Because Burden has known Willie for so long, and because his life has become so intertwined with his Boss’s, the novel is also a poignant examination of the effects of time and memory on personal relationships. The novel is, in many ways, a fictional “memoir” of Burden’s own life and relationships. Burden wonders, frequently, what it means to remember, and comes back often to the memory of Anne, lying back in the water, watching a gull fly overhead. For Jack, this memory of Anne, apart from its romantic significance, is a marker of the young life he can never recapture.
Burden believes, or develops throughout the novel, a philosophy of “motion”—that events and people do not seem real in themselves, but only in relation to other events and people. Therefore one must continually talk to new people (and not become too close to others), and one must be “on the move,” in a car, on the road or in a train, working constantly. Jack lives his life by avoiding life—by never sitting still, and therefore not allowing time and memory to catch up with him. There are others in the novel, however, who have a markedly different relationship to memory and time. Stark, for his part, never forgets a slight, and those who have helped him in the past also receive a “bonus” in the future for their help to him. This is why Willie rewards Slade with a liquor license, for supporting Willie when Willie refused to drink alcohol long ago.
The Scholarly Attorney leaves Jack’s mother when he realizes Jack is not his biological son, and he spends much of his life hiding from reality, helping those on the street who need help, and otherwise refusing to acknowledge the passage of time or the presence of memory. Irwin, though he admits that he took a bribe long ago, does not initially remember the man whose position he took as a result of that bribe—Jack marvels that Irwin has so selectively chosen to manage his own “history” of his life, and Jack wonders, too, whether he has gone about selecting certain memories himself, and crafting a history based only on these memories. Anne and Adam, too, have selective memories of their youth, and want to believe, most strongly, that their father, the former Governor, was a good an honest man, as these are the memories they have of their father—indeed, these memories are the only “family” they have.
Burden ends the novel with a long meditation on the nature of time, that idea that time and memory are moving, always, that they are relative quantities rather than fixed absolutes, and that Burden’s efforts to “beat” time, to fix his memories in place, and to find happiness in those memories is impossible. Instead, Burden realizes he will have no life that is not in the past, not in the future, but in the present—that “period” of time which has been most difficult for him to handle, his entire life.
Personal History, Memory, and Time ThemeTracker
Personal History, Memory, and Time Quotes in All The King's Men
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 . . . .
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 . . . ?
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 had had a puncture in the morning and so didn’t hit Long Beach till about evening. I drank a milk shake, bought a bottle of bourbon, and went up to my room. I hadn’t had a drop the whole trip. I hadn’t wanted a drop. I hadn’t wanted anything, except the hum of the motor and the lull of the car and I had had that.
Don’t be silly . . . and don’t call me Jackie-Bird.
But you are Jackie-bird . . . .
Don’t you love me?
I love Jackie-Bird; poor Jackie-Bird.
God damn it, don’t you love me?
Yes . . . I do.
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 . . . .
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.