All the Kings Men
Robert Penn Warren
Contributed by Machelle Schuler
Chapter 8

Jack drives back from California, now empowered and shielded by his newfound unconcern for the actions of others and himself. On the way back, he picks up an old hitchhiker with a strange facial twitch, which occurs independently of everything else on the hitchhiker’s visage. From this phenomenon, Jack extrapolates the theory of the Great Twitch: that all human actions are random phenomena, so again no one bears any responsibility for his or her misdeeds.

Jack returns to Willie’s office. He is now totally shielded from rage and other people. In this period, Jack sees Adam a few times, and he has the opportunity to witness a graphic lobectomy.

That summer, Adam was propositioned by Hubert Coffee, an agent of contractor Gummy Larson, to influence Willie to award the medical center contract to Larson. Adam punches him, then writes a letter of resignation, which he does not mail that evening. Anne, who was in Adam’s apartment at the time, contacts Jack, and the two meet in a pharmacy. She begs him to get Adam not to resign, and Jack hatches a plan to get Willie to file bribery charges against Coffee, to show Adam that Willie was on the side of good. The problem in his plan is that if the case were to go to trial, Anne might be called to the stand, and her relationship might be forced out in the open. In this conversation, Anne tells Jack that Willie is planning to run for the Senate next year and that Jack does not know Willie as well as he thinks he does. The next day, Jack gets Willie to agree to the plan, and he smooth-talks Adam into first agreeing to press charges and retaining his position at the medical center, then deciding to drop the idea of charges since they would affect Anne.

Later that summer, Willie’s son Tom Stark is accused of being the father of the unborn child of Sibyl Frey. Marvin Frey, her father, launches the accusation to Willie, and Tom is dragged in to face his father. Tom claims that any number of men could be the child of Sibyl, a fact that enrages Willie.

Sam MacMurfee, Willie’s chief political rival, hears of the situation, and it is revealed that he even knows Marvin Frey, who lived in MacMurfee’s district. MacMurfee is willing to talk with Marvin, who is demanding that Tom marry his daughter, into dropping this demand in exchange for money for Sibyl and also for Willie’s agreement not to stand in the way of MacMurfee’s run for Senator. While Willie thinks about the deal, Jack visits Lucy Stark, who wants to know the truth about her son. Jack feels that he owes Lucy a penance. She expresses her desire for Tom to marry the girl and is shocked to find out that any number of men could be the father and that politics and blackmail have been injected into the situation. Lucy says she loves her family and has tried to do right, and then, resigned, she says she has to think "it will be all right in the end" (461). She says she would love unconditionally the innocent baby who could be her grandchild.

Willie develops two ideas for dealing with the problem. His first idea, getting in touch with Marvin Frey and negotiating with him personally (rather than through MacMurfee), proves impossible, since MacMurfee has sequestered Marvin and Sibyl in Arkansas. Willie’s second idea is to have Judge Irwin, a MacMurfee supporter, persuade him to drop his extortion. Willie asks for the dirt Jack has dug up on the Judge, but Jack will not give the information if Irwin could prove it is not true.

Jack goes to Burden’s Landing where, the next morning, he reads a paper on the beach. He sees a young woman and a young man play tennis, and he compares them mentally to Anne and himself. Jaded, he imagines telling them that their lives will not be blissful and leisurely forever.

Against his mother’s wishes, Jack barges into the Judge’s house. The Judge is hospitable and glad to see him, but Jack is cold. They both remember the last time they saw each other, the night Jack came with Willie and Sugar-Boy. Jack immediately tells Irwin about MacMurfee’s blackmail, then pleads with him to convince MacMurfee not to go through with it. Despite his support of MacMurfee solely due to Willie’s heavyhanded methods, the Judge says the matter is "MacMurfee’s affair" and refuses to do anything about it. Jack, frustrated with the Judge’s obstinance, drops the name Mortimer L. Littlepaugh, which the Judge does not immediately remember. Jack hands the Judge the manila envelope containing the evidence, and Irwin immediately becomes withdrawn. Jack threatens to destroy the Judge’s public reputation, then accuses him of trying to protect a blackmailer (MacMurfee). Momentarily, Jack fears the Judge might attack him, but instead the Judge smiles and cheerfully tells Jack that he has a way out. Jack, confused, tells the Judge he will be back the next day for his decision.

