Summary of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones

The Emperor Jones is a play by American dramatist Eugene O’Neill.

The Emperor Jones begins with the introspections of Brutus Jones. From his loud thing thinking we realize that he has declared himself as the emperor of an island in the West Indies. He has created a myth for himself which says that nobody kills him and he is, thus, immortal. Then he announces himself as the emperor of the island and starts cheating the natives and snatches wealth from them. At the very outset of the drama, he is given to understand that the natives of the island are revolting against him and marching on him with drums and weapons. We hear the sounds of the distant drum beats. And thus begins Jones’ planning of escape from the forthcoming catastrophe. He realizes that his end is nearing, but he does not accept that his end is really approaching. He, on the other hand, makes arrangements for hiding himself. He leaves his palace for a secure place, and feels confident. He has always spread the news that he cannot be killed by any bullet but a silver one. The silver bullet actually is a myth he has created.

The second part of the play begins with Jones’ entry in the great forest through which he plans to travel and escape from the danger of the natives. He runs to his life, without food, without water and without any measure weapons for his safety. Actually, he is frightened at the heart of his heart but he tries to convince himself and also encourages himself. In the course of his self expressions he seems to have become frantic. This typical style of expression is called expressionist way of writing, or in other words it is named as expressionism in which the character incessantly expresses his heart. Here, Emperor Jones is speaking to himself, or to the elements around him. No one else except Brutus Jones is in the forest. He searches for some nameless people or creatures and expresses his fear for some formless creatures. He thinks that something or somebody will creep out of the forest and murder him. He has a pistol for his safety. Then he shoots off his six bullets to clear away his fear. Then he comes across Jeff the Negro whom he had already murdered in a crap game. This is nothing but his hallucination, but he does not know that it is his mind that is seeing Jeff. He shoots at the image of Jeff. After that he meets a chain gang and recognizes the guard whom also he had murdered while escaping from the prison. But now he has to kill him again for which he shoots another bullet on the guard. The moment the gun is shot, they apparitions disappear from his sight.

The third part of the play begins with his decision to halt for a moment and rest. He notices that a group of planters dressed up in the popular fashion during the nineteenth century. Then he comes across the auction block where he shoots twice to kill the auctioneer and the planter. Finally, he sees himself as one of the Negro slaves in the bottom of a slave ship. He also feels that he is caught in the deepest jungle where witch doctor is trying to offer him as sacrificial victim. Jones then shoots at the witch doctor with his last bullet—a silver bullet. When he has shot all the bullets uselessly, he is left with no bullets anymore. Finally, the natives reach him with lot of weapons and shoot him with silver bullet only which they had with them.

Emperor Jones wanted to escape to another state where he could have saved himself by the law of the other state. The impact of the beating of the drums affects and influences Jones’ thinking and causes all the hallucination. The drums thus perform the background music and confuse Jones throughout the play. The final scene thus ends in an ironic fashion though he had created the myth for himself. The end of the drama seems to be tragic but it also was necessary. It was O’Neil’s daring way of writing a play with a villainous protagonist in 1920s.

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