Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 738
Brutus Jones, emperor of an unnamed island in the West Indies. A large, powerful, and street-smart man, he was for ten years a Pullman porter in the United States. He killed his friend Jeff in a fight over a game of dice and knocked out a guard to escape from prison. He fled as a stowaway and went to the island, where he used his urban ways and vague hints about his violent past to establish himself as emperor of the island. Luck also played a part: When Lem hired a gunman to kill Jones early in his reign, the gun misfired. Jones has convinced the natives that he has a powerful magic and that he can be killed only with a silver bullet. Jones knows that he will not be able to maintain his position for long, but he does not care. He lives well in a rich and gaudy palace. He has stolen a fortune from the natives and put it safely in a foreign bank. Even when the revolt comes sooner than he expects, he shrugs and simply begins his carefully planned evacuation. As he tells Smithers, he has hidden food at the edge of the Great Forest and he has memorized the trails, so that he can make his way easily—even in the dark—to the other side of the island, where a French gunboat is at anchor. Once he reaches the forest, however, Jones is unnerved by the sound of the native drums, which beat insistently throughout the night. As fear overtakes him, he stumbles through the forest, encountering Little Formless Fears, the ghost of Jeff, his comrades on the prison chain gang, a slave auction, an African witch doctor, and the Crocodile God, all representing the stripping away of his layers of intelligence and “civilization.” He learns nothing from these encounters but becomes instead a more primitive man, driven only by his fear. In the morning, it turns out he has traveled all night in a circle. Lem’s soldiers simply wait for him where he entered the forest and shoot him dead.
Henry Smithers, a Cockney trader who has found his way to the island. Rough and crooked, he has made his money in legal and illegal trade around the world. He is in an uneasy alliance with Jones. The two men believe themselves to be superior in every way to the island natives, whom they consider unintelligent and uncivilized. At the beginning of the play, Smithers is also feeling smug toward Jones, because he knows about the runaways before the emperor does. He does not press his advantage very far: He clearly fears Jones, who is bigger, stronger, and more violent than he is. After Jones leaves, he searches the palace for anything he might take and sell for cash. At the end of the play, Smithers has cast his lot with Lem, following him around as the chief hunts for Jones. He does not believe Jones will be caught: The natives are too stupid. When they do catch and kill Jones, Smithers clings to his beliefs, scoffing at the idea that the natives could be responsible for Jones’s downfall.
Lem, a native chief who despises Jones. Displaced when Jones claimed the title of emperor, Lem has been quietly gathering power while Jones looted the island. Although Jones and Smithers both believe that the native population of the island is unintelligent, when Lem appears at the end with his soldiers, it is clear that he knows exactly what he is doing and how he can bring down Jones. He...
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believes Jones’s story about the magic of the silver bullets but uses it against him. He has his people melt down coins to make silver bullets, outsmarts Jones to find him, and then has Jones shot.
An Old Native Woman
An Old Native Woman, who is left behind when the younger subjects of the emperor run away. Before she leaves, she tells Smithers that everyone is abandoning the emperor, whom she clearly still fears.
Jeff, a dice-throwing pal of Jones back in the United States. It was for killing Jeff, after he had caught Jeff cheating at dice, that Jones was sent to prison. In his terror as he runs in circles through the jungle, Jones meets the ghost of Jeff and wastes one of his bullets trying to kill him again.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 767
Jeff The black man Brutus Jones killed over a crap game in the United States before the action of the play began. Appearing in Scene III as one of Jones’s hallucinations, Jeff is brown rather than blackskinned, thin, middle-aged, and dressed in a Pullman porter’s uniform. In Jones’s hallucination, Jeff tosses the dice like a robot.
Brutus Jones The main character in The Emperor Jones, Brutus Jones is a tall and powerfully built American negro man of middle age. Formerly a Pullman (train) car porter in the United States, Jones comes to the West Indian island where the play takes place and becomes ‘‘emperor’’ after convincing the natives that he has magical powers. Before coming to the island, Jones had escaped from an American prison, where he was being confined for killing a man over a crap game. Jones exudes a strength and confidence that commands fear and respect from all around him even while he reigns quite ruthlessly as Emperor. His eyes indicate extraordinary cunning, intelligence, and a careful shrewdness.
To make himself appear regal, Jones wears a light-blue uniform decorated with brass buttons and heavy gold chevrons and braids. His pants are bright red with a light-blue stripe down the side and he wears patent leather boots with brass spurs and a holster with a long-barreled, pearl-handled revolver. In the play he speaks with a strongly marked black dialect, as in, ‘‘who dare whistle dat way in my palace?’’ Jones is filled with contempt for the former exploiter of the islanders, the white man, Smithers.
Lem A former chieftain on the island and the leader of the natives who finally rebel against Jones’s dictatorial rule. The heavy-set Lem appears on stage only in the last scene, where he is dressed in a loincloth with a revolver and cartridge belt around his waist. Lem hates Jones and once hired another native to shoot him, but when the gun misfired in the assassination attempt, Jones proclaimed that only a silver bullet could kill him. As the play opens, Lem has finally convinced the rest of the natives to forge their own silver bullet, and they spend the night working up the courage to attack Jones. Lem and his men finally kill Jones in the forest where Jones had desperately run in circles trying to escape.
Little Formless Fears In the second scene of the play, these fanciful creatures represent Jones’s first hallucinations in the forest and they stand for his general anxieties. These ‘‘fears’’ are ‘‘black’’ and ‘‘shapeless,’’ like ‘‘a grubworm about the size of a creeping child,’’ and ‘‘only their glittering little eyes can be seen.’’ These shapes ‘‘move noiselessly, but with deliberate, painful effort, striving to raise themselves on end, failing and sinking again.’’ When these fears mock Jones with their laughter, Jones shoots at them and they disappear.
Henry Smithers Smithers is the tall, bald, stoop-shouldered Cockney Englishman, about forty-years-old, who was successfully exploiting the black natives before Brutus Jones arrived on the island. Smithers has a long neck with an enormous Adam’s apple, which looks like an egg. Deeply tanned, Smithers’s naturally pasty face has taken on a sickly yellow color, and his nose is red from extensive drinking of native rum. Smithers has small, sharp features, including a pointed nose and little, red-rimmed eyes that dart around like a ferret’s. He is mean, cowardly, and dangerous—afraid of Jones but openly defiant, as far as he dares to be, and is clearly delighted with Jones’s downfall.
Smithers carries a riding whip and is dressed in a dirty white suit with a white cork helmet and a cartridge belt and revolver around his waist. Smithers speaks in a (British) Cockney dialect, which O’Neill indicates with idioms and spelling like ‘‘I got me ’ooks [hooks or hands] on yer [you].’’
Witch Doctor Jones’s last hallucination, in Scene VII, includes this dancing and chanting shaman or medicine man of primitive African society. The Witch Doctor is shriveled, old, and ‘‘naked except for the fur of some small animal tied about his waist, its bushy tail hanging down in front.’’ His body is stained a bright red, he has antelope horns on his head, and he carries a bone rattle and a ‘‘charm stick’’ made of white cockatoo feathers. The Witch Doctor finally indicates that Jones must serve as the ritual sacrifice for a crocodile god that rises from the nearby river. However, Jones’s last act is to defy the sacrifice and shoot his pistol and the remaining silver bullet into the crocodile apparition.