That night, Jack is roused by the loud scream of his mother, who accuses him of killing his real father, Judge Irwin, with whom she was in love. Jack calls a doctor, who sends for a nurse and instructs Jack not to let anyone (such as the Young Executive, Jack’s stepfather) to see her until she is normal. The doctor then tells Jack that the Judge committed suicide by shooting himself through the heart, and that he believes the reason was because of the inability of such an active man to deal with age and limited activity.

Thereafter, Jack’s true relationship with Judge Irwin is revealed. While Judge Irwin had been stuck married to an invalid whom he was obligated not to divorce, he carried on an affair with Jack’s mother. He then told Jack’s assumed father, the Scholarly Attorney, that he was in love with the man’s wife, causing the Scholarly Attorney to walk out of his house and spend his life as a religious fanatic. After the Judge’s invalid wife died, he and Jack’s mother did not marry for a reason Jack never knows.

Two days later, the Judge is buried. Jack tries in vain to figure out who was truly or most responsible for the Judge’s death. Was it Jack, Mortimer Littlepaugh, or the Judge himself? He reasons that the suicide was the consequence of the Judge’s "protracted and ineluctable self-destruction." The next day, Jack is told he is the recipient of the Judge’s entire estate.


If All the King’s Men is the chronicle of Jack’s progress towards realizing that his actions have serious consequences and accepting the morality of having to take responsibility for what he does, then Chapter Eight is his nadir. He enters the scene "refreshed" by his trip west, where he came to conclusions that simply reinforced the idea that he is not responsible for the indirect consequences of his actions. This idea is represented by his theory of the Great Twitch, which Jack invents to absolve himself of all worldly responsibility. He is more emotionless than before in this chapter, especially through his cold interactions with Willie and Anne--in sharp contrast with Jack’s love for Anne in the previous chapter. Jack’s rejection of responsibility has led him to adopt a seriously nihilistic viewpoint. He is ruthless to Judge Irwin, the avuncular man who once cared for him, when he brings his evidence of the Judge’s bribe. As a fitting symbol of his new impersonal attitude, he witnesses a man get lobotomized in a procedure that is thought to erase one’s personality.

Still, the dramatic end of chapter eight brings hope for Jack’s impending redemption. Jack is forced to deal with the fact that something he did seems to have caused the death of his father. Jack forces himself to conclude that the Judge brought his death upon himself:

For either killing or creating may be a crime punishable by death, and the death always comes by the criminal’s own hand and every man is a suicide. If a man knew how to live he would never die.

Jack is relieved that his father is not the weak Ellis Burden but the strong (yet flawed) Judge Irwin. Judge Irwin’s willingness to stand by his priniciples and take responsibility for his past actions through killing himself in the face of Willie’s blackmail (even if the suicide is unwarranted) is precisely the sort of courage that Jack lacks; now, Jack has an example of moral uprightness to follow.

He has also begun to feel a deep sympathy for his parents. He is now beginning to respect his mother, whom he respects for her capacity to love. As for his supposed father, Jack now understands his actions and pities his fate. Jack considers the irony that his supposed father, Ellis Burden, was a good man who was cuckolded by his best friend and driven out of his home; and that his real father, Judge Irwin, was an adulterer who drove a man to suicide: "I had swapped the good, weak father for the evil, strong one" (486). Essentially, this is an allegory for Jack’s (and Willie’s, as well) ideological choices. He has traded humble morality for power through a cynical lack of ethical concern. The good news is that he is now beginning to realize and lament it. Jack has lionized the dramatic Judge Irwin, implying that his own full redemption will not come peacefully.

The fact that the Judge’s suicide eats it away at Jack’s conscience prefigures the dramatic events of the next chapter. The double meaning of Chapter Eight’s final sentence essentially foreshadows what is to come:

It was like the ice breaking up after a long winter. And the winter had been long.

After reaching its coldest point, the ice of Jack’s emotionlessness and carelessness has begun to break.

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