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All the King's Men

Robert Penn Warren

Chapter 8

Summary Chapter 8

Jack learns that Judge Irwin has committed suicide, by shooting himself in the heart, at the same moment he learns that Judge Irwin, and not the Scholarly Attorney, was his real father. Jack realizes that the Scholarly Attorney must have left Jack's mother when he learned of her affair with the judge. In a way, Jack is glad to be unburdened of his father's weakness, which he felt as a curse, and is even glad to have traded a weak father for a strong one. But he remembers his father giving him a chocolate when he was a child, and says that he was not sure how he felt.

Jack goes back to the capital, where he learns the next day that he was Judge Irwin's sole heir. He has inherited the very estate that the judge took the bribe in order to save. The situation seems so crazily logical--Judge Irwin takes the bribe in order to save the estate, then fathers Jack, who tries to blackmail his father with information about the bribe, which causes Judge Irwin to commit suicide, which causes Jack to inherit the estate; had Judge Irwin not taken the bribe, Jack would have had nothing to inherit, and had Jack not tried to blackmail Judge Irwin, the judge would not have killed himself, and Jack would not have inherited the estate when he did--so crazily logical that Jack bursts out laughing. But before long he is sobbing and saying "the poor old bugger" over and over again. Jack says this is like the ice breaking up after a long, cold winter.

A great deal of dramatic development occurs in this chapter. Anne's relationship with Willie seems to be cemented by her declaration that she loves and intends to marry him. Adam's fragile moral balance is upset by the bribe offer, and he tries to resign from the hospital position even though the bribe had nothing to do with Willie. Sibyl Frey's pregnancy threatens to throw a monkey wrench into Willie's control of events, as MacMurfee has finally found a piece of information that might hurt Willie's position. Lucy Stark again shows her moral position when she shows her concern for the innocence of Sibyl Frey's unborn child, which alone bears no responsibility for events. Lucy is the only person to express concern for the child.

Of course, the most important single event in this chapter is Jack's confrontation with Judge Irwin, which leads to the judge's suicide and Jack's discovery that the judge was his real father. Jack's reaction is complex: in some ways he is pleased to learn that he is Judge Irwin's son and not the Scholarly Attorney's, because he admires Judge Irwin's strength just as he resents the Scholarly Attorney's weakness. But when he remembers the Scholarly Attorney giving him the chocolate, the same memory he had in Chapter 5, he feels sad and sorry, and says his feelings were mixed. In any event, his powers of interpretation, and his ability to evade the idea of responsibility, is shattered by the situation that results from the judge's death, in which Jack inherits the estate preserved by the very wrongdoing Jack tried to blackmail the judge with--the estate preserved by the very wrongdoing Jack uncovered and which impelled the judge to commit suicide. Jack is touched deeply by the judge's will, and sorry for his role in his death; when he learns that he has inherited the plantation, he begins to laugh, and then to sob. His sobbing is the first honest emotional reaction Jack has openly demonstrated since his childhood relationship with Anne. The judge's death has prepared Jack for what will come in the next chapter.

The other important idea to emerge from this chapter is that of the Great Twitch, which Jack is ultimately forced to reject in the face of the judge' s death. The idea that all of human life is an involuntary facial tic of which no one is aware is Jack's most comprehensive metaphor for denying the individual's responsibility for his or her actions. If all action is like an involuntary twitch, who could possibly be responsible? Life is simply random. Of course, the crazy, undeniable logic of the situation following Judge Irwin's death seems just the opposite of random--and prepares Jack for his ultimate rejection of the Great Twitch and acceptance of real responsibility.