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Eugene O'neill's Emperor Jones Essay

1269 words - 6 pages

This essay will discuss some of the major archetypes employed by Eugene O’Neill in Emperor Jones and how each of these archetypes plays a role in foreshadowing Jones’ multi-layered downfall. By creating the myth of the silver bullet, Jones essentially becomes the embodiment of the trickster archetype in the play. The planter or slave overseer archetype takes different forms in the play, whether it is Smithers at the beginning, the slave auctioneer or even the prison guard, they all represent white domination over blacks. Finally, Jones’ three mortal sins can be depicted by a triangle; synonymous with the trinity archetype.
The trickster archetype originates from Greek mythology, Norse and Slavic folktales and Native American lore . A trickster is someone who plays a trick on people or who breaks the rules of god or nature. In American literature, the trickster is often represented as a symbol of ultimate anarchic freedom; a humorous way of representing the contradictions between American ideals and practice. In African-American literature, the trickster has often been adapted as a “no win” to reflect the situation in which they found themselves in the United States. In the play, Jones creates a myth around the silver bullet to instill fear among his subjects and retain illegitimate power over them. The myth consists in the idea that he can only be killed by a silver bullet. What he has yet to realise is that the joke is on him as he cannot build an empire on something that is not true. His entire enterprise depends on empty air, and it’s only a matter of time before it crumbles under his feet. His arrogance does not stop there; he also carves himself a silver bullet. The fact that, at the end of the play, he kills himself with the silver bullet only confirms that Jones is destined to be defeated by his own arrogance. If in literature, the trickster can be portrayed as either cunning or foolish, it is obvious that O’Neill uses the silver bullet myth to showcase Jones’ superstitious nature . While O’Neill might not have been familiar with African-American literature, his portrayal of the trickster archetype in the play is also very close to the African American version of the trickster. This is probably because of all the prejudices, and the idea that black people can never prevail. In the play, this idea is further reinforced by the overseer archetype.
The slave overseer archetype is the product of slavery in the United States. Overseers played a crucial role in building the plantation culture in the Old South . They had to make sure the slaves were at their business and were not running away. For the slaves, the overseer was a constant reminder that they had to obey; he gave the orders and did not show any mercy on them. In narratives, he is constantly depicted as the cruel man who holds the whip . In the play, this archetype takes different form and he is hardly ever explicitly identified as an overseer. At the beginning...

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