What’s a political novel? A novel with a political setting, or a novel that examines political theory? All the King’s Men is a political novel only in the first sense. Tom Jones is a political novel only in the second sense. Because this second sense of the term “political novel” goes more to an essence, for my money Tom Jones is more of a political novel than All the King’s Men.
People say All the King’s Men is about the rise and fall of Willie Starks, a state governor modeled after Louisiana’s Huey Long. There’s something to that: Starks’s turns away from his idealistic political start towards a cynical and corrupted governorship. But the novel doesn’t spend more than an episode or two fleshing out the change; it contrasts the change by flashback more than it examines it. Instead, the novel uses Starks and his change to examine human nature.
And not just Starks. Not even principally Starks. Before reading the novel, I thought Warren’s title referred to Humpty Dumpty, who I thought was Starks. But it doesn’t. It refers to all of Starks’s men. Especially the narrator, Jack Burden, who served as Starks’s right-hand man throughout his governorship.
While I was reading All the King’s Men earlier this year, I was also reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Such similarities!
- Both novels are principally about the painful self-discovery and maturation of their chief protagonists, Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment and Burden in All the King’s Men.
- Both protagonists operate out of articulated personal philosophies that discount the notion of a binding, societal morality. Both philosophies turn out to be constructs of flawed characters who use them to avoid painful, personal growth.
- Both protagonists come to discover themselves and their authors’ philosophies of life in the novels’ protracted epilogues long after the novels’ climaxes (Raskolnikov’s confession and Starks’s demise).
- Both novels espouse explicit philosophies of life that acknowledge our common humanity and worth. These philosophies are set out in both quasi-Christian and more general, metaphorical terms.
- As the novels end, both protagonists are entering into presumably healthy marriages that they are not capable of before their painful self-discovery.
- Each novel suggests that the protagonist’s self-discovery would lead to another book.
I could offer specifics, but I’m too lazy.