The Palm-Wine Drinkard Themes

The main themes in The Palm-Wine Drinkard are deceptive appearances, the uses and limits of magic, and the living and the dead.

  • Deceptive appearances: Tutuola’s novel is full of creatures and beings that are not as they first appear, creating a sense of instability.
  • The uses and limits of magic: The world of the novel is defined by magic, but the precise nature of that magic is never revealed or explained.
  • The living and the dead: The novel crosses the boundary between the realms of the living and the dead.

Themes

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Last Updated on July 28, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 882

Deceptive Appearances

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In The Palm-Wine Drinkard, appearances consistently prove to be deceiving. When the King of Wraith Island calls for a field to be cleared of weeds, he forgets to include in the party the smallest creature on the island, which is the size of a one-day-old baby. The small creature demonstrates its power by frustrating the king’s project, choking up the field with weeds. This occurs just after the narrator has been disturbed in his attempt to plant crops by a monster the size of an elephant. The monster, however, proves to be benign and shows him a magically efficient method of farming, which later makes him a rich man.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard is full of monsters, which appear in a variety of guises and which are seldom what they first appear. Even the genuinely dangerous Spirit of Prey is, counterintuitively, at its most dangerous when its eyes are closed. The most complete gentleman, who arrives in the marketplace perfectly attired and whose beauty overwhelms the narrator, turns out to have neither limbs nor skin of his own. Indeed, he is a hideous skull that has hired both clothes and anatomy. Some of the most malign and powerful monsters appear in the guise of a child and a half-bodied baby, and it is the dead babies on their way to Deads’ Town that beat the narrator and his wife off the track.

The deceptive appearances in The Palm-Wine Drinkard increase the dramatic tension of the narrative. They also provide an illustrative instance of the way in which magic is combined with realism in the text. The constant stream of strange beings seems like pure magic, but the way in which trouble is always coming from unexpected quarters is all too true to life.

The Uses and Limits of Magic

It quickly becomes apparent to the reader that the action of The Palm-Wine Drinkard takes place in a magical world. The narrator is continually changing his shape, becoming a bird, a canoe, a lizard, or even elements such as fire or air. The rules by which this magic operates and the limitations on it, however, are implied rather than explained. It appears, for instance, that the narrator’s powers do not allow him to create money. He can, however, turn himself into a ferryboat, so that his wife can earn money by ferrying people across a river. He can become a bird and fly out of danger, but this power appears only to be available at certain times (when he has prepared his juju), since at others he uses a less effective means of protection, such as becoming a fire to scare the adversary away.

The way in which the author uses magic increases the sense of alienation and disorientation the reader feels. The narrator treats his transformations as natural events, only to be expected in the circumstances. He calls himself “Father of the gods who could do anything in the world,” but the first time he employs this sobriquet, it appears that it may be a ruse or an idle boast. This is not quite a world in which anything can happen. More unsettling than this, it is a world in which the boundaries of the possible and the impossible are never clear and are apt to shift alarmingly with changing circumstances.

The Living and the Dead

It is typical of the style and structure of The Palm-Wine Drinkard that no clear account is ever given of the relationship between the living and the dead—or even of what it means to die. The narrator sets off on an epic quest with no more assurance that its object is even possible than a rumor among the old people in his hometown. These old people assert without proof or corroboration that the dead “did not go to heaven directly, but they were living in one place somewhere in this world.”

Three quarters of the way through the book, the narrator and his wife eventually arrive in Deads’ Town, where the dead appear to exist on earth permanently or at least for a long time. There, they encounter the unsurprising fact that the dead are different from the living, and their ways are incompatible. The palm-wine tapster tells them that he has served a two-year apprenticeship in another place, after which “training” he is now “qualified” to be dead. Although he does not give details, it is clear that part of this training involves forgetting the details of one’s former life. Confusingly, though in a way that is quite consistent with the general uncertainty of the narrative, he has not forgotten many of these details.

