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Barron's Booknotes-All The King's Men by Robert Penn Warren-Free Summary
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SECTION TWO: THE BOSS

Things are popping in the capital. One of Willie's appointees, State Auditor Byram White, is being threatened with impeachment. The MacMurfee bunch, wanting to regain their old political influence, have accused White of graft. White is indeed guilty and the Boss knows it, but he doesn't fire White. Instead, he scolds him harshly and enjoys watching him grovel. White doesn't have the courage or integrity to resign. When Jack asks why the Boss cruelly humiliates White, Willie says, "You do it because you are helping Byram fulfill his nature." Is Willie serious, or sarcastic?

The most important question, however, is, Why does Willie save White from prosecution, even after his wife, Lucy, and his attorney general, Hugh Miller, threaten to leave him if he supports White? Willie, remember, is a political creature. The White incident can weaken his power, can open him to attack, because an attack on one of Willie's men is an attack on Willie himself.

Willie prepares to retaliate. He gives Jack two assignments-to gather incriminating evidence against one of MacMurfee's men and to make a second one realize that going against Willie is not in that man's best interest.

While Willie is outlining his plan, Hugh Miller enters and resigns as attorney general. Clearly, Hugh likes having influenced the state supreme court in support of Willie's programs to help the common folk. Yet, as Willie points out, he is too "weak-kneed" to tolerate the underside of politics-that is, the harsh means Willie uses to persuade legislators to back his administration. The Boss questions not his resignation but why it took him so long to see that he could not keep his feet clean while wading in muddy political waters. Willie and Hugh part as friends. Yet, behind him Hugh leaves an empty place, not just in Willie's political organization but also on Willie's psychological scales, with their delicate balance between cold facts and high ideals. The representative of Willie's political idealism is now gone. Thus, he has to create a new symbol of that idealism. He vows to build a new hospital, one that will serve without charge the poor people of the state. Before reading on, consider why Willie needs to have such a man of high ideals as Hugh on his staff. How is Hugh's political idealism different from Jack's philosophical idealism? Would you rather have Hugh or Willie as governor of your state? What are your reasons?

After Hugh leaves, Willie tells Jack he's worried that Lucy will leave him. Willie and Sadie Burke are having an affair, and Willie even has brief affairs with other women when he is out of town. Lucy may know that Willie is unfaithful, but that isn't the reason she threatens to leave. She is opposed to Willie's protection of White and is afraid of the corruption that the White incident signals is creeping into Willie's administration.

But Willie does protect White, and Lucy doesn't leave. She stays to help Willie through the bad times ahead, for the White impeachment attempt, it turns out, is merely the first step toward MacMurfee's ultimate goal-the impeachment of Willie himself. Willie is charged with using such illegal means as blackmail and bribery to force legislators to drop impeachment charges against White.

Willie responds to the charges by touring the state, making speeches to his supporters. The day of the impeachment proceedings, the streets outside of the Capitol are filled with people chanting "Willie, Willie, Willie-We want Willie!" Rednecks, old women, gas station attendants, even county politicians gather from all over the state to support Willie. That evening, on the Capitol steps, Willie tells them that he is still governor. The crowd roars. What he doesn't tell them is that the decision in his favor wasn't made because of their chanting but because MacMurfee's men could be corrupted.

As Jack looks out of a window high in the Capitol and sees the chanting crowd, he reflects on an argument he had with his father, the Scholarly Attorney who became a religious fanatic and pamphlet writer. His father had said, "God is Fullness of Being." Jack argued that "Life is Motion toward Knowledge." As such, he continued, the existence of Complete Knowledge-God-must be denied because knowledge can never be complete. Jack equates Knowledge with History. And knowledge is acquired by studying the links between the past and the present. The primary activity of life, as he sees it, is the search for knowledge. But like history, the search for knowledge never ends as long as life goes on. Nevertheless, as you will see, some people can make great strides toward acquiring self-knowledge. Jack is one of them.


At this point in the story, however, Jack has only one kind of knowledge. He knows how the drama in the capital's streets will turn out. He has worked behind the scenes toward the only possible conclusion-the corruption of MacMurfee's men. He says, "But even if I didn't believe in the old man's God... I felt like God brooding on History."

In these passages several of the major themes of the novel come to light-the themes of knowledge, of history, and of time. Keep these passages in mind as you chart Jack's difficult and winding path toward self-knowledge.

Willie returns to the mansion to find that Lucy has locked him out of her room. She did not attend his speech, nor did she let their son, Tom, go. Willie is upset. He wishes that Lucy could understand the practical side of politics. But she cannot. She would, he says, be content to "sleep on the bare ground and eat red beans."

Lucy stays with Willie through his reelection in 1934. Somewhat later, she goes to Florida for reasons of health, or so the public story goes. When she returns, she and Tom move to her sister's poultry farm outside the capital.

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