Comment on the role of Lem in The Emperor Jones.

2 Answers

teachersage's profile pic

teachersage | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted on

Through the character Lem, the displaced tribal chieftain who hates Jones, O'Neill reveals how racism and stereotypes blind people. Jones, although himself black, considers himself superior to the jungle blacks he takes over and intimidates. Therefore, he underestimates them all, including Lem, a man he considers backwards and superstitious. In the end, Lem shows himself to have been a rational and careful planner. He may have superstitious ideas about the bullets, but he believes a silver bullet will kill Jones and acts on that knowledge. He shows his leadership ability by having such a bullet made and arranging to shoot his enemy. It is Jones, believing he is superior, who ends up succumbing to fear and superstition, as well as to the demons of his own past, as he hears the drumbeat in the dark night forest. While O'Neill fell into the "prisonhouse" of his own internalized racism, using racist language and stereotypes, he nevertheless showed through Lem that it a mistake to underestimate and dismiss a person as inferior just because he comes from a different culture. 

lit24's profile pic

lit24 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Valedictorian

Posted on

Lem is "a native chief." He appears only in the last scene of the play: ""Lem is a heavy-set, ape-faced old savage of the extreme African type, dressed only in a loin cloth." Once he hired a "murderin' nigger" (sc.1) to assasinate Jones who failed to kill him from a close range of just ten feet. Jones capitalised on this incident and spread the rumour that only a silver bullet could kill him. He also moulded a silver bullet and went around telling everyone that at the appropriate time he would shoot himself with the silver bullet. He spread the rumour that he and only he could shoot himself with the silver bullet. So Lem in the final scene alongwith his "rag-concealed naked soldiers" mould silver bullets and finally kill Jones. Lem mocks at the dead body of Jones saying, "Dead as a 'erring! Where's yer 'igh an' mighty airs now, yer bloomin' Majesty?"

Sources: