Uses of Setting; Example: Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men

Like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of WrathRobert Pen Warren’s All the King’s Men begins with several pages of description.  Penn Warren’s pages are not quite as directly metaphoric for the theme of his story as are Steinbeck’s opening pages of The Grapes of Wrath. (See September’s post.)  Rather, Penn Warren carries one along using run-on sentences to create a sense of speed and a strong first person voice–that of Jack Burden, a reporter working for Louisiana governor Willie Stark. He is in a car with the governor and his entourage, driving to Stark’s home town, Mason City.  It begins:

“… You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll come to just at the moment when the right from wheel hooks over into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you’ll try to jerk her back on but you can’t because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you’ll try to reach to turn off the ignition just as she starts the dive.  But you won’t make it, of course…
“…But if you wake up in time and don’t hook your wheel off the slab, you’ll go whipping on into the dazzle and now and then a car will come at you steady out of the dazzle and will pass you with a snatching sound as though God-Almighty had ripped a tin roof loose with his bare hands…”

From there, Penn Warren goes into descriptions of what one passes on the ride, using that to show the changes over time of the society:

“There were pine forests here a long time ago but they are gone.  The bastards got in here and set up the mills and laid the narrow-gauge tracks and  knocked together the company commissaries and paid a dollar a day and folks swarmed out of the brush for the dollar and folks came from God knows where, riding in wagons with a chest of drawers and a bedstead canted together in the wagon bed, and five kids huddled down together and the old woman hunched on the wagon seat with a poke bonnet on her head and snuff on her gums and a young one hanging on her tit…Till, all of a sudden, there weren’t any more pine trees.  They stripped the mills.  The narrow-gauge tracks got covered with grass.  Folks tore down the commissaries for kindling wood.  There wasn’t any more dollar a day. The big boys were gone, with diamond rings on their fingers and broadcloth on their backs.  But a good many of the folks stayed right on, and watched the gullies eat deeper into the red clay.  And a good handful of those folks and their heirs and assigns stayed in Mason City.”

…”That was the way it was the last time I saw Mason City, nearly three years ago, back in the summer of 1936.”  The narrator then goes on to describe the different characters riding in the governor’s entourage.

After one has read the entire novel, the descriptions of going off the road or waking up in time to stay on it can be seen as foreshadowing Jack Burden’s journey throughout the story–and, on some level, Willie Stark’s as well.  Penn Warren’s description of changes in the landscape, of who came and made a profit on it, and who was left behind, tells us much about Willie Stark’s roots, the kind of man he is and, perhaps, what in his background made him that way.

The point:  setting rarely just describes scenery or sets a scene or mood to prepare us for the entrance of characters onto a stage.  At its best, it is integrally connected to the development of character and theme.  (Note:  this is not to say that it is done consciously, or in a calculated fashion, which could make such description feel forced.  But if the setting fits the story well, it may quite naturally supply these other connections.)

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