All The King's Men

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All The King's Men Chapter 8 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
On his way back east, while he is having this long daydream in his mind (from the previous chapter), Burden also picks up a hitchhiker named “Don Jon,” who has a twitch in his face that only Burden seems to notice. Burden drives Don Jon from “Californy” back to Arkansas, where he was born (Don Jon was a failed Okie, who wants to die in the homeland of his ancestors, in Arkansas). Burden then realizes that the man’s twitch, involuntary, something that can’ be controlled, is a symbol for his own life—the Great Twitch, the idea that life might not mean anything more than “the twitch” does—that both life and the twitch are involuntary responses to a cruel world.
Don Jon represents a little-talked-about feature of the “Okie migration” of people from the Dust Bowl of the central US to the fruit fields of California—some of those people actually came back to the places they were from, since they could not make a life for themselves out west. Jack, also returning from the west, senses a kind of kinship with Don Jon, although Jack’s journey was only a couple days, whereas Jon’s was many years long.
Themes
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Personal History, Memory, and Time Theme Icon
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Burden drives straight to Willie’s office and Willie asks where he’s been for nearly a week—Jack says he simply took some time off, and although Willie seems to understand that Burden was upset about finding out about Willie’s relationship with Anne, neither party mentions it, and Burden gets back to work in Willie’s office, believing that his newfound philosophy of life as The Great Twitch will enable him to continue in his job and to work with Willie.
Willie and Jack never speak about Willie’s relationship with Anne. At the end of the novel, when Willie says he never did anything to Adam, Adam certainly never saw things that way—instead, he considered Willie’s affair with Anne to be a great affront to her and their family’s honor.
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Burden also spends some time with Adam, who is working day and night at his old hospital and who is also planning the building and opening of Willie’s new free hospital. Adam says he has a patient who is a catatonic schizophrenic in need of a front lobotomy, and Burden asks to watch the surgery—Adam reluctantly agrees, and Burden has no trouble watching the man’s skull opened, until Adam begins burning away the front brain-matter. This action Jack finds shocking, and afterward he remarks to Adam that Adam should have “baptized” the man, since he was effectively changing the man’s mind, making him into a new person.
A small and bizarre section of the novel, one without a great deal of “follow-up” in the remainder of the text. Jack seems to believe that his theory of the Great Twitch—of life as a series of responses not to moral concerns but to physical stimuli—is an airtight theory, but as soon as he examines the great twitching mass of a human brain, and watches it burn, he realizes that perhaps this theory needs some tinkering, or that life might be more complicated that he first imagined on his strange road-trip out to California and back.
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Burden then finds out that, several weeks later, Adam and Anne are visited at Adam’s apartment in Baton Rouge by a man named Coffee, who, working for Gummy Larson, tries to convince Adam to work on Willie to throw the free hospital building contract to Larson’s construction company. Adam is horrified by this instance of attempted bribery, and punches Coffee, kicking him out of his house. Anne calls Burden and asks for him to come over and talk to Adam, who is nearly hysterical after the altercation.
Adam’s obsession with moral purity takes Willie’s obsession with the hospital to a new level. Adam so believes that he must do good on this earth that he stops caring about those around him, most notably his sister, in an effort to devote all his time to helping the downtrodden and less fortunate. Adam does not realize the irony of hurting his family to help those he does not even know.
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Burden attempts to calm Adam down, but to no avail. He leaves the apartment and talks to Anne, who insists that Adam wants to prosecute Coffee and Larson for attempted bribery of a public official (since Adam is now one, in his capacity as head of the free hospital). But Adam warns Anne that, if this happens, Adam will be asked to testify, and it will come out in court, when the defense interrogates Adam, that Anne is having an affair with Willie. At this insinuation, Anne goes pale and recognizes that Burden is right—there can be no trial.
Anne knows that, having begun an affair with Willie, she has opened herself up to a great deal of public notoriety and possible defamation of character. Anne has lived her life largely out of the spotlight of publicity, even though her father was governor of the state; but to carry on an affair with the state’s biggest political figure has a great deal of risks, and this is one of them.
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Jack asks Anne why she began sleeping with Willie, and she says that she loves him, that she will do anything for him, and that he cannot get a divorce yet because it would be difficult for his political career. But Anne seems convinced that, in the not-too-distant future, she and Willie will be together.
