nstead of presenting Stark as a monster of evil and iniquity, a nightmarish demagogue who exploits the poor and middle-class citizens who form his constituency, Warren’s sympathetic characterization portrays him as a disillusioned idealist whose actions, though pragmatic and frequently illegal and unethical, often lead to humanitarian progress. Stark, who enters politics seriously when his criticism of a defective school building’s construction makes him a temporary hero, is driven by a passion to provide better public services for the rural people of his state. Stark’s murder, which provides the dramatic climax of the novel, grows out of his dream to build an extraordinary hospital and medical research center to serve the people of the state (and memorialize his son). It is one of the many ironies of the novel that the pragmatic and unethical Stark, who will blackmail political opponents and use bribery if convenient, does more to improve the quality of life for the people of his state than generations of more genteel and supposedly more honorable predecessors.
Moreover, as a demagogue and power broker, Stark is not an isolated figure who simply manipulates the illusions and baser emotions of the voters. Instead, Stark is the fulfillment of the aspirations and dreams of his constituency-mainly poor farmers and small businessmen of the state-as well as the embodiment of their hatreds and resentment. When Stark boasts, in his rabble-rousing addresses, that he and the crowds share an identity as rednecks and credulous fools, he becomes a figure whom the voters can identify as a member of their class, a man who has managed to overcome an unfair system. In fact, at times he seems to be less a person than an embodiment of the passions of the crowds, and this is part of Stark’s tragedy.
Stark’s pragmatism produces evil consequences as well as social progress, particularly for those closest to him. Stark’s loss of innocence and abandonment of idealism in a quest for power destroy his relationship with his wife; his ruthless methods of political infighting cause the death of Judge Irwin and anguish for Anne Stanton and her brother Adam, who represent the state’s older and more traditional ruling class. Stark’s obsession with power even causes him to neglect his son, Tom, who becomes a worthless playboy leading an empty life before he is tragically injured on a football field.
Yet if Stark’s pursuit of power and his pragmatic efforts to attain a measure of political justice for his class are rather ambiguous, so too is the high-minded moral idealism of Stark’s antagonists, Judge Irwin and Adam Stanton. Jack Burden, the novel’s narrator and a disillusioned and cynical trouble-shooter for Stark, discovers that Irwin-supposedly a man of incorruptible integrity-took a bribe from a utility company when he was younger and struggling with debt. Ironically enough, this discovery, which provides Stark with the threat of blackmail and leads to Irwin’s suicide, humanizes the “upright judge” and makes him more sympathetic in the eyes of the reader. In addition, Burden later learns that Irwin, his mentor and surrogate father, was also his biological father.
Similarly, Adam Stanton’s idealism turns out to be flawed. Stanton’s father, supposedly an honest governor, participated in the utility company scandal, and Stanton himself compromises his principles to become a surgeon in Stark’s proposed medical complex. Finally, Stanton cannot accept flaws in others, for the discovery that his sister has become Stark’s mistress compels him to assassinate the governor.
History, the drama of conflicting ideas and forces in politics and society, brings about the fatal collision of Willie Stark, the “man of fact,” and Adam Stanton, the “man of idea.” Warren’s novel suggests that both the pragmatist and the idealist are merely actors whose choices often produce ironic and tragic consequences.
Although the action of the novel focuses on Willie Stark and the results of his manipulations, the central theme is Jack Burden’s search for values and faith in the meaning of life. Burden’s life, at the beginning of the novel, has been a series of disappointments: his father, Ellis Burden, the “Scholarly Attorney,” is a futile and beaten failure; his mother is domineering and sexually promiscuous; his adolescent romantic idyll with Anne Stanton has ended in frustration; his years as a graduate student in history have produced only a failed dissertation because of his inability to comprehend the motivations of Cass Mastern, the central figure in his study of the Civil War; his marriage to Lois has proved meaningless. As a publicity man and trouble-shooter for Willie Stark, Burden’s disbelief in nearly everything can be subordinated to his loyalty to a man who at least believes in the efficacy of ruthless and pragmatic action.
Burden’s deepest problem is that, like T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, he is unable to take any set of values or cause seriously, or to commit himself to any purpose in life other than observing others. In his worst nightmares, Burden is haunted by the fear that life is nothing more than the “Great Twitch,” the dance of blood along the arteries and veins. When his life comes to a crisis, Burden takes refuge in the past and retreats to a state of moral limbo, the paralysis of consciousness and will that he calls the “Great Sleep.” When he finds that Anne Stanton, whom he has always loved, has become Stark’s mistress, Burden reacts by leaving town and driving west on Route 66 for three days, until he finds himself in a lonely hotel room in Long Beach, California. Reflecting on this experience, Burden sees it as symbolic of the American trek westward: a flight from the disappointments, burdens, and responsibilities of selfhood.
But Burden’s futile flight westward is also a crucial act in his discovery and acceptance of self and responsibility. Even more important is his recognition of his own role in Judge Irwin’s suicide; whatever moral choices Irwin had made in the past, it is Burden’s discovery of them and Stark’s threat of public exposure that motivates Irwin’s suicide. The painful truth that he has helped cause the death of his father provides Burden with unimpeachable evidence of the existence of freedom of choice, and forever destroys the specter of determinism (“the Great Twitch”) that previously nurtured his fear that life was meaningless.
The tragic climax furthers Burden’s moral education. Adam Stanton assassinates Governor Stark and is in turn killed by Stark’s guardians. Investigating the reasons for Adam’s act of desperation, Burden finds that neither he nor Anne Stanton is totally without responsibility, although it is Sadie Burke, Stark’s perennial lover and girl Friday, who has precipitated the novel’s final tragic confrontation.
Warren’s definitive statement of the novel’s theme comes in Jack Burden’s closing paragraph where he tells the reader that he has married Anne and is caring for his supposed father, who is dying. The story Burden has been telling, he says, is not just the story of Willie Stark, but his own story as well “the story of a man who lived in the world, and to him the world looked one way for a long time and then it looked another and very different way.” Burden confesses that he no longer believes in “the Great Twitch” because “he [has] seen too many people live and die.” As further evidence of his acceptance of moral responsibility, Burden has resumed work on his failed doctoral dissertation, for he now believes that he understands the lessons learned by Cass Mastern. The theme both of Burden’s narrative and of Cass Mastern’s story is a similar one: involvement in either history or the personal lives of others brings tragedy, but out of tragedy emerges a recognition of the need for moral responsibility.