Scene 1 and Scene 8 are framing devices for the remainder of the internal structure of The Emperor Jones. The play begins by introducing Jones as an unreliable narrator, an emperor fleeing in the midst of an uprising—and it ends with Jones's death at the hands of Lem and his men. This context of Jones’s conflict with the native inhabitants of the island colors the sequence of flashbacks and hallucinations that occur in Scenes 2 through 7. The world outside the forest frames the one within, contributing to the nightmarish slippage of time that occurs as Jones falls further into his memories.
The character Smithers also serves as a sort of bookend for the play, offering the first and last bits of commentary on the events that unfold, thereby signifying that the overarching problems of racism that consume the island will continue to be perpetuated by others elsewhere. Even his very first words in the play—“You can’t wriggle out now”—speak to the fact that the events and themes of the play are, in many ways, a foregone conclusion. There is also ambiguity at the end of The Emperor Jones regarding whether the various spells actually worked on Jones or whether he was simply hallucinating, and this further complicates the narrative. In the end, though, the final result is the same, as Lem’s triumphant declaration so aptly states: “we cotch him. Him dead.”