Lit. NotesShort Story

Symbolism in “What the Tapster Saw”


Ben Okri has used a lot of symbols in his story “What the Tapster Saw”. Along with other symbols, he has used characters as effective and powerful symbols. The effect of his symbolism in the story is as great as it has forced the critics to verdict that everything is possible in Ben Okri’ world. Here we will discuss how the author has used symbolism to strengthen his point of view. Ben Okri has himself said, “I grew up in a tradition where there are simply more dimensions to reality: legends and myths and ancestors and spirits and death… I’m fascinated by the mysterious element that runs through our lives. Everyone is looking out of the world through their emotion and history. Nobody has an absolute reality.”

The story revolves around the character of a tapster who is expert in tapping the trunks of palm trees to get the wine. One day he dreams that during his work he falls from a pine tree and dies. Next morning he gets up and goes to his friend Tabasco who is a herbalist-cum-fortune teller. His friend remains busy with eating and drinking and cannot give proper attention to the tapster. The tapster comes home. Next morning when he goes to his work, in the way he sees signboard which reads: “Delta Oil Company: Tliix area is being drilled. Trespassers in danger.”

Delta Oil Company and Imperialism

The tapster sees the sign boards of Delta Oil Company that is a sure sign of the presence of the imperialistic forces on work. They are busy in sucking the oil from the occupied ground. They are exploiting the natural resources of the country but do not give any chance to the native persons like tapster to work with them. The natives are only warned of danger if they try to get their livelihood by tapping the trees. Here the author has skillfully juxtaposed two activities: the tapping and drilling. The drilling yields billions and billions of dollars in shape of oil while the activity tapping almost gives nothing to the people like the tapster. They only yearn, crawl, fall and die.

The Symbolic Significance of the Tapster’s fall

While working on the very first tree the tapster falls down ad dies. His fall is the symbol of the fall of the natives in the presence of imperialism. They are always struck with wonder when  treated like aliens in their own homeland. A homeland where the resources are their but they cannot utilize them. They are walking with open eyes but feel themselves to be in dreams where they fall and die. As one critic has opined, “From cities which are a livid red from dust, rust, and the bought blood of desperate men who cannot find work to the festering jungles with their “Drilling for Oil” signs, there is little hope left for the people in a place where goodness strains to prevail, and where cultists dictate. Okri’s oratorical language heightens its dreamlike, almost stream-of-consciousness character, weaving it into one long, helpless nightmare from which there is no escape, and though fleeting moments of beauty emerge.”

The Tapster, a symbol of Exploited Nation

In the story the tapster is symbol of all the native people who are being exploited by the imperialism. He represents those people who are helpless before the occupying forces. They can only see but can do nothing to free themselves from the cruel clutches of the snakes and turtles. They are forced to act and eat against their will as it happens with the tapster when he is forced to eat and drink dirty things. The sexual act of a monster type creature with the tapster is symbolic of the financial rape of the nation by the agents of imperialism. The tapster during his dream starts counting things but every time he tries to count, he gets a blow from an unseen force. This act of receiving blow is symbolic of the difficulties a subjugated nation has to go through while getting knowledge in the presence of imperialism.

The Tapster, an Ecological Representative

The skilled palm-wine tapster falls from a tree and spend seven day is a state of coma before reviving. While he hovers between life and death, the tapster wanders through a devastated “unchanging landscape” populated by “terrible inhabitants” and “monstrous shapes” haunted by “prophetic visions and memories of childhood and “ancient heroes”.

Finally brought back by the irritating ministrations of a herbalist named Tabasco, who informed him that he was to be buried the next morning, the tapster realizes that many of the characters and landmarks he encountered during his travels- from a soapstone icon to the glassy eyed turtles who torment him- correspond to the object in the room where he has lain and that his “dream” has as much to do with his real surroundings as with any hallucinatory unreality. His disjunctive sensibility, the confusion, alienation and abjection produced by an encounter with a fundamentally irrational reality, ultimately represents the death of the subject itself-a necrontology that Okri identifies directly with the oil exploitation that he sees as lying waste to Nigeria’s environment and its socius alike.

One the morning of his accident, the tapster drawing- wine from the trees in forest now owned, as a billboard announces, by the “Delta Oil Company.” His anachronistic presence, as an actor in an economy passed on palm oil rather on petroleum, is marked by the thick “cobweb” he must across in order to reach the few remaining palm trees in the forest. After his fall, he notices the features of his landscapes that recall the ecological effects of oil drilling- a “viscous,” stagnant, iridescent river; wounded tree; foul smelling smoke that irritates his eyes and skin; and “thick slimes of oil” that coat everything.

Symbolic Significance of Tabasco’s Character

Tabasco is the tapster’s friend who does not listen to him when he goes to him to tell about his dream but it is Tabasco who saves the Tapster and brings him back to life. Tabasco also fights against the snake and kills him. He is one of the turtles the tapster sees in his dream. Tabasco represents the native sources that come in handy at hour of need. He also represents those people who for the time being aside with the occupying forces and ultimately come out with the solutions to the problems of the native people.

The Snakes and Turtles

The snakes and turtles in the story are the symbols of those people who have always and everywhere their own ax to grind. They exploit the weaker, no matter to what extent they have to go. The sole purpose of their being is the material gain. They care neither for human being nor for humanity. They are so clever that they find Tapsters everywhere to humiliate. They can go to any extent to get their jobs done. As the creatures in the story have gone riot: a snake spits at the tapster in disgust; three turtles mock and befriend him at the same time.


Okri’s story offers a phantasmagoric glimpse into a degraded landscape illuminated day and night by natural gas flares, “roseate flames [that] burned everywhere without consuming anything.” A talking snake glistens with the beautiful yet deadly iridescence of oil spilled on water; a bespectacled turtle serves as the protagonist’s Virgilian guide. Juxtapositions of bombs and bullets, coups and executions, with herbalists and witch-doctors, talking animals and masquerades, combine the transmogrifying creatures and liminal space of the forest in the Yoruba literary tradition with the monstrous-but-mundane violence of oil exploration and extraction, the state violence that supports it, and the environmental degradation that it causes. Working against the empty globalism inherent in the rubric of magical realism, in which “magic” might name anything unfamiliar to a European or American reader, “petro-magic-realism” describes how a particular political ecology is represented through a particular literary idiom.

People also like: Critical Analysis of “What the Tapster Saw”

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