What do you make of the Cass Mastern episode? How does it fit into the rest of the novel? Why is it important?
The Cass Mastern story, which takes up most of Chapter 4, is not relevant to the novel's plot, but it is very important to the novel's theme. Cass Mastern's journals describe a man who slowly learns the same lesson of responsibility that Jack must learn during the course of the story. At first, Cass is nonchalant about his hedonistic behavior, but after his friend's suicide and Annabelle's selling of Phebe, Cass goes to great length to make amends and to undo the consequences of his actions. As a young man, Jack is unable to understand Cass's motivations; by the end of the novel, he writes that he "now may come to understand" them. Thus the Cass Mastern story works as a kind of index of Jack's development--the closer he comes to understanding it, the closer he comes to being ready to step into the "awful responsibility of Time."
Discuss the character of Jack Burden. How does he develop throughout the novel? As a narrator, how aware do you think Jack is of the extent of his own development?
The development of Jack Burden is one of the most important thematic concerns of the entire novel, because Jack is the character most explicitly involved with the idea of responsibility, and most able to think about ideas like historical process. Very roughly, Jack goes from being a cynical young man who avoids the idea of responsibility to being a mature individual able to understand the "awful responsibility of Time." During the course of his investigation into the life of Judge Irwin, Jack is forced into actions that do not allow him to escape the idea of responsibility: he discovers that the judge has sinned in the past and not paid for his sin; he tells Anne about her father's complicity in the bribe, and Anne becomes Willie's mistress. Jack runs to California as an attempt to escape a confrontation with his role in bringing about these consequences, and formulates the theory of the Great Twitch in an effort to convince himself that no one is responsible for anything. But the deaths of the judge, Adam Stanton, and Willie himself, as well as his discovery that his mother really loved the judge--Jack's real father--show Jack the insufficiency of the Great Twitch theory and enable him to accept responsibility for his actions. As a narrator, Jack is an intelligent observer of himself, and he is generally aware of his own development--in many ways, his development is the explicit subject of his book.
Think about the novel's title. Where does it come from? In what way does it describe the novel itself? Does the title's allusion predict the novel's action?
The source of the novel's title, obviously, is the Humpty-Dumpty nursery rhyme:
Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall, And all the king's horses and all the king's men Couldn't put Humpty together again.
The title describes the novel in that, if we interpret Willie to be the "king", the novel literally focuses on his "men"--that is, the circle closest to him, made up of Jack, Sadie, Tiny, Sugar-Boy, and the others. The title's allusion to the Humpty-Dumpty rhyme predicts the novel's action in several ways: in many ways, the book is about the reconstruction of the character of Jack Burden, which "all the king's men" are ultimately unable to achieve; then again, Willie ultimately suffers a "great fall" after which no one can put him back together.