The Emperor Jones

The Emperor Jones Themes

Conscience, Trauma, and the Past

Brutus Jones is confident that he will be able to navigate the forests of the island without a hitch, but once he enters the forest, he is visited by hallucinations and manifestations of his own compromised conscience. At first, he hears the laughter of his "Formless Fears," an emotional state that has taken on a physical form in the forest. As he progresses further into the darkness, he encounters visions of his traumatic past, of the men he killed, and then of the American slave trade. A major theme in the play is the ways that the past visits us in our solitude, and the forms that manifestations of trauma and the past can take.


At first, Jones' hallucinations seem to have to do only with his personal sins, but as he gets deeper and deeper into the forest, he encounters a broader historical memory that extends beyond simply his personal experience. After witnessing his own traumatic misdeeds in the form of hallucinations—his murder of two men—Jones hallucinates that he is getting auctioned off into slavery, that he is trapped on a slave ship, and then that he is back in the Congo. His hallucinatory journey is a journey backward in the more collectively held history of slavery, exposing its horrors and subjecting him to its dehumanizing effects. The legacy of American slavery and its horrors is thus a central theme in the play, shown as a kind of original sin from which no one can escape.


When we first meet Brutus Jones, he has assumed the role of emperor on a small unnamed island in the West Indies. He sits on a scarlet throne and has ultimate authority over his subjects, whom he looks down upon and regularly calls the n word. In the wake of his mistreatment in America, Jones becomes a hegemonic monster himself, an autocrat who extracts what he needs from a vulnerable community without remorse and claims power for himself avariciously.

Gullibility and Spirituality

One of the main ways that Jones is able to ascend the throne and achieve power on the island is by exploiting the gullibility and spiritual beliefs of the islanders. An American, Jones is irreverent towards their customs and beliefs, seeing them as backward and inferior to modern logic. When an assassin is unable to kill him with a gun, Jones tells the subjects that he can only be killed by silver bullets, a lie that exploits their belief in magic and in his invincibility. Jones' irreverence towards the islanders' gullibility ultimately ends up hurting him, however, as he succumbs to some kind of magical and self-defeating forces in the jungle, and is killed by a number of silver bullets that the islanders have made from melting down coins. What Jones sees as gullibility and foolishness ends up mobilizing the islanders and even the island itself, leading to Jones' ruin.


A major theme in the play is racism. Jones is a black American man who has come to the West Indies only to turn the racism he has faced in a white community against the black islanders over whom he rules. He uses the n word, thinks of his subjects as inferior, and employs other strategies typical to racist belief systems, in spite of being of the same race as the people over whom he rules. Additionally, the character of Smithers represents the racist white man, a manipulative and slippery character.

Fall from Power

The play's plot follows the trajectory of a ruler falling from power when his subjects turn against him. Jones starts the play on the brink of a revolution against him. He has assumed power without any credentials and now his subjects are revolting against him. As he tries to escape through the forest, he becomes more and more disoriented, his royal clothes become ragged, and he loses his mind, until the final scene when he gets shot by Lem's soldiers.

Greed & Pride

In many ways, Jones is a tragic hero, even if he is not particularly heroic. He is a man who is able to escape an unpleasant home country and acquire power abroad. However, his tragic flaw is his extreme greed and sense of pride, which ends up undermining him in the end. He sees nothing wrong with his actions and feels remorseless about having assumed the role of emperor and stolen large sums of money from the islanders, which he keeps in a foreign bank account. As he escapes, he begins to doubt himself, but never fully confronts his own sense of remorse, opting instead to muster a sense of pridefulness. It is his greed and his pride that cause him to lose his mind and fall prey to his pursuers. He never truly repents for his misdeeds, which ends up costing him his life.