The Emperor Jones

by

Eugene O’Neill

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The Emperor Jones: Scene 8 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
As dawn breaks over the edge of the forest, the tom-tom seems so loud that the forest nearly vibrates. Lem, the native chief, approaches the trees from the clearing, accompanied by several of his soldiers and Smithers. Lem and his soldiers wear loincloths and carry guns. One of the soldiers points to the ground, where it appears as though Jones entered the forest, and he grunts. Lem and Smithers approach to inspect the ground. After a brief inspection, Smithers turns away in disgust and declares that Jones certainly entered the forest here, but he's surely safe on the coast by now. He angrily tells Lem that he knew Lem wouldn't be able to catch Jones, and says that Lem wasted his night beating the drum and casting "silly spells."
In this final scene, the racist worldview of the play itself becomes more evident (particularly to modern readers/audiences). Even though the reader/viewer knows that the natives have spent the night doing real damage to Jones with their spells, the way that Lem and the other native characters are written—in the way they're dressed, and how they speak in grunts—does indeed cast them as uncivilized beings who are lesser than Smithers or even Jones. Even though he's wrong, Smithers reinforces this idea (and attempts to reinforce his own sense of superiority) by insulting the natives and doubting them.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Lem only says, in an unconcerned tone, that they'll catch Jones. He motions to his soldiers and they crouch down in a semicircle. Smithers asks if they're going to go into the forest after Jones, and Lem repeats that they'll catch Jones. Smithers turns away, curses, and declares that even though he hates Jones, Jones is a better man than all the natives put together.
When Smithers says that Jones is a better man than the natives, what he actually implies is that Jones is "whiter" in his actions, and therefore easier for Smithers to relate to and understand. Both Jones and the natives are black, but Jones is more immediately connected to a Eurocentric society, and acts in a way that white people (particularly white people who are overtly racist and oppressive) can understand.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Power and Systemic Oppression Theme Icon
From the forest comes the sound of snapping twigs, and the soldiers jump to their feet and cock their rifles. Lem doesn't move from his stance. As they hear more snapping twigs, Lem signals for his soldiers to enter the forest. The forest swallows them, and the clearing is silent again. Smithers allows the silence to stand for a moment before whispering in a derisive tone that the snapping cannot possibly be Jones. Once again, Lem repeats that they'll catch Jones, and Smithers insults the natives.
Again, Smithers’ inability to consider that the natives are capable of tricking Jones is indicative of his racism and his belief that the natives are inherently ignorant and primitive. To this point, Lem is very much portrayed as a "noble savage" type of character: powerful and mysterious yet simplistic, certainly not white or Western, and single-minded in his native beliefs.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Smithers thinks for a moment and reasons that the sound could very well be Jones, as the forest could've turned Jones in a circle easily. Suddenly, Lem shushes Smithers, and the sound of rifles firing comes from within the forest. Lem's soldiers yell triumphantly, and the beat of the tom-tom stops. Lem looks at Smithers with a smile and says that Jones is dead.
Remember that the tom-tom would've been beating exceptionally fast by this point, symbolizing that Jones's fear (and probably his heartbeat as well) was at a fever pitch. Now that the tom-tom is silent, Jones is faced only with his death—the only thing that will free him from his fear, and make him fully human.
Themes
Godliness, Humanity, and Fear Theme Icon
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Snarling, Smithers asks how Lem knows that Jones is dead. Lem explains that his men have silver bullets, and when Smithers looks astonished, Lem elaborates that since lead bullets couldn't kill Jones, the natives spent all night casting charms and melting their money to make silver bullets. The sun's rays reach Smithers’ face as he repeats what Lem said. Lem says, simply, that Jones's charm was strong, and lead bullets wouldn't have killed him. Smithers laughs and says that the native soldiers probably shot someone else. He calls Lem a "loony."
Here, lighting Smithers and not Lem is another way that the play tells the reader/viewer that Smithers is indeed superior to all the other characters on a visual and structural level. The sun literally makes Smithers whiter and brighter, aligning him more fully with symbols of power. Lem is also still squatting and low to the ground, which further reinforces Smithers’ superiority.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
Power and Systemic Oppression Theme Icon
Godliness, Humanity, and Fear Theme Icon
Lem ignores this and tells Smithers that his soldiers are bringing out Jones's body now. Sure enough, the soldiers emerge from the trees, carrying Jones's dead body. Jones has a single bullet hole in his chest, right where his heart is. Lem examines the body as Smithers leans over, a look of frightened awe on his face.
Even though Jones's death brought him back to his own sense of humanity, his death also suggests that black Americans of slave descent will never be able to fully escape and free themselves from that legacy. In the end, nothing has really changed in terms of the overarching power structure of the Americas.
Themes
Racism Theme Icon
History and Collective Memory Theme Icon
Power and Systemic Oppression Theme Icon
Godliness, Humanity, and Fear Theme Icon
Smithers mocks Jones's dead body, calling him "your majesty" and asking where his "airs" are now. Smithers smiles and remarks that Jones did die in style, with silver bullets and all. Lem motions for the soldiers to carry Jones away, and Smithers turns to Lem. He asks Lem with a sneer if he really thinks the charms and the beating of the tom-tom is what did it, but Lem doesn't reply and follows his men away. Smithers looks after Lem for a moment and insults the natives again.
With Jones dead, Smithers now takes on the role of the truly superior individual in the play. As the narrator figure, ending the play with insults to both Jones and the natives gives Smithers and his racism and sense of superiority the final word. This shows that even beyond the play itself, this system of racial violence and oppression will continue. The “emperor Jones” was just a brief anomaly, and all has now returned to normal.
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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