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All the King's Men has two major characters, Willie Stark and Jack Burden. By understanding their circumstances and motivations, you will grasp the ideas about human nature that Robert Penn Warren offers. But unless you also look into the personalities and motivations of the minor characters-those who surround Willie and Jack and insist on making themselves felt-the story will not come alive for you. Life, as Robert Penn Warren shows you, can be a tangled web of relationships among a large cast of characters; it is a continuing experience, in which historical events influence present circumstances.
• WILLIE STARK
Is Willie Stark the people's messiah or a dangerous dictator, a tragic hero or a smooth-tongued tyrant? Does he deserve to be assassinated? How you answer these questions will, in part, influence the meaning that the novel holds for you. And how you answer may also say as much about you as it says about Willie. Do you prefer to put fictional characters into the neat categories of hero and villain? Or do you prefer to see portrayals of life with a double vision, aware that some people are both good and bad? To understand Willie's character, you need to use your powers of double vision. The internal conflicts of his personality do not readily permit you to pass a quick verdict on his life. You will probably discover that Willie, like many powerful leaders, combines opposing elements, often resorting to foul means to achieve good ends.
Willie Stark is an imaginary character, inspired by an actual historical figure Huey Pierce Long, governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1931 and then a U.S. Senator until his assassination in 1935. Some readers have commented that Willie Stark resembles Huey Long too closely. Without a doubt, Long's political career parallels the career that Robert Penn Warren designs for Willie. Both Long and Willie came from a poor Southern background and, through ambitious perseverance, became lawyers. Both held political office at an early age, and each had an unsuccessful first run for governor. As governors, both were charged with bribery and the misuse of state funds and threatened with impeachment. Nevertheless, each had a lifelong passion to improve the lot of his state's poor. By using blackmail and patronage, they financed roads and hospitals and reworked the state's tax structure in favor of the poor people. Finally, each met his death at the hands of a doctor who had a personal grievance against him.
Warren obviously had Huey Long in mind while constructing his novel. Yet, despite the uncanny similarities between these men, the story of Willie Stark is not merely the story of Huey Long. All the King's Men is not a fictional biography. Rather, Long's public career can be seen as the skeletal outline to which Warren adds flesh and into which he then breathes the life of a dynamic, complex personality who engages the reader's imagination.
In a sense, Willie is every man who rises to power by offering to save the people from their distress and who, during his struggles, becomes corrupted by power. Some, therefore, see him as a stereotype, the character of good intentions who becomes tainted by the system. But you may appreciate Willie, first and foremost, as a human being who has dreams, a family he loves, and passions he yields to, among them a desire for power. Warren doesn't just present a character who functions in a concrete political setting; he shows you a man torn between his visions of an ideal society and stark reality-what it takes in the real world to fulfill one's dreams. Willie's last name gives you a clue to his main way of dealing with power and conflict. He sacrifices his ideals for action. He is a man of stark fact, and he wants results. In the end, Willie reevaluates his life's goals. But it is too late for change. Willie, like his many actual and fictional counterparts, is not given a second chance.
Warren's portrayal of Willie raises the following questions: What psychological toll does the person with a deeply rooted political mission pay? Do the means of accomplishing the mission justify the ends? Can a well-intentioned man who becomes politically corrupt be a hero of the reader's imagination?