Comment on The Emperor Jones as a modern tragedy.

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Looking at The Emperor Jones as a tragedy, we will ask questions regarding the inevitability of the protagonist's downfall. Is Brutus Jones bound to destruction from the outset due to the essential nature of his character? Also, is Jones in control of his own core self (or is he a figure made by the world and so destined to suffer in that world even as he strives to rise above it)? 

These questions can help us answer the question of whether or not the play presents us with a tragedy and a tragic hero.

O'Neill's Brutus Jones seems to participate in some of the standard elements of tragic character. In order to be a tragic hero in the traditional sense, a character must be in some ways noble, occupying a position from which a fall is possible.

Jones displays a number of attributes of the Aristotelian hero. His status is elevated, and he is intelligent. He has learned the native language and has skillfully used the opportunities that have presented themselves. (eNotes)

The play opens with Jones' position as ruler already in jeopardy, but the fact is he has attained great status here on this island. He is certainly endowed with a forceful confidence and an ability to intimidate. 

Jones also demonstrates the typical pride, and his hamartia, or tragic error in judgment, is clear. He has adopted the “garments” of the white civilization that had oppressed him in the United States, cutting himself off from his own culture. (eNotes)

We should note here that Jones' pride is not only self-defeating in the end, it also functions as the vehicle for his ironic choice to adopt the role of authority on the island in ways that mirror the exploitative and persecutory authorities of his American home during Jim Crow. Jones invests himself with the same cruel power that has shaped his life before arriving on the island, molding him into a servant, then into a criminal.

Instead of using the lessons of his past to change for the better, Jones instead snatches at an opportunity to subjugate others as he has been, in various ways, subjugated, enslaved, exploited and imprisoned. 

Jones’s fall becomes more tragic when one considers that, if Jones had resisted the values of white American society, he might have provided positive leadership for the natives on “his” island, thus advancing his people. (eNotes)

The structure of the play suggests that, as a criminal overlord, Jones has been built, step by step, over the course of his personal and racial history. His character is largely a response to circumstances. While weakness and avarice are certainly triggers that contribute to Jones' behavior, we might recognize that his life has been one devoid of opportunities for developing in alternative ways.

We might wonder if, for Jones, there was ever a choice to be humble without also being servile. When could he choose to be honest without also being victimized? Given the background O'Neill depicts for Jones, an argument can be made that a constant force pushed Jones to the margins of society. He has been cheated and beaten. In refusing to accept this treatment, Jones becomes violent.

"When I cotches Jeff cheatin' wid loaded dice my anger overcomes me and I kills him dead! Lawd, I done wrong! When dat guard hits me wid de whip, my anger overcomes me, and I kills him dead. Lawd, I done wrong! And down heah whar dese fool bush [folks] raises me up to the seat o' de mighty, I steals all I could grab. Lawd, I done wrong!" 

The encounters with the slave ship in the forest and with the pulpit support the idea that a cultural history has made Jones the person he is. His opportunities have been delimited by a specific social reality that determined his character (and defined his potential with a promise of powerlessness). The passage quoted here indicates that Jones feels that he is responding to circumstances and also, importantly, Jones sees a continuity between being cheated himself and becoming the cheater.  

Shaped by a history of slavery, oppressive religion, and servitude, Jones can be seen as a product of his times. (The extent to which you agree with this idea may go a long way in determining the extent to which you view this play as a tragedy.) 

Jones is ultimately responsible for his choices. He is strong enough to face down an entire history of regrettable events, some of which were within his ability to control. He succumbs in the critical moment to a desire to finally be the one to shape other men's destinies and in doing so starts down the path to his demise. 

The additional question here concerns a view of the play not only as a tragedy but as a modern tragedy. This idea may look to identify modern elements in the play vis a vis literary modernism or may ask instead if the play is interested in issues of social/political life in the modern era (roughly 1900-1950). Finally, the concept of modern tragedy might simply be concerned with whether or not the play is a tragedy written and set in more-or-less contemporary times. 

  • The play can be seen as an example of literary modernism for its interests in psychoanalytical theory and psychoanalytical symbolism.
  • Issues of Jim Crow social policy (and outcomes of that policy) are examined here, tying the modern era to a legacy of slavery and exploitation. 
  • Whether or not the play is a tragedy, again, depends on how we view Brutus Jones and his character. If he is fated to destruction due to his essential nature (the composition of which he is only partially able to control), then this is a tragedy. The setting of the play is modern and there are mentions of international banking and trade made in the play.

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