All the King's Men By Robert Penn Warren Summary and Analysis Chapter 8

At the beginning of this chapter, Jack Burden meets an old man who has a facial tic — that is, his left cheek involuntarily twitches to a kind of rhythm, and this tic has been a part of him for so long that he is not even aware of it. Jack takes this tic, adds it to the idea of a mysterious itch in the blood that governs human behavior, and comes away with the theory of the Great Twitch. According to this theory, something in the universe sends out a bit of current, and somewhere, somebody twitches, and does something. There is, thus, no logical reason why things happen to human beings, and, therefore, there is no human responsibility for one's actions. Jack, of course, is trying to repair the damage done to his psychological "shell" when he recoiled and felt betrayed by Anne Stanton; now he is trying to deny that he is responsible for anything.

Unfortunately for Jack, his efforts at closing himself off from the world again are not as effective as similar efforts have been in the past. For one thing, he has, however tentatively, admitted the possibility that he is, in some measure, responsible for Anne Stanton's decision to become Willie's mistress. For another, he is simply unable to dismiss what he felt for Anne; that feeling comes back to haunt him when he talks to Anne and even when he sees a young couple playing tennis at Burden's Landing. Not only that, but he makes the first tentative steps toward admitting his part in Anne's decision — admitting that he had been the way he was and that he had given her the information about her father, information which had freed her to take this step.

Later, when Jack watches Adam perform the prefrontal lobotomy, he cannot think of the man on the operating table as a mortal, living human being. Instead, he thinks of the whole procedure as being done by a carpenter working with inanimate materials. In addition he makes no changes in his job; it is business as usual. When Hubert Coffee, working for Gummy Larson, tries to bribe Adam, Jack manipulates Adam so that it appears that Governor Stark is ready to prosecute — and thus is making an effort to keep the hospital "clean" — and also Jack's actions make it seem that Adam makes the decision not to take the case to court (to protect Anne). When MacMurfee uses Marvin Frey and his daughter to accuse Tom Stark in a paternity suit and thus to threaten Willie, Jack is ready to find whatever political "dirt" he can on both of the Freys and help thwart MacMurfee's plans to run for the Senate.

Clearly, a wedge has been driven into the opening in Jack's psychological armor. When Lucy Stark calls him and asks him what is happening, Jack is honest and sympathetic with her, although his meeting with her makes him rather uncomfortable. In addition, when Willie Stark wants the information that Jack has found out about Judge Irwin, Jack refuses to give it to him until he himself has talked to the judge about it. Several things about his refusal are of particular interest. First, Jack claims to have promised two people that he would talk to the judge first — himself and someone whom he doesn't name (he had explicitly promised only Anne). Second, Jack is afraid that the information which he has on Judge Irwin is politically potent, yet he hopes that the judge will be able to tell him that it is not true, that he did not take a bribe. Jack has, in short, begun to have some feeling for people toward whom his feelings had been, at best, neutral.

This last decision, to talk to Judge Irwin before giving the information to Willie Stark, opens the way to a series of jolts that move Jack Burden closer and closer to a significant change in his attitudes toward life in general and toward other people in particular.

These jolts come in rapid sequence. First, Jack observes the judge refuse to bend under pressure. Then he sees Judge Irwin admit that he did, indeed, take a bribe; yet the judge still refuses to bow under pressure. Third, Jack learns that Judge Irwin kills himself, cleanly, with a shot through the heart. As he learns this, Jack also learns that Judge Irwin, not the Scholarly Attorney, is actually his father. This, in turn, is proof for Jack that the judge might have used this fact to try and stop Jack from giving the governor his information, but he did not. Finally, Jack learns that he is Judge Irwin's primary heir — the heir to the property that the judge accepted a bribe in order to save.

The result of this series of shocks is to shatter the preconceptions Jack has had about the people in his life, and to shatter the "ice" that has gripped his heart for so long. He can feel compassion, and even love, for his mother, for he has discovered that she has truly loved someone. He can understand now why the Scholarly Attorney left his wife and child, although he feels that this action was weak. He is, indeed, relieved to find out that the Scholarly Attorney is not his father, since he has always felt tainted by the Scholarly Attorney's weakness. Yet he is somewhat confused in these feelings, since he has very positive feelings about Ellis Burden's gentleness and concern. Finally, he is proud of his real father, Judge Irwin, for accepting all responsibility for his past actions, as well as for the judge's continuing to act on his principles in the face of a threat. He comes to understand what had happened when his life was shattered and to understand more fully why these things happened. As a result, Jack Burden can begin to accept himself and his past more fully, and he can begin to develop a new perspective on life.

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