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Jack Burden’s Responsibility in the Death of Willie Stark

Jack Burden, the narrator of All the King’s Men, is faced with an appalling question at the end of the novel. His employer, Governor Willie Stark, is assassinated by Jack’s best friend from boyhood, Adam Stanton. Jack plays a key role in the administration of Governor Stark and it is the information he finds that leads to several deaths. Jack realizes that even though he did not pull the trigger he is partly responsible for all of the deaths that occur in the last several chapters of the novel. He truly believes in his responsibility and rightfully so.

Jack could have exposed what he knew to the press and the authorities at any time and changed the course of many lives, but he chose not to. Burden was a disenchanted journalist when he met Willie Stark, who was a country boy just beginning his political career. Jack clings to Willie’s campaign and administrations because he feels that Willie is genuinely a good man who has the interest of the working class and the poverty stricken at heart. Jack must even turn his back on his family and all those who were a part of his aristocratic childhood to embrace the ideas of Willie Stark.

Jack, like Willie, becomes to engaged in the objective that he forgets about the appropriateness of the methods to achieve the goals. Jack sees the wrong turns that Willie takes from the beginning. Willie begins an affair with Sadie Burke during his first bid for governor of Louisiana. Jack turns his head the other way and by accepting this wrong, the other wrongs become easier to ignore. He realizes that Willie has dug up dirt on practically everyone that is close to him so that he has their allegiance. In fact it is Jack that is commissioned to find the dirt because of his journalism experience.

He could have refused this commission at any point and changed the events that led to the assassination, but instead he continued. Jack also goes against the people who have been so important to him in his childhood. He does this either by alienation or by pulling them into situations with Willie Stark that can only prove to be fatal. Jack knows that he should not investigate Judge Irwin. Irwin had been the father figure in Jack’s life, and he even learns after the Irwin’s suicide that he was his real father. Willie Stark insisted that Jack go after Irwin just so that he could intimidate the Judge.

Adam and Ann Stanton are also pulled into the Stark administration by Jack. Jack persuades Adam to become director of Willie’s new hospital when he knew that Adam had different values than Stark. Ann is then pulled into an affair with the governor which is an act that she would not have participated if Jack had not persuaded Adam to take the position. Adam learns of the affair and then shoots Governor Willie Stark. Jack was at fault for turning a blind eye to the illegal practices of Willie and for pushing the Stantons into going against their beliefs and entering a world where they did not belong.

When Jack was a student of history at the university, he learned of a story of a man named Cass Mastern who made a mess of his life and the people who were the closest to him. Cass eventually had to take personal responsibility for his actions. Like Jack, he did not pull the trigger to murder his friend, but he was guilty. Jack must also take the same responsibility. If he does not, he will not learn and will continue to repeat his mistakes.

References

Warren, R. All the King’s Men. New York: Harcout Brace and Company. Inc. 1946.

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