The Emperor Jones Summary
by Eugene O’Neill

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Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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Henry Smithers, a Cockney adventurer, learns from a woman that the followers of Brutus Jones, the self-styled emperor of a West Indian island, are about to desert their ruler. With Smithers’s help, Jones, a former Pullman porter and escaped convict, duped the natives into believing that he is a magician. The superstitious natives make him emperor of the island. Smithers discloses to the emperor the disaffection of his subjects, who are taxed and cheated by the pair beyond human endurance. Jones judges that he has six more months of power before the natives catch on to his skullduggery. He had a silver bullet cast as a good luck charm; it will be a useful tool if he is ever caught by his subjects.

At Smithers’s suggestion, Jones rings a bell for his attendants; no one appears. Jones resigns his position as emperor on the spot and makes immediate plans to escape through the jungle to the coast. Drums begin to beat in the hills. The former emperor gives the palace to Smithers, takes up his white Panama hat, and walks boldly out the front door.

At the edge of the jungle, Jones searches unsuccessfully for the canned food he cached for such an emergency. The drums continue to beat, louder and more insistent. Night falls, and formless fears come out of the jungle to beset Jones. The moon rises. Jones comes into a clearing and there in the moonlight sees Jeff, a Pullman porter he killed in a razor duel. Jeff is throwing dice. When the kneeling figure refuses to answer him, Jones shoots at him. The phantom disappears. Drums still thud in the distance. Jones, now sick with fright, plunges into the inky jungle.

After a while, he comes upon a road and pauses to rest. A chain gang comes out of the forest. The guard of the gang motions to Jones to take his place in the gang and to get to work. When the guard whips him, Jones lifts his shovel to strike him, but he discovers that he has no shovel. In his rage of fear and frustration, he fires his revolver at the guard. The road, the guard, and the chain gang disappear; the jungle closes in. The louder beat of the tom-toms drives Jones on in frantic circles.

Now in tatters, the terrified Jones repents of the murders he committed and of the way he has cheated the islanders. He comes next upon a slave auction attended by white people dressed in the style of the 1850’s. An auctioneer puts Jones on the auction block. Frightened, Jones shatters this apparition by firing one shot at the auctioneer and another at a planter. He dashes into the forest, mad with fear. The drums continue to beat.

At three o’clock, Jones comes to a part of the jungle that strangely resembles the hold of a slave ship. He finds himself one of a cargo of slaves who are swaying slowly with the motion of the ship. Jones and the other slaves moan with sorrow at being taken away from their homeland. With only the silver bullet left in his revolver, Jones saves it and dashes on again into the dark of the night.

Next he comes upon an altarlike arrangement of boulders near a great river. He sinks to his knees as if to worship. A Congo witch doctor appears from behind a large tree and begins a primitive dance. Jones is hypnotized by the ritual. The witch doctor indicates to Jones in pantomime that the former emperor must offer himself as a sacrifice in order to overcome the forces of evil. A great green-eyed crocodile emerges from the river; Jones fires the silver bullet at the monster, and the witch doctor disappears behind a tree, leaving Jones lying on the ground completely overcome by fear.

At dawn Lem, the leader of the rebels, comes with Smithers and a group of natives to the edge of the jungle, where Jones entered on the previous night. Lem was delayed in pursuing Jones because of the necessity of manufacturing silver bullets, which, Lem believes, are the only means of taking Jones’s life. Several of Lem’s men enter the jungle. They soon find the prostrate Jones, who was running in circles throughout the night. One of...

(The entire section is 2,548 words.)