All the King’s Men draws on a rich tradition of literature, ranging from Jacobean drama to the novels of William Faulkner. Parallels with Faulkner, an older contemporary of Warren and a fellow southerner, are especially striking. Both writers use southern settings to explore universal themes, particularly those of moral and spiritual corruption, the effects of time, the search for meaning in the universe, and the need to create meaning if none exists. Both writers point out the dangers of people adhering too rigidly to any set of rules or pattern that they may have created in the quest for meaning. Warren’s Adam Stanton and Faulkner’s Quentin Compson of The Sound and the Fury are inflexible idealists, each of whom dies because he cannot bear the discovery that his sister falls short of his ideals. Warren states that “Life is Motion toward Knowledge,” and neither Adam nor Quentin can tolerate that motion, like time, inevitably brings knowledge capable of destroying any ironclad set of ideals. At the end of The Sound and the Fury the reader realizes that the Compsons’ uneducated maid, Dilsey, has taken on the responsibility for finding meaning in a world ravaged by the fluidity of time, while in All the King’s Men, Jack Burden sets out to assume the “awful responsibility of time.”
One of the major concerns of Warren’s novel is to discourage the romantic views of history and historical eras that often develop as time passes. He employs the eighteenth-century device of inserting a short tale in the body of the novel to reinforce this theme. Just as Jack Burden’s investigation of Judge Irwin topples the myth of a virtuous elite governing the state in the past, so too does the Cass Mastern narrative subject the myth of a heroic past for the pre-war South to a harsh criticism. Mastern’s tale is a melodrama of secret and scandalous love that results in tragedy for both lovers when Annabelle’s husband, Duncan Trice-who is also Mastern’s best friend-commits suicide. The affair ends in recriminations and self-loathing on both sides.
While the characterization in All the King’s Men is uneven, the masterful Willie Stark and the cynical but eloquent Jack Burden are skillfully developed. Undoubtedly the two most memorable characters of the novel, they are perhaps Warren’s best creations in his prose fiction. Stark is vulgar and coarse, yet utterly believable and likable. His gift for oratory and his flair for the dramatic make him the center of nearly every scene where he appears, especially after he loses his political naivete.
Similarly effective is the characterization of Burden, whose cynicism modulates into reflective meditation as the novel unfolds. As a thoroughly aware observer and a culpable participant in Stark’s tragedy, Burden fully understands Stark’s motivations and the nature of his choices. Moreover, Burden’s own moral growth from a spineless antihero to a man capable of assuming impressive responsibilities is described in a thoroughly believable manner. By the end of the novel the reader has come to accept the authority of Burden’s narrative without question.
Warren has varying success depicting the other characters. Judge Irwin, the “upright judge,” and Ellis Burden are well drawn, as is Jack Burden’s mother. Adam Stanton, however, remains a rather shadowy and abstract figure, and even Anne Stanton is not wholly vivid in the reader’s mind. Willie’s personal hack, Tiny Duffy, and his female assistant, Sadie Burke, are authentic presences in the novel, as is Sugar Boy, his bodyguard and chauffeur. On the other hand, Willie’s wife, Lucy, is seldom more than an abstraction, and his wastrel son, Tom, never becomes more than a name to the reader. But Warren’s occasional failures with the secondary characters are relatively unimportant and to some extent may be ascribed to the need to keep a massive novel from growing to unwieldy dimensions.