The Emperor Jones

The Emperor Jones Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

The Uniform (Symbol)

The first time Jones appears on stage he is attired with a grandeur “not altogether ridiculous.” His uniform displays medals, sports brass buttons, and is adorned with gold chevrons and braids. Throughout the course of the play, as he tries to make his escape through the forest, he gradually loses bits and pieces of the uniform until there is nothing left, making the uniform a symbol of his fall from power.

The Silver Bullet (Symbol)

The silver bullet which Jones carries in his revolver is symbolic of his power over the native islanders. The power is a lie, and based on the fact that, after he survived a shooting, he convinced his subjects that he could not be killed by a lead bullet. He exploits the islanders by suggesting that he is impervious to their lead bullets, and now carries a silver bullet to show that if he is ever to die, it will be at his own hand, with a silver bullet. The silver bullet represents his false sense of importance, his exploitation of the people of the island, and foreshadows his sorry fate—the price of his hubris.

The Tom-Tom (Motif)

The sound of the distant tom-tom drum signifies to Jones that his subjects are on the hunt for him, and that they will not stop until they have found him and killed him. Once he escapes from the palace, he hears the tom-toms at various distances and volumes, which adds an element of suspense to his running away. The relentlessness of the beating of the tom-tom is a motif throughout the play, an insistent reminder that Jones is not escaped, that there is danger on his heels.

The Forest (Symbol)

The forest is the central symbol of the play, defined by its darkness and its mystery. It is the physical manifestation of Brutus Jones' unconscious mind, filled with memories of important events in his life as well as the collective memory of black American history, a memory that is tragically and inexorably linked to the slave trade. The forest becomes an extension of Jones' deteriorating mind, his recurring and haunting memories, the guilt and trauma of his past, and as he makes his way through its thickets and underbrush, it begins to close in on him, representing his inability to escape, the fact that he is getting betrayed by his own mind.

The Crocodile (Symbol)

In the penultimate scene, Jones hallucinates an African witch doctor, who wants to sacrifice him to a crocodile god that emerges from a nearby river. Driven to the point of madness, Jones uses his silver bullet—which he has saved as a symbol of his own luck and immunity to harm—against the crocodile. By using the bullet that he has meant to use on himself, Jones turns the crocodile into a symbol of his own compromised power, a false god that can be taken down by a single bullet. The destruction of the crocodile symbolizes the destruction of Jones, the fact that he is not exempt from violence or death.