Corruption is one of the strongest themes running through this work as Willie's downfall is traced by Jack Burden. Many of the main events depend on this theme for the purposes of the plot. It is the corruption of others and the shoddy building of a school, for example, that allows Willie to be noticed as a possible candidate for Governor. However, this initial introduction to the race for Governor turns out to be a trick as Willie learns he is only there to split the vote of fellow democratic candidate, MacMurfee. This point is an open critique of political machinations. Once Willie gains power, he is seen to use his position to retain it by any means. From this moment, it becomes clear that power is corrupting him. Even his dream of building a hospital without the taint of bribes or backhanders is undone when he finally uses Gummy Larson in the construction in order to help his son (and himself) avoid public scrutiny for sexual misdemeanours.
Although the corruption of morality is evident in the characterization of Willie, it is possible to argue that this novel as a whole is morally ambiguous. This is because Willie's aims to do good are founded on a regime that is unrepentantly corrupt. Furthermore, although it is clear that Willie becomes enmeshed in political intrigue, bribery and bullying to secure his position as Governor, because of Jack's ambivalence towards the concept of responsibility, and he is the first-person narrator, the narrative refuses to offer a clear indictment of Willie's actions.
In All the King's Men, the relationship between fathers and sons is always written of in bleak terms. There is rivalry and betrayal, between various fathers and sons, and this is most evident in Jack's relationships with his father and father-figure.
The importance of the role of the father is reiterated in his contempt for the man he believes is his father (Ellis Burden, the Scholarly Attorney) in the early chapters. This contempt is felt ostensibly because Jack blames him for leaving the marital home and it is as though Jack views this man as emasculated.
The father and son relationship also allows for one of the cruel ironic twists of this work. This is achieved when Jack discovers the identity of his true biological father only after he (Judge Irwin) has committed suicide. This turn of events may be regarded as melodramatic.
The suicide of the Judge also emphasizes the extent of Jack's betrayal as he had viewed him as a father-figure before he knew he was his biological father. The son's search for truth at all costs is paid for with Judge Irwin's death and this exposes the symbolic, mythic rivalry between fathers and sons which dates back to the Bible and Greek myths (such as Oedipus).
The third main father and son bond, between Willie and Tom Stark, is a counterbalance to the quasi relationship between Jack and the Scholarly Attorney. With Willie and Tom, the father draws on powerful masculine stereotypes to maintain the relationship, yet this also dissolves in a puddle of aggressive behavior and sexual bravado.
The disappointed son is also given a form in the characterization of Adam Stanton. His father was a former Governor of Louisiana and Jack's search for 'dirt' on Judge Irwin also reveals that Adam's father ignored obvious signs of corruption.
This is Jack's term for his retreat from the world and occurs in times of stress for him, such as when his marriage to Lois is collapsing and when he decides to stop working as a journalist. As the words Great Sleep imply, this means that he takes to sleeping for extended periods of time and signifies his apathy and refusal to engage with emotions or work. It also highlights his decision to separate himself from others around him.
This theory of Jack's is first alluded to in Chapter Seven and is extended in Chapter Eight. It is in Chapter Eight, when Jack gives a lift to a man of 75 on his return to Louisiana, that Jack notes the uncontrolled twitch in the man's face. This twitch comes to represent a faith (if it may be called that) in contingency and the body. It is a despairing view and reflects how Jack has turned away from an emotional life and has disengaged with morality. It is, therefore, the opposite of Cass Mastern's belief in the 'spider web theory'. Jack's moral development is clear to see in Chapter Ten when he repudiates the Great Twitch in favor of the spider's web.
Spider web theory
This concept and theme originates in the beliefs of Cass Mastern and is one that Jack finally comes to understand in Chapter Ten. When Jack is originally researching Cass's life, he fails to appreciate Cass's understanding of moral responsibility as outlined in his theory of the spider's web. This is where Cass points out how, when one touches a web, the reverberations and tremors may be felt across it. This is compared to the effect that one single action may have on others and is exemplified when Cass's affair leads indirectly and directly to the suicide of Duncan and to Annabelle selling Phebe.
Truth is inevitably the counter-theme to corruption and occupies Jack in his search for 'dirt' on Judge Irwin in particular. He uses the concept of truth as a justification for his actions which lead to the Judge's suicide. Because Jack uses truth as a moral justification, he forgets about loyalty and this, in turn, leads the readers to question how morally ambiguous the revelation of truth can be.
It is also important to remember Jack's occupation when considering the use of the theme of truth. As a journalist, this should have been the framework he depended on; however, the novel makes it abundantly clear that the newspaper he worked for was biased against Willie Stark and did not attempt to be objective in its reporting of the news. Jack's resignation from the Chronicle demonstrates an adherence to the
importance of truth, as does his desire to research for his PhD in American history. It could be argued, however, that by not completing this work (and refusing to open the parcel which contains Cass Mastern's old papers), Jack is figuratively trying to distance himself from matters of truth and conscience. Jack may be viewed, therefore, as an ambivalent figure that respects the concept of searching for the truth, but is also selective in his implementation of it. It is not until the novel's end that the reader can see he has grown in moral stature.