The Emperor Jones


Eugene O’Neill

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The Emperor Jones Summary

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It's late afternoon in the emperor's whitewashed throne room. An old black native woman pokes her head around a doorway and when she decides the coast is clear, she begins to sneak across the room. An old white sailor, Smithers, intercepts her halfway across the floor. When Smithers threatens her with a whip, the woman explains that all the natives have run away to the hills. As the woman runs away, Smithers whistles.

Moments later, Brutus Jones, the emperor, enters the throne room with an annoyed, sleepy look on his face. He's wearing a heavily decorated uniform. Jones yells and threatens to hurt whoever woke him up. Smithers catches Jones's attention, admits that he woke Jones up, and tells Jones that he has news. Jones sits on his throne and demands that Smithers tell him the news. Smithers sarcastically asks Jones where the court and the servants are, but Jones just yawns and says they're drinking rum in town—and Smithers should know this, given how much time he spends drinking with the natives. When Smithers scoffs that drinking is part of his job, Jones sneers. Smithers angrily reminds Jones that he helped Jones when he first arrived on the island. Jones puts a hand on his revolver and reminds Smithers to be polite. When Smithers apologizes, Jones insists that he's an entirely different person now. Smithers retorts that nobody else would hire Jones once it got out that he'd been in jail in the United States, but Jones simply looks at Smithers and says that he knows Smithers has been in jail too.

Jones explains that he's not acting as emperor for the glory: he puts on a show to entertain the natives, but he just wants their money. When Smithers says that the natives are out of money, Jones laughs and says that's not true, since he's still emperor. Smithers asks Jones about his law-breaking habits. Jones insists that the emperor doesn't have to follow the laws, especially since "big stealin'" like he does is what made him emperor. Smithers declares that Jones truly did trick the natives, and remarks on Jones's good luck. Jones is offended, but Smithers says that Jones's story about the silver bullet was luck: when Jones first came to the island, he got into an altercation with one of the natives and when the man's gun misfired, Jones shot him and then said that he could only be killed by silver bullets. The natives bought it, and Jones laughs that the natives are fools. Smithers asks Jones if the rumors are true and he had a silver bullet made. Jones says they are, and explains that he told the natives that he'll kill himself with it. Jones pulls out the bullet and tells Smithers that it's his good luck charm.

Jones explains that at the first whiff of trouble, he'll resign, take his money, and leave. Smithers knowingly asks Jones if he won't go back to the states, and Jones says he could, since he wasn't ever in jail there. Smithers is disbelieving and asks Jones about the stories that Jones killed white men in the states. Jones insists he's not scared of lynching. Further, Jones says he'll kill Smithers if he doesn't straighten up. Smithers tries to laugh, and Jones tells more of his story: he suggests he might've gone to jail for killing a black man who cheated him at dice, and then he might've also killed a prison guard. He says that all of this might not be true, but Jones will kill Smithers for telling anyone. Smithers seems terrified and reminds Jones that he's always been a friend, and finally tells Jones his news. When Jones rings the bell to call his servants, nobody comes. Jones is enraged. After a moment, he composes himself and declares that it's time to resign. Smithers warns Jones about Lem, the native chief, as Lem hates Jones. Smithers also warns Jones about the creepiness of the forest, but Jones brushes off these warnings. He insists that the natives are stupid, his escape will be easy, and if the natives do catch him, he'll commit suicide with his silver bullet. The sound of a tom-tom reaches the palace. Smithers explains that the natives have begun to prepare to cast spells. Jones insists he's not scared and reminds Smithers that he's an upstanding member of the Baptist Church. Smithers laughs and Jones bids him goodbye.

As night falls, Jones reaches the edge of the forest. The heat is oppressive and he mops sweat off his brow. Jones listens to the tom-tom and wonders if the natives have begun to cross the plain. To calm his nerves, Jones decides it's time to eat and he scans the ground in search of his white stone. He finds it, but instead of finding food under it, there's nothing. Jones discovers that there are many white stones, none of which have food under them—he's in the wrong spot. Jones is distraught and lights a match to see better. The tom-tom's rhythm quickens, and Jones flings the match away. He decides that lighting it was stupid, as it'll give his location away. Jones turns around to scan the plain as the "little formless fears," grub-like creatures with glittering eyes, crawl out of the forest. Jones turns to face the forest and asks the forest if it's mocking him. The formless fears laugh in reply, and Jones leaps in fright. He yells, pulls out his gun, and shoots at them. They scuttle into the forest, and Jones listens to the tom-tom. He tells himself that the fears were just pigs and urges himself into the forest.

