The Emperor Jones


by Eugene O'Neil 

In Eugene O'Neil's play, " The Emperor Jones", the theme is
based on a moral; one should not pretend to be someone-
one is not. Multiple repercussions may occur to someone who
denies his/her background and race. Brutus Jones, the main
character, assumes the persona of a free white man (Jones
was really black and was supposed to be in slavery during
that time). Because of Jones' denial, he is haunted by
numerous illusions of his black heritage. He cannot free
himself of these images and they finally succeed in forcing
him to admit that he is black. Unfortunately, it is too
late and he is finally killed by natives, after he is
accused of plotting against his people. 

O'Neil introduces the theme of denial effectively. In the
opening scene of the play, it is clear to the audience,
from a nineteenth century perspective, that Brutus Jones'
physical features oppose his personal representation of
himself. Jones, a colored man, was expected to be a slave
during the eighteen hundreds. Circumstances permit him to
present himself as someone else and he claims to be a white
man. This is how the reader meets him in the first scene. 

After O'Neil presents his theme of denial, he introduces
subsequent scenes that are intended to arouse guilt within
Brutus and force to face the truth about his identity. One
apparition Jones encounters is a gang of Negroes chained,
working on the road supervised by a white man. The
anticipation of the audience is that Jones will assist the
white man with managing the slaves. Instead, Jones is
ordered to work; subconsciously, he proceeds to the slave
work with his fellow natives. Jones finally realizes his
actions and shoots the apparition, which immediately

Jones experiences a similar illusion later of chained
blacks, sitting in rows, wailing, awaiting their slavery.
Intuitively, Jones joins their rhythm and swaying and his
cry rises louder than the others. This illusion leaves on
its own and Jones advances through the forest. These two
apparitions demonstrate that inside, Jones really
understands that he is colored, but he does not want to
admit it. 

The next two of Jones' illusions display that the other
people realize that Jones is black which aggravates him
even more. First, Jones confronts a slave auction. He
believes that he is merely a spectator, until he realizes
that it is he, who is being auctioned. As a result, Jones
loses control and goes wild. Finally, Jones witnesses a
religious sacrifice, one similar to his native religion. It
is not until Jones realizes that the witch doctor is
offering him as a sacrifice, to be eaten by the crocodile,
that Jones loses control once again. 

O'Neil presents a theme of denial in The Emperor Jones.
O'Neil teaches that denial of one's heritage is a dangerous
situation that may result in apparitions and death. He
suggests a cure to self-denial if it's not too late. O'Neil
implies that if the people associated with such a person
familiarize him/her with his/her real identity, he/she
might be saved. Unfortunately, the natives were too fearful
of Jones to express such feelings. It wasn't until Jones
was confronted by the people of his illusions and
identified by them as a black person, that he admitted to
being colored. At this point it was too late for Jones to
turn back, and it ensued in his death.


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