The Emperor Jones

The Emperor Jones Essay Questions

  1. 1

    In what ways does the play straddle the line between realism and expressionism?

    At first, The Emperor Jones reads like an example of dramatic realism. We are introduced to a setting, an assortment of characters and a set of dramatic premises. As Jones embarks on his journey to escape the island, however, reality begins to break down and thus the realistic elements of the writing make way for more dreamlike and expressionistic forms. The hallucinations that Jones endures in the forest take over the stage space, and it is as if we the reader/audience are inside his psychic space with him.

  2. 2

    How did scholar Mary Renda interpret the play as a metaphor for U.S. imperialism in Haiti?

    Eugene O'Neill was explicit about the fact that his play was inspired by American imperialism in Haiti in the early part of the 20th century. The play seeks to show an American trying to lead a country through autocratic and exploitative means, and failing horribly. Renda reads O'Neill's play as attempting to stage a critique of American imperialism, but suggests that the play also demonstrates its own prejudices and presumptions about the black experience in ways that undermine this political goal.

  3. 3

    What is the irony of Jones' death?

    A major reason why Jones is able to maintain such control over his subjects is his exploitation of a botched assassination attempt after which he convinced the citizens of his island that he was impervious to any bullet that was not silver. As he escapes, he loads his gun with one silver bullet, which serves as a good luck charm and a symbol of the fact that, if it comes to that, he will be in control of his own death. The irony at the end of the play comes from the fact that Lem and the revolutionaries melt down coins to make silver bullets, and shoot Jones in the final scene of the play. The revolutionaries are gullible enough to believe Jones' lie about his imperviousness, but they still manage to kill him.

  4. 4

    What are the hallucinations that Jones encounters in the forest?

    First, at the edge of the forest, Jones encounters a cluster of "Formless Fears," strange creatures that represent his anxiety and only put him more on edge. At his first stop within the forest, he sees Jeff, the man he killed while working as a Pullman porter. Then, he encounters the prison guard he killed just before he escaped to the West Indies. Then he encounters a slave auction, in which he is sold into slavery. After this, he has a hallucination that he is on a slave ship. Finally, he imagines he is in the Congo, and a witch-doctor is trying to sacrifice him to a giant crocodile.

  5. 5

    What is the purpose of the character Smithers?

    Smithers is a complicated figure. He is a nefarious and villainous force, harboring racist thoughts and contributing very little help to any of his supposed friends, while pretending to be an ally to Jones as he embarks on his escape. One might interpret him as representing the force of white imperialism, a condescending and bigoted party who also pits blacks against one another, seeing that natives are easier to exploit with a puppet-like ruler.