The Emperor Jones

The Emperor Jones Summary and Analysis of Part 5


Scene 8, dawn at the edge of the forest. Lem, the leader of the revolution, enters, along with Smithers, who looks the same as he did at the beginning of the play. Smithers is convinced that they've lost Jones, and that Lem wasted their time hitting the drum and "castin' [his] silly spells!"

Lem and the soldiers squat down, ready to kill Jones. Then, each of the soldiers enters the forest quietly, from different places. There is the sound of gunshots from inside the forest, then "savage, exultant yells." Lem reports to Smithers that Jones is dead, that all the soldiers had silver bullets. He tells the surprised Smithers that they melted down money to make silver bullets.

Smithers still does not believe they have killed Jones, until the soldiers reenter carrying Jones' dead body. He has been shot under his left breast. Smithers laughs at the fact that Jones is dead, and the fact that the natives believe that their superstitions and spiritual practice are what caused Jones to run back to the place where he started his escape.


While the scenes in the middle of the play have exclusively featured Jones on his own in the middle of the forest, interacting with no one except his own hallucinations, the final scene features Lem and Smithers. The play is bookended by two more realistic scenes with more than one character in them, while the middle is an expressionistic nightmare that stages the dissolution of Jones' mind. This structure puts Jones' mental deterioration into starker focus, suggesting that by the end of the play, he does not quite exist in the world of the living.

Smithers occupies a strange role in the play. He is the ally of multiple black characters in the play, but also believes in none of them and secretly bears grudges against them. He is uncommitted and disloyal to all with whom he comes into contact. His crookedness and the fact that he is unattached to any group makes him especially slippery and nefarious, in that he is only there to encourage general chaos, rather than resolution.

In an ironic twist, the revolutionaries take seriously Jones' lie about being immune to all bullet wounds except silver bullets and kill him with a number of silver bullets that they make from melted-down coins. The natives of the island may be gullible, but this gullibility ends up working in their favor, and they end up killing Jones anyway. In this way, Jones' tragic flaw—his pride and insistence that he can put one over on the natives—is the thing that kills him.

The play ends with Smithers' dismissive racism towards the native islanders. Even though he is impressed that they managed to kill Jones, he imagines that Jones' death was a wild stroke of luck rather than something that the revolutionaries orchestrated with skill or intuition. He dismisses the natives' rituals as "silly" and suggests that it was not their spells or charms that brought Jones back to the edge of the forest. Meanwhile, the audience is left to ponder what forces allowed the revolutionaries to kill Jones; was it the spiritual forces conjured by the natives, Jones' own self-sabotaging hallucinations, or both?

Emperor Jones was wildly popular at the time of its premiere, and is one of O'Neill's few experimental plays. After it premiered in New York, the play toured the country for a number of years, and many theater historians have called it O'Neill's breakout work. In his original review of the play in The New York Times, Heywood Broun called The Emperor Jones "gorgeous" and "truly a fine play."