The tapster is as welcoming as he can be, but the dead are generally hostile to the living, as the narrator and his wife discover on their departure from Deads’ Town. The dead adults merely avoid them, but the dead babies, which seem as though they ought to be the most powerless of beings, beat them savagely and drive them off the road. Those on the road to Deads’ Town appear to be far more resentful and angry than those who live there, but why this is, like so much else, is never explained. Life and death—and the relationship between the two—remain essentially mysterious.

Themes

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on July 28, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 882

Deceptive Appearances

In The Palm-Wine Drinkard, appearances consistently prove to be deceiving. When the King of Wraith Island calls for a field to be cleared of weeds, he forgets to include in the party the smallest creature on the island, which is the size of a one-day-old baby. The small creature demonstrates its power by frustrating the king’s project, choking up the field with weeds. This occurs just after the narrator has been disturbed in his attempt to plant crops by a monster the size of an elephant. The monster, however, proves to be benign and shows him a magically efficient method of farming, which later makes him a rich man.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard is full of monsters, which appear in a variety of guises and which are seldom what they first appear. Even the genuinely dangerous Spirit of Prey is, counterintuitively, at its most dangerous when its eyes are closed. The most complete gentleman, who arrives in the marketplace perfectly attired and whose beauty overwhelms the narrator, turns out to have neither limbs nor skin of his own. Indeed, he is a hideous skull that has hired both clothes and anatomy. Some of the most malign and powerful monsters appear in the guise of a child and a half-bodied baby, and it is the dead babies on their way to Deads’ Town that beat the narrator and his wife off the track.

The deceptive appearances in The Palm-Wine Drinkard increase the dramatic tension of the narrative. They also provide an illustrative instance of the way in which magic is combined with realism in the text. The constant stream of strange beings seems like pure magic, but the way in which trouble is always coming from unexpected quarters is all too true to life.

The Uses and Limits of Magic

It quickly becomes apparent to the reader that the action of The Palm-Wine Drinkard takes place in a magical world. The narrator is continually changing his shape, becoming a bird, a canoe, a lizard, or even elements such as fire or air. The rules by which this magic operates and the limitations on it, however, are implied rather than explained. It appears, for instance, that the narrator’s powers do not allow him to create money. He can, however, turn himself into a ferryboat, so that his wife can earn money by ferrying people across a river. He can become a bird and fly out of danger, but this power appears only to be available at certain times (when he has prepared his juju), since at others he uses a less effective means of protection, such as becoming a fire to scare the adversary away.

The way in which the author uses magic increases the sense of alienation and disorientation the reader feels. The narrator treats his transformations as natural events, only to be expected in the circumstances. He calls himself “Father of the gods who could do anything in the world,” but the first time he employs this sobriquet, it appears that it may be a ruse or an idle boast. This is not quite a world in which anything can happen. More unsettling than this, it is a world in which the boundaries of the possible and the impossible are never clear and are apt to shift alarmingly with changing circumstances.

The Living and the Dead

It is typical of the style and structure of The Palm-Wine Drinkard that no clear account is ever given of the relationship between the living and the dead—or even of what it means to die. The narrator sets off on an epic quest with no more assurance that its object is even possible than a rumor among the old people in his hometown. These old people assert without proof or corroboration that the dead “did not go to heaven directly, but they were living in one place somewhere in this world.”

Three quarters of the way through the book, the narrator and his wife eventually arrive in Deads’ Town, where the dead appear to exist on earth permanently or at least for a long time. There, they encounter the unsurprising fact that the dead are different from the living, and their ways are incompatible. The palm-wine tapster tells them that he has served a two-year apprenticeship in another place, after which “training” he is now “qualified” to be dead. Although he does not give details, it is clear that part of this training involves forgetting the details of one’s former life. Confusingly, though in a way that is quite consistent with the general uncertainty of the narrative, he has not forgotten many of these details.

The tapster is as welcoming as he can be, but the dead are generally hostile to the living, as the narrator and his wife discover on their departure from Deads’ Town. The dead adults merely avoid them, but the dead babies, which seem as though they ought to be the most powerless of beings, beat them savagely and drive them off the road. Those on the road to Deads’ Town appear to be far more resentful and angry than those who live there, but why this is, like so much else, is never explained. Life and death—and the relationship between the two—remain essentially mysterious.

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