Anne says much the same thing that Sadie said to Jack long ago regarding Willie. What is less clear is whether Anne and Willie might actually have eloped—since Willie died before the affair could be made public.
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Burden does eventually manage to convince Adam not to pursue charges against Coffee, on Willie’s urging—no one wants Adam to find out that his sister is having an affair with Willie, and Willie is convinced that only Sugar-Boy, Burden, and Sadie know about the affair—Willie trusts these three, and does not anticipate any problems caused by his current mistress, Anne, just as no political problems have been caused by his other mistresses.
Sugar-Boy is an intriguing character in the novel—one who sees and hears all, but one whose trust Willie never doubts even for a moment throughout the entirety of the novel. In fact, even Jack, who is loyal to Willie to a fault, argues with Willie from time to time. But Sugar-Boy never asks questions—he merely drives the Boss, and very fast.
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The next large political problem that arises, though, has nothing to do with Anne, but rather to do with Tom, now in his second year as a student at LSU. Burden and Willie find out that Tom has gotten a girl named Sibyl Frey pregnant, and that her father, Mr. Frey, is furious at Tom and Willie. MacMurfee, who has maintained his political opposition to Willie over the course of his Governorship, gets in touch with Frey, after hearing of this news, and together, MacMurfee and Frey attempt to blackmail Willie, saying that they will make news of Sibyl’s child “disappear” if Willie promises not to run for Senate, and to support MacMurfee for Senate instead.
Another mistake of Tom’s, and this time the consequences for Willie will be dire. Tom seems poised almost to ruin his father’s political fortunes through his sheer carelessness. What is less clear, in this section, is the toll this pregnancy has on Sibyl, who is viewed primarily as a “fallen woman” in a culture that blames women more than men for premarital sexual relations. Tom, for his part, is mostly accused of “tomcatting around,” a kind of boys-will-be-boys justification.
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But the Boss feels he has this Senate post wrapped up, and he’s not about to cede it to MacMurfee. The Boss also has heard that Tom might not be the only boy Sibyl has been sleeping with, which means that he might have some leverage to indicate that Tom is not in fact the biological father of the child. In the meantime, Burden meets with Lucy Stark, whom he feels, intuitively, needs his help at this difficult moment in the family (Lucy and Willie are still married, though Lucy has now lived apart from Willie for several years).
The first of Jack’s two meetings with Lucy. Lucy for her part greatly appreciates Jack’s coming to see her, since she knows that Jack is loyal to Willie, but she also knows that Jack realizes the difficult marital strain Willie has put to Lucy. Jack feels that Lucy is in many ways the core of the Stark family, and that, without her, Tom might be in even worse shape than he is now.
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Jack breaks the news of Tom’s situation to Lucy, in the small clapboard house where Lucy is living, outside Baton Rouge—Lucy has been informed of some of it already, but Jack adds that it is not clear whether Tom is the biological father. Lucy vows that, if the child is Jack’s, she will love it as any grandmother should, and she thanks Jack for his kindness in agreeing to meet with her and to talk about Tom’s predicament.
Lucy will eventually make good on this promise. She does not know whether the child is even actually biologically Jack’s, but this doesn’t matter: she views the child as the innocent party in all this, and she is true to her word, caring for the boy, named Willie, as the novel draws to a close.
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But Willie, in the meantime, has figured out a strategy for dealing with MacMurfee and Frey—he realizes that Jack still has dirt on Irwin, dirt that they have till now waited to reveal—but since MacMurfee owes Irwin a great deal, if Irwin were to be forced to ask MacMurfee to withdraw his Senate bid, Willie and Tom might still escape bad press. Thus Willie dispatches Jack to go back to Burden’s Landing to talk to Irwin, and to blackmail him into convincing MacMurfee to do just this.
A complicated maneuver, but one that proves the Boss’s political acumen, and also his inability to back down, even when cornered. Another politician might have given up hope at this point and handed the free hospital bid to Gummy and Duffy, but Willie is convinced of his political omnipotence and hopes to get out of this situation without compromising his pet project.
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Burden travels to Burden’s Landing and stays the night at his mother’s house, where she urges him not to press Irwin about political business, as he is not feeling well and has become more enfeebled, now, in his old age. But Jack says the business he has with Irwin can’t wait, and he walks over to Irwin’s house to speak with him.
