The Emperor Jones

by

Eugene O’Neill

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The Emperor Jones: Scene 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
By eleven o'clock, the moon is high in the sky. A road runs through the forest, illuminated by moonlight. Jones stumbles onto it, his uniform more torn and looking very ragged. When he notices he's on a road, he seems surprised. He stands and blinks in confusion for a moment before throwing himself to the ground, panting and sweaty. Suddenly, Jones yells that he's melting in the heat. He curses his jacket and then rips it off, flinging it away into the woods. Naked to the waist, he sighs and declares that he feels better. He looks down at his feet and decides to take off his spurs too, since they've been tripping him. He throws them away after his jacket.
The oppressive heat is another way that Jones is forced to confront his own humanity. It's an insistent reminder that he's human, and like any other human, he's going to sweat and struggle to stay cool in this kind of heat. As he begins to remove his uniform himself, Jones begins to more actively move towards discarding things that signify his power and status. This consequently brings him closer to his own naked humanity.
Themes
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Power and Systemic Oppression Theme Icon
Godliness, Humanity, and Fear Theme Icon
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Jones sighs again and remarks that he'll be able to travel faster without the "frippety" emperor uniform. He pauses and listens to the tom-tom, noticing that even though he's covered a lot of ground, the drum doesn't sound any further away. Jones reasons that he's holding his lead and they'll never catch him, assuming his legs don't give out. Sighing, he laments ever becoming emperor, and notes that it's a hard role to get out of now.
As Jones remarks that his emperorship will be hard to get out of, he shows that he is beginning to understand that he cannot escape his past. Just as he had to reckon with the fact that he killed Jeff, this journey to escape the natives will force Jones to accept and understand that he did a terrible thing by oppressing and exploiting the natives.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
History and Collective Memory Theme Icon
Power and Systemic Oppression Theme Icon
Godliness, Humanity, and Fear Theme Icon
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Jones looks around and suspiciously wonders where the road came from, since he's never seen it before. He reasons that the woods are just strange at night. Suddenly terrified, he shouts that he doesn't want to see any more ghosts, but soon returns to a level voice and tries to bolster his confidence. He assures himself that ghosts aren't real, and reminds himself that the Baptist Church said as much all the time. Jones asks himself if he's a civilized person or ignorant like the black natives, and tells himself that Jeff wasn't real—he decides he's just hungry, and his hunger is making him see things.
Even though Jones is beginning to make the shift towards being more human, he's not yet to the point where he can see the natives as similarly human to himself. This demonstrates the intensity of both Jones's internalized racism and the power structure that allowed him to think less of the natives in the first place. Similarly, Jones's use of "civilized" here is a coded way of saying that he's still trying to embody whiteness, and the sense of superiority that comes with it.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Power and Systemic Oppression Theme Icon
The fear returns to Jones's voice as he pleads with God to not let him see any more ghosts. Jones tells himself to rest, and he sits down and gazes at the moon. As he remarks that the night is already half over and he'll reach the coast and be safe by morning, a silent, chained procession of black convicts enters. A white prison guard with a whip and a rifle supervises them. When the guard signals, the convicts stop. Jones suddenly looks away from the sky and notices the chain gang. He chokes out a prayer as he watches the guard crack his whip. The convicts begin working on the road with picks and shovels, but they make no sound.
Unlike Jeff's ghost, the prison guard is a figure who at one point held substantial power over Jones. Because of this, this situation is one in which Jones must confront the uncomfortable fact that he did indeed at one point have significantly less power than he does now (or did extremely recently) as emperor. This is notable exactly because Jones's emperorship was built on the assumption that he could escape these memories, and the guard's reappearance asserts that that was a foolish thought.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
History and Collective Memory Theme Icon
Power and Systemic Oppression Theme Icon
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The prison guard fixes his stare on Jones and points at Jones with his whip. He motions for Jones to take his place with the other convicts. As though hypnotized, Jones mutters "yes, suh!" and joins the convicts, dragging one foot as though chained like the others. As he shuffles over to them, he mumbles under his breath that he'll get even with the prison guard.
When Jones obeys, the play suggests that this kind of subordination isn't something that Jones can ever forget. He'll never forget that he was once powerless and at the mercy of white men like the prison guard, and the fact that he behaves this way now suggests that this internalized hierarchy of oppression is on a certain level inescapable.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
History and Collective Memory Theme Icon
Power and Systemic Oppression Theme Icon
Godliness, Humanity, and Fear Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Though he has no shovel, Jones "shovels" with the others, matching their mechanical motions. Abruptly, the prison guard steps towards Jones and angrily lashes him across the shoulders. Jones winces and then cowers as the guard walks away. As Jones stands up, incensed, he lifts his arms as though to use his invisible shovel as a club, and jumps at the guard's back. When Jones moves as if to hit the guard over the head, he finally seems to realize that his shovel isn't real and cries out in despair.
When the guard reprimands Jones for what appears to be no reason, it supports the play's assertion that this cycle of violence and oppression is senseless and rooted in a misguided sense of racial superiority. Essentially, the guard has no reason to be superior to Jones except for the color of his skin.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
History and Collective Memory Theme Icon
Jones asks where his shovel is, and then pleads with the other convicts to give him one of their shovels. They only stare at the ground. The prison guard stands as though he's expecting a blow, and Jones reaches for his gun in a sudden rage. He yells that he'll kill the guard, calling him a "white devil," and shoots the guard in the back. As he fires, the forest closes in on the road and the convicts disappear. Jones crashes away into the forest, and the tom-tom beats even faster.
This scene is presumably a reenactment of what happened when Jones killed the prison guard in real life. The fact that Jones doesn't have a shovel and therefore cannot complete the task that's evidently expected of him suggests that Jones is now missing something important in his life—perhaps his humility and empathy. At the same time, his missing shovel shows him how throughout his life he has used external objects and situations to elevate himself, while neglecting his internal life and basic humanity.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
History and Collective Memory Theme Icon
Power and Systemic Oppression Theme Icon
Godliness, Humanity, and Fear Theme Icon
Related Quotes