Several hours later, the moonlight illuminates a clearing. Jeff, the black man Jones killed in the States, crouches and throws dice on the ground. Jones comes into view on the edge of the clearing and tries to cheer himself up. He picks at his uniform, which is torn. As Jones enters the clearing, he hears the clicking sound of the dice. He sounds afraid as he remarks that it sounds like dice. Suddenly, he notices Jeff. Jones is transfixed and he addresses Jeff, wondering with fear how Jeff ended up on the island. Jones asks Jeff if he's a ghost. Jeff doesn't reply, and Jones shoots Jeff. When the smoke clears, Jeff is gone. The tom-tom's beat gets faster, and Jones runs back into the forest.

Just before midnight, Jones stumbles upon a road. His uniform is even more torn, and he yells that he's melting in the heat. Jones pulls off his coat and flings it away. As Jones rests, he wonders where the road came from. He's never seen it before and becomes terrified that there are ghosts around. Jones prays to God that he doesn't see any more ghosts. As Jones studies the moon, a silent chain gang of black convicts walks onto the road, supervised by a white prison guard. When Jones notices the chain gang, the gang begins working on the road. The guard looks angrily at Jones and motions for him to join the convicts, and Jones obeys as though he's in a trance. Jones has no shovel but he matches the shoveling motions of the others; despite this, the guard whips him anyway. Angry, Jones lifts his arms over his head as though he has a shovel in his hands to hit the guard over the head with. When he finally realizes he has no shovel, he pleads with the convicts to lend him one of theirs. Cursing, Jones pulls out his revolver and shoots the guard in the back. As he does, the forest and the chain gang disappear, the tom-tom increases tempo, and Jones crashes away into the woods.

A few hours later, Jones reaches a clearing with a stump in the middle of it. He falls to his knees to plead with Jesus to forgive him for killing Jeff and the prison guard, and for stealing from the natives. Jones looks at his tattered shoes and decides they're making his feet hurt more. He takes them off and holds them in his lap as a silent crowd of white Southerners, dressed in clothing from the 1850s, enters the clearing. They gather around the stump as an attendant leads in a group of slaves. Jones notices nothing until the auctioneer calls the crowd to attention and taps Jones on the shoulder, motioning for him to get on the stump. Jones leaps up in an attempt to get away, and the auctioneer describes Jones's strengths to the assembled planters. When the auctioneer begins the bidding, Jones realizes he's being sold at a slave auction. A planter finally purchases Jones and the auctioneer pushes Jones towards the man. Angrily, Jones draws his gun and shoots both the auctioneer and his purchaser. The clearing disappears and the tom-tom beats faster. Jones runs away.

After wandering for another two hours, Jones wanders into a clearing that's long and skinny, with vines creating an arched ceiling. His pants are so torn, he's wearing little more than a loincloth. Jones wails to God wondering what he'll do, since he only has his silver bullet left. He decides he needs to rest and throws himself onto the ground. The moonlight brightens incrementally and two rows of black men, also wearing loincloths, come into view. They sit along each side if the clearing, swaying as though they're in a ship. They begin to wail rhythmically, and Jones notices them. Though he tries to ignore them, Jones raises his voice to join theirs. As the voices fade, Jones continues his mad dash through the forest.

Early in the morning, Jones enters another clearing by a river, still wailing. He moves as though he's in a trance and sinks to his knees beside a pile of rocks that resemble an altar. Jones asks God to protect him as a Congo witch doctor jumps out from behind a tree. The witch doctor begins to dance and chant to the beat of the tom-tom, and Jones watches in fascination. The doctor dances a story of being pursued by devils and as the tension rises, Jones begins chanting and beating the ground in time. Suddenly, the witch doctor motions to Jones, and Jones understands that he's going to be offered as a sacrifice. From the river, the witch doctor calls a crocodile god. The crocodile stares at Jones as the witch doctor motions for Jones to approach it. The tom-tom reaches a fever pitch as Jones cries out, grabs his gun, and shoots the crocodile with his silver bullet. The crocodile returns to river and the witch doctor disappears, but Jones just lies facedown and cries.

At dawn, Lem, his soldiers, and Smithers approach the edge of the forest from the clearing. One soldier discovers the spot where Jones entered the forest. Smithers is disgusted, but Lem calmly tells Smithers that they'll catch Jones. As Smithers continues to insult the natives, Lem continues to reply with the same thing. When they hear snapping twigs in the forest, Lem sends in soldiers. Smithers reasons that the snapping could be Jones and the sound of rifles comes from the woods. Lem smiles and tells Smithers that Jones is dead. He explains that he and his men spent the night casting charms and melting their money to make silver bullets. Smithers laughs when he learns that the natives truly believe Jones's assertion that he can only be killed by silver bullets, and he calls Lem crazy. Soldiers emerge from the forest carrying Jones's dead body. Smithers mocks Jones's body and mocks the natives as they carry Jones away.