The Great Spider Web In the book, “All The King’s Men” by Robert Penn Warren, the character of Jack Burden gradually evolves into a person with a deeper comprehension of the world around him. Jack grapples with many new concepts, including the concept of whether or not knowledge is power. Jack’s profession involves digging into the past to discover information about others, which often, he will later use to blackmail them. So naturally Jack believes knowledge holds great power.
However, as the book carries on, Jack struggles with the idea that his knowledge may have a much deeper effect on society than the original purpose of the information. Throughout this novel Jack demonstrates that knowledge is power, but he eventually realizes that his knowledge can lead to sorrow in the lives of others, which leaves him with the idea that some things may be better left unsaid. During this book Jack exhibits that knowledge is power. One would expect this from Jack Burden because his job, first and foremost, consists of digging up dirt on other politicians for his boss Willie Stark (the governor of Louisiana).
Jack, who narrates this book, comes right out and says, “The end of man is knowledge…”(p. 9), which infuses with his idea that knowledge is power, and can essentially break down a man. Near the end of the book this quote is very significant to Jack in that events occur that prove his opinion is correct, but that he should exercise his wealth of knowledge in a different way. The entire plot of this book is drawn from the moment Willie finds out that a certain Judge Irwin supports a candidate running against his own.
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Willie pays a little visit to Judge Irwin in an effort to persuade him to retract his statement, but his attempt fails. “The Boss said, ‘Well Jackie, it looks like you got a job cut out for you. ’ And I said, ‘Callahan? ’ And he said, ‘Nope, Irwin. ’ And I said, “I don’t reckon you’ll find anything on Irwin. ’ And he said, ‘You find it’”(p. 49). This again suggests the theme that knowledge is power. Willie wants Jack to find dirt on Judge Irwin so he can dangle that threat over Irwin’s head, and have the ability to manipulate him.
Having knowledge of Judge Irwin’s wrongdoings gives Willie the power to scare him into doing what he pleases. As the book progresses we meet the friends (and loves) of Jack’s youth. One of his friends, Adam Stanton, practices medicine and is asked by Willie to take the job at the new hospital he will open. Adam at first does not want to take a job, and Jack plans to use information he dug up about Judge Irwin (which connects to Adam’s father) to make force him to take the job. “‘I can change that picture of the world he carries around in his head’”(p. 48). Even though the information Jack wants to share with Adam could potentially shatter Adam’s view of the world, Jack feels he should use the power of his knowledge to make Adam take the job that Adam’s sister, Anne, so desperately wants him to take. All through this book knowledge is portrayed as the root of power, often with Jack as the man who has the knowledge. As the book progresses, Jack comes to realize that knowledge can sometimes create unimaginable sorrow in peoples lives. When Jack was young this was not a concept Jack was able to grasp.
Jack’s first journey into the past proves that fact very clearly. Jack researches a scandal that occurred in one of his relatives past as a project when he was in college, but walks away from that piece of work because he simply cannot understand the reasoning behind his great-uncle’s (Cass Mastern) actions. Essentially, in the story of Cass Mastern, Cass has an affair with his friend’s wife, and when his friend learns of this affair he shoots himself. Cass feels largely responsible for his friend’s death and realizes that the effect of his affair not only killed a man, but also ripped a family apart. Cass Mastern lived for a few years and in that time he learned that the world is all of one piece. He learned that the world is like an enormous spider web and if you touch it, however lightly, at any point, the vibration ripples to the remotest perimeter…’”(p. 188). This is a powerful theme and when Jack finally realizes the significance of this theory, he comes to terms with the fact that sometimes knowledge can bring great sorrow to peoples lives, and not only effect one person, but also many of those connected to them.
