Summary and Analysis
As Jack points out, life is a series of stories within stories; there never is a neat, clear-cut ending to any sequence of events, for the reverberations from one sequence are felt in other sequences Thus, the death of Judge Irwin ends only one particular story, the story of Judge Irwin, including the sins he committed and the choices he made. Learning the details of the story has made changes in Jack's understanding of the world, and he thinks that that story is closed. He is wrong, of course, for the story of Judge Irwin will continue to ripple through Jack's life and actions; his refusal to take part in digging out sordid information about people and his refusal to retaliate against Frey are clear indications of this. More important, at least in an immediate sense, is the effect that the end of Judge Irwin's story has in the story of Willie Stark.
Jack started investigating the judge's past in order to find something that Willie Stark could use against Judge Irwin and persuade the judge to withdraw his support for MacMurfee's senatorial candidacy. The search took too long to be of use for that purpose, but such information is always useful if that is the way one does business. When the business of Marvin Frey and his daughter arose, Willie Stark thought to use the matter of the judge's accepting a bribe years ago in order to persuade the judge to thwart MacMurfee's schemes. The judge's death stopped that plan, however; yet the first ripple from the end of that story was that Willie Stark had to deal with Gummy Larson, to give him the contract for the hospital.
The next event that produces a reverberation that intensifies the ripple started by Judge Irwin's death is Tom Stark's injury, an injury that leaves Tom paralyzed. This, in a sense, paralyzes Willie Stark's political maneuvers. He has come to a point at which he no longer has control of the situation. Before Judge Irwin's death, the Boss had been able to get what he wanted by buying or bullying people, and he had been able to do so without giving up anything himself. When Judge Irwin killed himself rather than accept the alternatives offered by the governor, Willie Stark is put into a position in which he has control but in which he has no choice but to give up something important to him: he can have Gummy Larson call off MacMurfee by giving Larson the hospital contract, or he can call MacMurfee and concede the Senate seat that Willie wants for himself. When Tom Stark is paralyzed because his spinal cord has been crushed, there is nothing that Willie can do. He cannot buy anything. He cannot bully anyone. He cannot do a thing to change this situation to suit himself or to fit into his plans.
Willie's inability to do anything forces him to stop and think. At first, he spins his mental wheels. As though it will, somehow, make some difference, he decides that the hospital should be named after Tom. Then Lucy points out that naming the hospital after Tom is not important, that none of the things that Willie has been so concerned with are things that are really important. Exactly what the process is that causes Willie to change his thinking is not shown to the reader; it is, instead, suggested. When Willie leaves the hospital, Lucy goes with him (she has been living with her sister, separated from Willie). Furthermore, Tiny Duffy cannot find Willie throughout the weekend, and he has been thorough in his attempts to do so. The implication is that Willie Stark has spent the weekend with Lucy. Considering the actions that Willie takes on the Monday following his son's accident, it seems likely that he and Lucy have talked a great deal. Given Lucy Stark's previously established belief that some things are right in themselves and that other things are wrong, and given the fact that Willie has been brought up short, and, in addition, when we consider the actions that Willie takes that Monday, it seems likely that Willie and Lucy Stark have talked extensively about what he has been doing, that Lucy has succeeded in convincing him of the rightness of her viewpoint, and that he has made a decision to change his way of doing business.
The ripples overlap and intensify one another as Willie Stark makes two decisions — clearly and firmly. First, he tells Tiny Duffy to "unarrange" the deal that was made with Gummy Larson. Tiny had worked hard to get the Boss to make this deal, and he is stung by this decision. Second, Willie tells Anne Stanton that he is dropping her and returning to his wife; he also has a row with Sadie Burke, and we assume that he has told her the same thing that he told Anne Stanton (this assumption is confirmed later). Even his last words to Jack indicate that he plans to take a new direction, that he wants to make things different.
The precise effects of these decisions are not revealed in this chapter, since Jack does not learn of them until later. Nevertheless, they contribute to the death of Willie Stark. Willie's decision to return to his wife has upset Sadie Burke so much that she tells Tiny Duffy that Anne Stanton is Willie Stark's mistress and that he should call Adam Stanton with this information. In spite of years of simply accepting abuse from the Boss — or perhaps because of it — Willie's decision to get rid of Gummy Larson makes Tiny Duffy angry enough to use this information and to call Adam Stanton, embellishing the facts more than just a bit.
This phone call brings into play the myth by which Adam had lived, as well as the ripples from the story of Judge Irwin. That is, Adam's reaction to this news is caused by his conception of what human, and political, conduct should be, tempered by his knowledge that Judge Irwin took a bribe and that his father protected Irwin. It is also caused by what seems to be some kind of feeling of personal inadequacy: he seems to believe that the only reason that he was chosen as the director for the hospital was that his sister was Willie Stark's mistress. Such a feeling of unworthiness, of being unable to reach some standard he had set for himself, would also explain why he has driven himself so hard all his life. It does not matter that this standard is unreachable; all that matters is his belief that he should — must — reach it in order to be considered worthy. If he cannot reach that standard, then all other accomplishments, no matter how great they are, are worthless in his eyes. Thus, Adam Stanton shoots Willie Stark out of a sense of honor, of betrayal, of unworthiness, and of confusion. The reverberations from the various stories told in this novel echo in the shots fired, first by Adam and almost simultaneously by Sugar-Boy.
Here, the stories of Willie Stark and Adam Stanton mesh simultaneously, but the other stories continue, including the more encompassing story of Jack Burden. It has taken a series of progressively greater and more immediate jolts to shock Jack out of the cocoon-like shell which he built for himself many years earlier, but he is finally beginning to understand the lesson from Cass Mastern's past: a man's actions do not affect him alone; they reach out and touch other people in increasingly wider circles, often with undreamed of repercussions. Having learned this, Jack Burden can emerge and begin a new life.