The Palm-Wine Drinkard

by Amos Tutuola

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Amos Tutuola’s pioneering novel draws heavily on traditional Yoruba literature, often transmitted orally. The author pulls together elements of diverse folk tales to create a sort of linear narrative. The characters progress toward a resolution, but rather than a single climax, the protagonist goes through many travails; each of those helps him learn necessary lessons and develop strength of character needed to navigate the remaining challenges successfully and, ultimately, to becoming a fully social human being. The novel is not realistic, as most of the protagonist’s interactions are with characters in the spirit realm. One early adventure is among the most significant: the narrator, through a combination of selfishness and cleverness, unleashes Death upon the world.

The novel’s narrator is a very spoiled rich boy who does little more than drink palm-wine. His wealthy father has a tapster who expertly extracts the wine from the trees so that the young man has an unending supply. When first his father and then the tapster die, he is left without wine. Setting off to search for the deceased tapster and induce him to return, he takes his magical material, “juju.” Once he embarks on this journey, he realizes it will take months, not days.

When I saw that there was no palm-wine for me again, and nobody could tap it for me, then I thought within myself that old people were saying that the whole people who had died in this world, did not go to heaven directly, but they were living in one place somewhere in this world. So that I said that I would find out where my palm-wine tapster who had died was. . . .

After seven months, he reaches the home of a god and, claiming himself to be a god, he uses some juju and turns himself into a bird. The god makes several request of him, notably to find and bring him Death.

[T]here remained another wonderful work to do for him, before he would tell me whereabouts my tapster was. . . . [He] gave me a wide and strong net which was the same in colour as the ground of that town. He told me to go and bring “Death” from his house with the net.

The man finds his way to Death’s house and manages to evade Death’s tricks and capture him in the net. But when he arrives at the old god-man’s house with Death, the man flees without revealing the tapster’s whereabouts; he had assumed the man would be unsuccessful and would die himself. Death now frees himself and will henceforth roam the world, having left his own house.

So that since the day that I had brought Death out from his house, he has no permanent place to dwell or stay, and we are hearing his name about in the world.

After many adventures, he learns that he cannot retrieve the tapster from the dead. As the novel draws to a close, the narrator has earned a wonderful gift, an egg that gives out food and drink. He brings it back to his hometown and uses to feed everyone. Unfortunately, the news of this bounty attracts thousands of people, who become careless and break the egg. Glued back together, it begins producing whips to flay the freeloaders. Without food, a famine soon begins, and he pities the starving people. They conduct a ceremony and make a sacrifice that must be carried to Heaven. While the courier delivers it successfully, he cannot return to earth, because people fear him taking them to Heaven as well. Nevertheless, his mission ultimately succeeds.

[O]ne of the king’s slaves . . . took the sacrifice to heaven for Heaven who was senior to Land and Heaven received the sacrifice with gladness. The sacrifice meant that Land surrendered, that he was junior to Heaven. . . .

But when for three months the rain had been falling regularly, there was no famine again.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access



Critical Essays