a street-corner religion and takes care of "unfortunates." He considers the life he left to be a life of foulness and of corruption, and he will not speak of it. Ellis Burden is considered to be a saint by the people among whom he lives, and he now cares tenderly for George, a former circus aerialist whose wife died in a fall; George is now dreadfully afraid of heights — even of standing up.
Ellis Burden is much like Cass Mastern in that he seems to be trying to expiate some sense of guilt, to atone for some sin, in his work with the poor and unfortunate of the city and in his religious fervor. Furthermore, Jack can understand his father and his father's motives no more than he could understand Cass Mastern. Of course, Jack had all of the relevant information about Cass Mastern, but he — and the reader — do not have all the facts behind his father's decision to leave Jack and his mother. Even if Jack did have this information, however, he would not be able to understand his father's actions and motives. Jack must grow in knowledge and understanding before he can begin to comprehend what his father has done; he must be shocked out of the protective psychological shell he has built around himself.
Jack's attitude toward his father is basically hostile, at least on the surface. For example, Jack tells the Mexicans in the bar below where his father lives that his father is "loco." He ridicules his father's religious philosophy whenever he can. He is cynical about the unfortunates whom his father brings home, and he feels that his father is a sucker for being taken in by these people. Yet underneath this facade of hostility and cynicism is a little boy who wants his father, who wants to love and respect his father, and who wants his father to love and care for him in return. Thus, when he watches his father gently feeding George some pieces of candy, he remembers a time in the house at Burden's Landing when his father gave him candy in the same way, and he calls out softly to his father, trying to reestablish that earlier relationship. Unfortunately, his father does not hear what Jack says, and the moment quickly passes. Jack leaves without the information he came for; once more, he is frustrated by his contact with the Scholarly Attorney.
The scene in which Jack calls out to his father should be noted carefully. The contrast between this single moment of genuine emotion and his usual methods of responding to people clearly shows that Jack carefully keeps his relationships with people on the surface. He avoids emotional commitments, and he shies away from expressions of emotion (for example, he is astounded by Sadie Burke's outburst when she discovers that Willie Stark "cheated" on her; Jack tries to laugh it off and to get away as quickly as he can).
Jack's emotional — and moral — detachment is also evident in his research into Judge Irwin's past. The Judge's friendship and the fact that, after Jack's father left the family, the Judge took on many of the activities with him that a father would have done, have no effect today on Jack. In his search, Jack tries to be objective about the Judge — again, at least on the surface — as he is about everything else. He weighs the Judge's character as he would weigh an object. He "turns him over and around" to look at him from all sides in order to find a possible flaw, much as a child examines a block. When he does find that flaw, or the possibility of one, he pursues this line of thought tenaciously, uncovering all of the potential leads. The path is twisting and obscure, but Jack follows it carefully to its end, to the conclusion that Judge Irwin had once accepted a bribe. As Jack says, he is very good at his job.
In this pursuit of the facts (but not of the situations or motivations behind the facts), Jack seems to be dispassionate and unfeeling. There is, however, an undercurrent of emotion that Jack seems to keep carefully concealed. Even when he is given his assignment by Willie, Jack seems to hope that he will find nothing against the Judge. He tells Willie several times that the search may be fruitless, and in the course of his narrative he indicates that the governor would have to accept the fact that there is nothing to be found, since Jack "does his job well." In addition to this repeated hope, Jack's ironic comment at the end of the chapter about how researchers love truth and his indication at the beginning of the chapter that what he found had meaning for him also reveal the emotional undercurrent that Jack ignores. (In reading these comments at the beginning and the end of the chapter, the fact that Jack is narrating the story some three years later should be kept in mind; a great deal happens to him in those three years.)
Anne and Adam Stanton, the children of former Governor Joel Stanton and childhood friends of Jack's, become important characters in this chapter. We learn several things about them, things that will become more important in the last half of the novel.
Both Anne and Adam have stronger, more favorable feelings about their father and their background than Jack has about his. The scene in which Anne lights the fire in the Stanton house in Burden's Landing, seeming to kneel in front of the portrait of her father, suggests a reverence for the past quite clearly, and Jack comments on the symbolism. Neither Anne nor Adam thinks very highly of Governor Stark; he does not match up with their image of their father. In this chapter, it is Anne who makes this point, while Adam simply ignores any comparison between the two men. Anne also holds Judge Irwin in high regard, for he was her father's friend and therefore cut from the same mold (we shall learn, ultimately, that this is true, but not in the way that Anne thinks it is true). She becomes very angry with Jack for even trying to find out anything about the judge's past.
Anne and Adam are friends from Jack's youth, and they all accept one another in the way that such friends do, overlooking each other's foibles. Anne and Adam are, however, quite different from Jack. Both of them serve other people. Adam is a doctor, one of the best, and he is a workaholic, driving himself to treat as many people as he possibly can. Anne is a volunteer worker for a children's home, and although she does help other people, she feels that she has not done enough with her life, that she has not made as much of it as she possibly could have. In short, both of them feel compelled to meet the standards that they believe were set — and met — by the previous generations, and both of them seem to feel that reaching those standards is impossible. Jack, Anne, and Adam must all find the truth about the past; Jack must find it so that he can find himself, while Anne and Adam must find it so they can be freed from the burden it has been for them.
The relationship between Jack and Anne is somewhat mysterious. He alludes to the fact that he had once asked her to marry him and she refused him. In spite of that, they are still very good friends; she seems to depend on him in times of trouble, and he seems as devoted to her as he could be to anyone. At this point in the novel, however, their present relationship, as well as their relationship in the past, is merely suggested; it will be examined in greater detail later in the novel.
Finally, Willie Stark figures in this chapter, although only briefly. Willie is a man of great personal force and energy, and he shows this in all his actions. He goes walking after he and Jack return from Judge Irwin's, even though it is three o'clock in the morning. Later, we see him bouncing up and down and yelling wildly at his son's football game. He wants his son to be able to do something, rather than simply sit and study. (Tom, of course, does other things — even though they are things which do not turn out the way that Willie hoped they would, for Tom's later actions cause Willie many problems and much pain.) Clearly, it is Willie's energy and force, as well as the fact that he directs people into doing something for the citizens of the state, that draws Jack Burden to Willie Stark.