The Emperor Jones

The Emperor Jones Summary and Analysis of Part 3


Scene 4. At 11 o'clock, the moon is fully up, and we see the forest lit by the moon. O'Neill writes, "Under its light the road glimmers ghastly and unreal. It is as if the forest had stood aside momentarily to let the road pass through and accomplish its veiled purpose. This done, the forest will fold in upon itself again and the road will be no more."

Jones runs on and collapses, tearing off his uniform coat angrily. The tom-tom persists in the background and Jones alternates between foolhardy confidence and abject terror. He tries to talk himself into thinking he is safe, and then decides to lie down and rest so that he has energy to reach the shore the following morning. As he lies down, "a small gang of Negroes enter...dressed in striped convict suits," carrying picks and shovels. They are followed by a white man dressed as a prison guard. Jones initially does not see them, because he is staring up at the stars, but he suddenly notices them, "too numbed by fright to move." The stage direction tells us that these figments are just as mechanical as Jeff was in the previous scene. The Prison Guard motions with his whip for Jones to join the other prisoners, and Jones stands and "mumbles subserviently."

When the Prison Guard lashes Jones with his whip on the shoulders, Jones grabs his shovel and brings it down on the guard's head, but finds his hands empty. "Whar'd my shovel?" he yells, asking the other convicts to give him his shovel. Angered, Jones pulls out his revolver and shoots the Guard in the back. O'Neill writes, "Instantly the walls of the forest close in from both sides, the road and the figures of the convict gang are blotted out in an enshrouding darkness. The only sounds are a crashing in the underbrush as Jones leaps away in mad flight and the throbbing of the tom-tom, still far distant, but increased in volume of sound and rapidity of beat."

Scene 5. At one o'clock in the morning, Jones enters a large circular clearing with a dead stump in the middle. The stump, O'Neill tells us, is "worn by time into a curious resemblance to an auction block." Jones throws himself onto his knees and begins praying to God, asking for forgiveness. He says that in each of his past transgressions, he was overwhelmed by his own anger. He exclaims, "Lawd, I done wrong! I knows it! I'se sorry! Forgive me, Lawd! Forgive dis po' sinner." He stands, "evidently slightly reassured by his prayer," and decides that God will protect him from harm.

Looking down at his feet, Jones decides that he would be better off without them and takes them off. He stares at the shoes, reluctant to get rid of them, as a parade of people in Southern clothing from the 1850s enters. There is an Auctioneer and a group of "belles and dandies who have come to the slave-market for diversion." O'Neill tells us that, as with the other visions, "There is something stiff, rigid, unreal, marionettish about their movements." A group of slaves are brought in: three men and two women, one nursing a baby.

The Auctioneer motions for Jones to climb up onto the stump to be auctioned off. The gentlemen begin bidding. As it continues, Jones is overtaken by anger and hatred and shoots the Auctioneer and the Planter who purchased him. The walls of the forest fold in yet again, and Jones makes a run for it.


The structure of the play follows the reckoning that takes place with the passing of time. As Jones embarks on his escape, the moon rises in the sky, and even the darkened forest becomes lit up by the bright moonlight. Jones' journey through the dark and ominous forest becomes a journey into his own past and its unresolved elements. The moon brings to light not only the path of the forest, but also that which must get exposed in an ethical sense, that which has been hidden in the darkness of Jones' hubris and false sense of entitlement.

A defining characteristic of Jones, and the motor of his hubris, is his belief that he can conjure confidence whenever he needs it. Whenever he is overcome with a sense of dread or fear, he covers it over with a veneer of sureness, a dogged belief that all will work out. Rather than addressing his misdeeds, his exploitation, his moral failings, he rationalizes that none of this emotional upheaval will matter when he successfully escapes and gets his hands on the money he has extracted. He is the epitome of a tragic hero, someone who can never grasp his own defining flaw; in the case of Brutus Jones, this flaw is pride and arrogance.

Jones suffers another hallucination in this section of the play, a fevered memory of his time serving time in jail. We see a line of American prisoners, shackled to one another and under the supervision of a white prison guard. Jones sees a vision of the prison guard he killed while working in the prison, yet another ghost from his past that will not allow him to rest easy, and has come back to weigh on his conscience. Predictably, as in the previous scenes, he becomes so overwhelmed by his own memories that he fires his gun yet again, alerting the islanders to his whereabouts.

Scene 5 marks the first time that Jones shows any remorse for his past actions. Pushed to a desperate state, he comes to grips with his own ethical missteps and implores God for help. By reaching out to a higher power, Jones is able to take responsibility for his wrongs, though it is not clear if his remorse is genuine or simply motivated by the desperation of his situation and the insistence of the hallucinations he has suffered. Indeed, it seems like simply another part of his own hubris, his desire to bolster himself with confidence that he is barely able to muster. By passing off his remorse to God, Jones can reclaim his sense of self and not actually take responsibility for his actions.

In Scene 5, we see Jones haunted not by his past misdeeds, but by the legacy of American slavery. In a clearing in the forest, he has a vision of an auctioneer and a number of white Southerners who want to purchase him for slave labor. It is unclear whether this is a personal vision, a manifestation of one of Jones' memories, or a more general historical haunting. In this moment, Jones falls far from his throne as an emperor, and gets shoved into a grotesque tableau, stripped of his humanity by the institution of slavery.