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.
Few call Macbeth a political play. Calling All the King’s Men a political novel may be our way of washing our hands of it.
— slow reads (@SlowReads) April 26, 2012
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.