Set in the Deep South, All the King’s Men examines the complex web of influence that members of a closed society have on one another. Most of Warren’s large cast of characters are corrupt in some way. Their corruption stems from an indignation traced back to the Civil War-a war fought by idealistic young gallants humiliated less by losing the war than by watching their land being plundered during Reconstruction. Warren’s corrupt political boss, Willie Stark, and others of his kind have fallen into the worst depravity of not knowing right from wrong.
Warren analyzes the myth that social and religious ghosts haunt the landscape of the devastated Civil War South-the wrath of a Calvinistic God dominates the landscape, demanding suffering and repentance for sins committed by the “fathers.” Too proud to repent, Warren’s characters must learn their lesson over and over. Their defiance is also their strength and their glory, and if characters such as Willie Stark can learn humility, their suffering will make them noble.
Warren uses convolution and confusion, a technique out of gothic fiction, to create this landscape haunted by allegorical ghosts. Reality changes constantly, its image molded not by time but by human interpretation. Society is like a haunted castle, its nooks and crannies occupied by hostile spirits whose shapes are indistinguishable from their surroundings. Believing they can never escape from this sealed trap, characters allow themselves to wallow in decadence. Only by confronting the demons present at every turn can a character gain enough strength to escape.