Early on in All the King’s Men, Jack Burden describes himself, ironically, as an “Idealist”—he claims that, because he ignores the things he does not want to know about, he has committed himself to high-minded principles. In practice, however, Jack Burden is the chief of staff for Willie Stark, the powerful governor (“the Boss”) of Louisiana. Burden is not an Idealist, but rather the opposite—a hardheaded Pragmatist, who cares only about getting done what needs to be done. This tension between Idealism and Pragmatism is a central tension in the novel.
Some characters become disillusioned with their principles, and begin to act more in their own self-interest. Adam Stanton, originally terrified of ruining his “honor,” agrees to head Willie Stark’s large charity hospital as Director after he realizes that his own father, the former Governor Stanton, helped to cover up an instance of blackmail in which Judge Irwin participated. Anne Stanton initially tells Jack that Stark is a bad man—a political wheeler-and-dealer without principles—but later asks Stark for a good deal of money to start her own children’s charity and has an affair with him. Judge Irwin claims he opposes Willie politically because he does not agrees with Stark’s methods, which Irwin considers to be unscrupulous and “dangerous”; but Irwin has used just such methods in the past.
Other characters retain their moral positions, more or less, throughout the novel—but even these characters appear to be some mixture of Idealist and Pragmatist. Sadie, who claims that she “made” Stark politically, views politics and human relationships as a series of give-and-takes—but she has a soft spot for Stark himself, with whom she has been having a long-standing affair. Out of jealousy Sadie later tells Duffy, Willie’s other close operative and competitor, to inform Adam of Anne’s relationship with Willie—with full knowledge that this will cause Adam to snap and attack Willie. Lucy, on the other hand, appears to be an Idealist—always protecting Tom’s interests, never divorcing Willie despite his long history of philandering—but she is practical as regards her husband, his political career, and their life together, though they have lived separately for many years. When Stark dies, Lucy names her grandson (Tom’s son) Willie, claiming that Stark was a “great man.”
Then, finally, there is Stark himself—a man who, in his early life, wishes to be a politician for all the right reasons, but who, over time, comes to regard his office as only a means to an end—a way of effecting change for the greater good. The only situation that causes Willie to tap once again into his youthful Idealism is the hospital that is to bear his name—the hospital he considers his crowning achievement as governor. Stark wants this hospital to be untouched by graft—and it is this desire that starts a long series of complicated events, culminating in Duffy’s anger with Stark, Duffy’s conversation with Adam, and, eventually, Stark’s violent death.
Idealism vs. Pragmatism ThemeTracker
Idealism vs. Pragmatism Quotes in All The King's Men
The beauty about Tiny is that nobody can trust him and you know it. You get somebody somebody can trust maybe, and you got to sit up nights worrying whether you are the somebody. You get Tiny, and you can get a night’s sleep. All you got to do is keep the albumen scared out of his urine.
We would come into Burden’s Landing by the new boulevard by the bay. The air would smell salty, with maybe a taint of the fishy, sad, sweet smell of the tidelands to it, but fresh nevertheless. It would be nearly midnight then, and the lights would be off in the three blocks of down-town . . . .
Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.
About two years after [the schoolhouse] was built, it happened. There was a fire drill, and all the kids on the top floors started to use the fire escapes. . . . Because the little kids held up the traffic, the fire escape and the iron platform at the top got packet with kids. Well, some of the brickwork gave and the bolts and bars holding the contraption to the wall pulled loose and the whole thing fell away, spraying kids in all directions.
I don’t know whether Willie meant to do it. But anyway, he did it. He didn’t exactly shove Duffy off the platform. He just started Duffy doing a dance along the edge, a kind of delicate, feather-toed, bemused, slow-motion adagio accompanied by arms pinwheeling around a face which was like a surprised custard pie with a hole scooped in the middle of the meringue . . . .
The sky was darker now, with a purplish, greenish cast. The color of a turning grape. But it still looked high, with worlds of air under it. A gull crossed, very high, directly above me. Against the sky it was whiter even than the sail had been. It passed clear across all the sky I could see. I wondered if Anne had seen the gull.
If the government of this state for quite a long time back had been doing anything for the folks in it, would Stark have been able to get out there with his bare hands and bust the boys? And would he be having to make so many short cuts to get something done to make up for the time lost all these years . . . ?
There’s nothing in the constitution says that Byram B. White can commit a felony with impunity.
Jack Burden came into possession of the papers from the grandson of Gilbert Mastern. When the time came for him to select a subject for his dissertation for his Ph.D., his professor suggested that he edit the journal and letters of Cass Mastern, and write a biographical essay . . . .
But now and then Duncan Trice had to be out of town on business, and on those occasions Cass would be admitted, late at night, to the house . . . so he actually lay in the very bed belonging to Duncan Trice.
. . . the day came when Jack Burden sat down at the pine table and realized that he did not know Cass Mastern. He did not have to know Cass Mastern to get the degree; he only had to know the facts about Cass Mastern’s world. But without knowing Cass Mastern, he could not put down the facts about Cass Mastern’s world.
Then it was another day, and I set out to dig up the dead cat, to excavate the maggot from the cheese, to locate the canker in the rose, to find the deceased fly among the raisins in the rice pudding.
For the physical world, though it exists and its existence cannot be denied without blasphemy, is never the cause, it is only result, only symptom, it is the clay under the thumb of the potter . . . .
I can do no more. I went as you know to the people who are against Governor Stanton in politics but they would not listen to me. . . . I will never be any good again. I will be a drag on you and not a help. What can I do, Sister?
The Friend of Your Youth is the only friend you will ever have, for he does not really see you. He sees in his mind a face which does not exist any more . . . .
I told him . . . I told him that if he wanted to do any good—really do any good—here was the time. And the way. To see that the Medical Center was run right.
I did fine until they started the burning. For taking out the chunks of brain they use an electric gadget which is nothing but a little metal rod . . . and there is some smoke and quite a lot of odor . . . .
What would it cost? Well, MacMurfee was thinking he might run for Senator . . . so that was it.
God damn it, so the bastard crawled out on me.
I didn’t say anything.
I didn’t tell you to scare him to death, I just told you to scare him.
He wasn’t scared.
What the hell did he do it for then?
Sugar-boy was leaning above him, weeping and sputtering, trying to speak. He finally managed to get out the words:
“D-d-d-does it hur-hur-hur-hurt much, Boss--?”
He died the next morning, just about day. There was a hell of a big funeral. The city was jam-packed with people, all kinds of people . . . people who had never been on pavement before.
Oh . . . and I killed Willie. I killed him.
Oh God . . .
. . . and soon we shall go out of the house and go into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.