All the King's Men, a Literary Essay

Updated on July 1, 2018
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Winnie Khaw graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire with an English M.A. (concentration in creative writing).


A bloodily detailed description of a young couple's profound love and their subsequent deaths due to their dedication to their beliefs and each other, Patriotism spares nothing in allowance for an audience's squeamish reaction.

King's Horseman delves into the deep divide between the different cultural values of the imperialist power (the British) and the colonized (the Yoruba tribe). Mishima's Patriotism, in which a lieutenant kills himself as a statement against the political inclinations of the time in his country, and the sacred rite of a self-inflicted religious demise as the follower of his liege lord in Death and the King's Horseman, by Soyinka, explore the repercussions and significance of ritual suicide committed by men who in sincere loyalty believe that as their duty.

While King's Horseman meshes in poetic, often apparently loose and unconnected threads of conversation, Patriotism tautly weaves a story of words with only enough words to establish a sense of character, action, and setting. “This market is my roost,” Elesin declares after a vaguely understandable preface talking of women and trysts, “I become a monarch whose palace is built with tenderness and beauty”, unaware that he speaks ironically as, after his failure to die, the women universally condemn him, though beforehand they treat him with the greatest of honor and love (F: 870).

Love, though more permanently, drives the story of Reiko and the lieutenant, as even two days before, Reiko had “read the determination to die [in her husband's face]”, and “was not in the least afraid … [she] seemed to see only a free and limitless expanse opening out into vast distances (F: 394).” King's Horseman begins with the casual situation of jokes in the marketplace then speeds to a telling encounter in Simon Pilking's house and the couple's fancy dress costumes which horrifies the reporting policeman who protests “How can a man talk against death to a person in uniform of death (F: 881)?”

The opinion of the women ultimately and absolutely diminishes into scorn, and even Iyaloja, the “mother of the market” coldly says to him, “... jackal's spittle will from this day on be your food and drink. (F: 910).” In contrast, the tense atmosphere ofPatriotisim remains strong throughout, from the bugle that sent the lieutenant leaping from his bed to the end of Reiko's life when she plunges the dagger into her throat. The lieutenant, his “face almost unrecognizably wasted and thin” informs Reiko of the situation, that his friends had joined rebels and now as a good soldier he must fight against them, and “each word, being rooted in death, emerged sharply and with powerful significance against this dark, unmovable background (F: 395).” Even as the lieutenant readies himself for the finale, in a carefully ordinary process of events, “nothing to suggest a time of any special significance (F: 397).” Mishima constantly calls to attention the coming self-sacrifice; he looks at the wall mirror, knowing that “this would be his death face (F: 397).” The last day of life for Elesin in King's Horseman and the lieutenant in Patriotism takes place very differently for each: the former celebrates it with gaiety, the other in solemnity.

The suicides in King's Horseman and Patriotism proceed with implicit consequences in addition to the desired effects. Elesin's son Olunde, when he discovers that his father has not done in accordance to the Yoruba tradition of the king's horseman, and that thus the cosmic order of the universe has been disrupted because of this lack, takes on his father's responsibility—as Iyaloja says, “the son has proved the father (F: 913).” As Olunde had gone abroad to Western countries in order to study medicine and therefore was supposed to have been “enlightened” as to the ways of white men, he chooses instead to cleave to his native faith “and poured [the] sap into the parent stalk (F: 913).” “Her breast in violent commotion,” Reiko, with reciprocated adoration and respect for her husband, bears witness to his honorable suicide and and then finishes herself, wholly and beyond fulfilling her role as wife and life-partner (F: 398).

Reiko does not consider other alternatives, and she regards her destiny as already decided at the time of her husband's determination to die. Before the marriage consummation, the lieutenant tells her the fate of a soldier, and the ensuing choice of his wife, and Reiko “laid the dagger without a word on the mat before her (F: 393)”; this silent understanding, that the husband must do his duty as a soldier, and the wife should imitate his actions if for the different purpose of loyalty to him, achieved immediate harmony, doubts absent, between them and cemented their trust and joy in each other. Olunde reversed the religious ritual in which Elesin was supposed to lead, for he had no need to die at all, and did so honored and revered by his people; not for spiritual reasons but still a struggle of the person's most treasured beliefs, the lieutenant in dying paves the way for his later accompaniment by his wife Reiko.

Formerly examined texts in The Longman Anthology: World Literature Volumes D and E stressed various classic themes, among them the more erstwhile-explained concepts of heroism, romance and the social force of indebtedness to a crusade, whether individual, militant or not, of some sort in response to the times. Volume F emphasizes the modern abstractions of a differentkind of from earlier wisdom (Johann Wolfgang Goethe's Faust) and love (Mihri Khatun's “My Heart Burns in Flames of Sorrow,” in accordance to a changed world; the ideas ring more true to circumstances than all eternity. The reader may perceive the changing tones and attitudes of later writers as Fyodor Doestovesky, who in The Underground Man creates a character of manic personality disorder, a stark counterpoint to the originally neat and organized stories of the past.

Patriotism and King's Horseman bluntly put forward gruesome details, from which the literary material of Volumes D and F would have shied away. Also, the definitions of ideal intangible constructions in the mind of men have altered: Elesin must confront the sheer power of the determinedly civilizing British Empire, and without doing so loses all esteem, in himself and from others. The lieutenant finds the choice of fighting his friends or joining them as rebels intolerable, and so kills himself. Previous texts did not mention so abrasively agonizing a situation, rather preferring to gloss over less pretty particulars and speak of lofty ideas, not sordid reality. At the beginning, and to the last, the lieutenant and Reiko, Elesin and Olunde, acknowledge their obligations: all the frantic scurrying of men accomplish nothing, and only their deaths will suffice.

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