Regardless of what happens in his life, and regardless of how he feels about his mother, Jack always knows he has a place in her house in Burden’s Landing—and Jack himself knows he cannot escape his ties to that place, and to the families who live there.
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Irwin welcomes Jack inside and believes that Jack has come to pay him a friendly visit—but quickly Jack begins talking about MacMurfee, and Irwin realizes that Jack has come to “play ball.” Irwin says that he has heard rumors about MacMurfee’s aspirations for the Senate, and about also about Tom’s “involvement” with Sibyl—but Irwin says he cannot use his influence at the moment to convince MacMurfee not to run. Jack asks Irwin to reconsider this position (without making reference to Littlepaugh), but Irwin says his mind is made up—he won’t ask anything of MacMurfee.
Although Irwin wants to believe that Jack would only come to him with good news, or with a desire to sit and talk of the old times, Irwin is too accomplished a political hand to think this is actually the case. Instead, Irwin is prepared to play ball and not to be intimidated, just as he was not intimidated by Willie early in the novel, when Jack and Willie came to visit in the dead of night.
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Jack then realizes that he has to use his blackmail in order to get Irwin to pressure MacMurfee. He brings up Littlepaugh, and at first Irwin seems genuinely not to remember the man’s name, but soon he recognizes that Jack is going to blackmail him based on the Littlepaugh affair, and it all comes sweeping back to Irwin—he remembers his lone illegal activity in his life. But Irwin seems at peace with his behavior—and says that these charges will not “stick” in a court of law. Irwin says he will not change his position with regard to MacMurfee, and that he will not be intimidated by Jack or by Willie.
Irwin’s crime is so far in the past that he has trouble even remembering it—another example of the flexibility of the human memory, its ability simply to pass over information that does not fit with one’s prevailing opinion of one’s self. Irwin then goes into full political attack mode, arguing that Jack’s research could not sway a jury in a court of law—although the evidence seems fairly ironclad to Jack.
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Before Jack leaves, he asks Irwin to think it over overnight—but Irwin says, again, that his mind is made up, that Jack and Willie can’t pressure him, and that he hopes to see Jack soon under friendly terms. Irwin seems strangely calm and at peace, and as Jack leaves, he says to himself that he intends to beg Irwin, the next day, to consider his reputation and do what Willie asks.
Jack’s continual asking of Irwin to “think over” his proposal (which is not much of a proposal at all, since it is blackmail) seems to point to the idea that Jack senses this is the end of the line for the two—a Rubicon that, once Jack crosses it, means their friendship is forever changed.
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Jack goes to bed and wakes up the next morning to his mother’s screams—she claims that Jack’s “father” has killed himself, and Jack is confused—he realizes, after several minutes, that Mrs. Burden is referring to Irwin, who has shot himself through the heart with a .38 in the night. Mrs. Burden believes that Jack has somehow pressured his “father” via blackmail into killing himself—in this she has intuited the affair more or less correctly—but Jack realizes, after Mrs. Burden collapses in hysterics and a doctor is called in, that his mother is right—Irwin is his biological father—his mother had been having an affair with Irwin at the time of Jack’s conception and birth.
An enormous revelation in the novel—perhaps the novel’s biggest, Yet Jack realizes that Irwin always wanted to mentor Jack, and always felt at least partially responsible for Jack’s professional growth and maturation into a man. What is less clear is how Jack feels about all this—whether he is relieved to know that the Scholarly Attorney is not his father, and that this hero of Burden’s Landing is—but now is gone, dead by his own hand.
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Jack is, for the moment, shocked at this, but he soon realizes that this explains a good deal about his life’s history—that Irwin wanted to be his mentor from a young age, that Jack’s father went insane and abandoned the family, choosing instead to live in squalor in Baton Rouge. Jack attends the Judge’s funeral—his suicide has been chalked up, publically, to his ailing health, and his desire not to live in a weakened state—and he realizes, with a good deal of psychic and philosophical emptiness, that his work for Willie truly has wrought a kind of violence in his life he could have never predicted. The chapter ends.
The first of several funerals that will crop up in quick succession in the remainder of the text. Although Jack is in some sense the hero of the novel, and its narrator, Willie is the tragic hero, and he will die. And as in all tragedies, a series of deaths tend to surround the death of that tragic hero—Irwin, Tom, and Adam, all of whom die, whether accidentally or on purpose, of “unnatural” causes.
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