The spider web theory correlates significantly to Adam and Anne after they learn that the man they have always looked up to was in fact corrupt like most other politicians. Jack experiences this negative ripple effect as well when he reveals to Judge Irwin that he knows his secret. Judge Irwin then kills himself prompting a series of ripples. “A bright, beautiful, silvery soprano scream…I went toward her. She dropped the telephone to the floor with a clatter, and pointed her finger at me and cried out, ‘You did it, you did, you killed him…‘Your father, your father and oh! ou, killed him’”(p. 348-49). Because Jack found dirt on Judge Irwin, Irwin killed himself, which caused sorrow for Jack and Jack’s mother because we discover that Judge Irwin was the true love of Jack’s mother, and surprisingly Jack’s real father. Another essential example of when knowledge creating sorrow is when Adam finds out that his sister is having an affair with Willie Stark. When Adam finds out this piece of information, he is driven with anger and decides to eliminate the man defiling his sister. ‘I rushed toward Adam as he fell…he was already dead…I didn’t see the Boss. And I thought: He didn’t hit him. But I was wrong’”(p. 396). Prompted by this one piece of information, two people are dead. After this point there is a notable difference in Jack’s attitude towards revealing information to people. At this point in the book, after two of his dear friends and his own father have died, Jack realizes that some things are better left unsaid. Without his revealing selected information to people, lives could have been spared.
Jack still continues to dig up information simply because he has to know. Jacks new target is who was it that called Adam and informed him of his sister’s affair. It did not take long for Jack to find out that the Boss’s punching bag, Tiny Duffy, was the culprit, and he informs Duffy of his knowledge. “I felt like a million. I had sure-God brought off that scene. I had hit him where he lived…I was a hero’”(p. 415). This feeling Jack has after he spoke to Duffy does not last long though, “…when I kicked Duffy around I felt like a million because I thought it let me out”(p. 417).
Here is when Jack finally takes responsibility for the consequences of spilling his knowledge onto others, and from this time begins to comprehend when information should be held back. After the Boss dies, Jack and the Boss’s driver/friend, Sugar Boy, are out of a job. Sugar Boy greatly admired Willie and was the one who shot the bullet that found Adam Stanton. Jack and Sugar Boy run into each other at the library, and this is the point when Jack uses restraint and withholds information from Sugar Boy to eliminate further sorrow that would surely occur if he revealed his information about Tiny Duffy. ‘Listen,’ I said, ‘do you know who killed the Boss? ’… ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘yeah—the son-of-a-bi-bi-bitch and I-I-I shot him. ’… ‘But suppose you don’t know, I said, leaning, ‘suppose there was someday behind Stanton, somebody who framed him to do it. ’… ‘I’d kill the son-of-a-bitch,’ he said… ‘I was kidding,’ I said”(p. 419-21). Jack finally grasps the fact that sometimes information should be withheld if it will most certainly have a negative consequence. Even a bit earlier Jack starts to realize this fact but will not put it into action until the moment with Sugar Boy at the library.
Another instance when Jack’s compassion shines through is when he holds back information from his mother in hopes that she will be happier with the lie. “‘—did he—was there--’… ‘No’, I said, ‘he wasn’t in any jam. We had a little argument about politics. Nothing serious…’ ‘Is that the truth? ’ She demanded. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I swear to God it is. ’…I had lied to her. Well, I had given that lie to her as a going-away present”(p. 431-32). Jack grasped the concept that sometimes things should be kept to yourself. “All change costs something”(p. 93). Revealing information that causes a change will cost someone, somewhere. Jack Burden finally comprehends this concept and becomes more cautious in spilling his knowledge about others. Overall, Jack understands that knowledge affords great power, but that it certainly can induce great sorrow. This eventually convinces him that some things are better left unsaid. Jack watches endless people suffer because of knowledge that was dumped on them and it helps him to realize that you must have some thought and restraint in what you say to people.
In life, there are instances when knowledge is thrust upon a person and that person will be able to speculate the impact that knowledge will have on other people. Even though some may feel entitled and obligated to share information with others, one must assess the overall situation and practice restraint if the negative effects greatly outweigh the positive. Knowledge is a tricky thing, and one must learn its power because otherwise the spider web will constantly be moving with negative ripples leaving a web of grief.
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