“Is it better to be feared or loved, if one cannot have both,” was once proposed by Machiavelli in The Prince, which to this day has a significant impact on the perspective of political empires and their rulers (Machiavelli). In Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, Willie Stark explores a means to achieve both ends which results in a hero’s tragic downfall resulting in the ultimate culmination of misfortune the loss of life.
Robert Penn Warren’s masterpiece loosely follows Aristotle’s tragedy outline which is comprised of six parts, plot, characterization, thought, diction, melody, and spectacle(Aristotle). Willie Stark’s path to calamity is most noticed through his interaction with characters, the movement of plot, and his catharsis. Willie’s flaws are drawn from his interaction in politics, betrayal, his moral relativism, and circumstantial events which stir his perception on the world.
Willie is caught in mixture of a political game which changes his perception on the world around him. His first experience in politics involves him being the chess piece of other players, and he is held completely oblivious to this endeavor until Sadie, one of Willie’s administrators, alerts him of this fact. Until this realization, Willie was bland in politics, because he fought for what the people needed in terms of laws and bills, versus rallying the people to the cause through boisterous promises of luxury.
Willie was sheltered from the dark side of politics, and his wanting was merely a dream that would have resulted in a fortuitous outcome, had he been elected. After Willie realizes he was duped, turns to the first vice in his life, drinking. The audience sympathizes with Willie because of his initial adversity. In Epicurus, Aristotle describes a tragic hero’s journey as one of, “complete serious action which arouses pity and fear,” from the audience.
Through Jack Burden’s narration, which is also a crucial part to Aristotle’s tragedy, the audience overly sympathizes with Willie’s sorrow because the pain is seen through another man’s eyes. Although Willie becomes more forceful among his peers throughout the course of the novel he ultimately admits to his wrongdoing and realizes how politics have warped his morality into something sinister. With his final last breaths he proclaims that, “it could have been ifferent,” surmising the inescapable fact that his actions, however devious, were what he believed for the betterment of the people (Warren 603). Willie’s genius in politics comes from his knack to understand how to control the political system through blackmail and power, but he once described politicians as, “never stop saying gimme…just like all politicians do” (Warren 15). This justifies Willie’s initial stance on the viewpoint of politicians, which he sought to change.
Throughout the course of the novel Willie is molded from a piece of dirt, to something of significance, because he harnesses the characteristics to become great. As a tragic hero Willie is described to be, “born out of luck,” that is to say his life is a, “process of discovering what [he] really [is],” which signifies that he is a dynamic character (Warren 94). Willie is a tragic character because he is evolved into a power-hungry political figure that clashes with his original moral values and he sees no escape to the madness because he is providing opportunities for his community.
In Aristotle’s model for a hero’s tragic journey, the plot must exemplify a key moment where the character is transformed, and their misfortune arises from an error. Such pivotal events befall to Willie, in All the King’s Men, which sparks the catalyst for Willie’s tragic outcome. After Willie learns that he is being played in the first MacMurfee election, he becomes drunk with disappointment and proclaims to Burden that he “, could have made a good governor” (Warren 119). In an effort to console him Burden offers more whiskey and gets him overly intoxicated.
When arrives to make a speech at a barbeque the following day, his impediment results in a miraculous meaningful speech due to his expression of true feelings. This crucial event is what in essence wins MacMurfee the election against Harrison. From that moment on Willie’s overall opinion among the county members changes to someone who is truthful and for the people alone. Lastly, Willie’s demise is at most the fault of his ideals and the means by which he asserts his ideals. After the MacMurfee election Willie evolves into a moral relativist.
This leads to his unethical behavior in the political realm because he swindles people to get what he wants. In the case of Judge Irwin, for example, Willie demands Burden to find some dirt on him, in order to get what he wants. However Willie has no way of foreseeing the outcome of his actions, and as a result injures the livelihood of those closest to him. A lack of overall understanding of his manipulation of people’s lives culminates in the repercussion of detrimental events leading to his own death.
The idea of knowledge that Burdon expresses in the beginning of the novel remains true to the entirety of the novel, until Burdon himself accepts responsibility for the situation. In Willies case “he can’t know whether knowledge will save him or kill him. He will be killed, all right, but he can’t know whether he is killed because of the knowledge which he has got,” or what he has a lack thereof(Warren). Willie Stark understands why he is killed at the conclusion of All the King’s Men because of his excessive use of power and negative actions.
Robert Penn Warren’s interpretation of the downfall from a moral man to that of a greedy political figure is imbedded in the man’s personal moral values. Willie Stark’s misfortune is the product of his history, actions, and morality. With the last line of the book Warren concludes that the knowledge of history come a responsibility not to repeat the mistakes of others.
Warren, Robert Penn. All the King's Men. New York: Harvest Book, n. d. Print.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. 1532. Ed. ; Trans. Robert M. Adams, n. d Print