Book review: Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, 1912

Tarzan of the Apes is unquestionably pulp fiction, but it is also great fun, if you can stomach the appalling colonialist attitudes. Tarzan has become one of those archetypal characters from fiction – Dracula, Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes – with a life far beyond the confines of their original story. Rice Burroughs went on to really milk the most possible value from the original success of his story of the ape-man, with around 25 sequels including Tarzan and the Foreign Legion and Tarzan at the Earth’s Core to name just a couple.

I am sure you know the bones of the Tarzan story. Newly-wed Lord Greystoke, an English aristocrat and his young wife are marooned on a deserted African shoreline following a mutiny by the crew. Here they create a mini-Eden, building a thatched hut with all-mod cons. Lady Greystoke gives birth to an heir, only to succumb to a fit of the vapours following a lion attack. Lord Greystoke quickly follows his wife, leaving young Tarzan to be adopted and brought up by the apes of the jungle. Interestingly these are not gorillas – Rice Burroughs is very specific on that point. This (invented) species of ape bears many similarities to the gorilla, but can speak a primitive language. Tarzan grows up among them, acquiring his physical prowess. He also discovers his parents’ hut, and his father’s knife, which allows him to win a series of battles with the alpha-males in his troupe, as well as other beasts, finally becoming king of the jungle.

In parallel Tarzan teaches himself (improbably) to read and write, and discovers more about his ancestry and the world beyond his jungle. Rice Burroughs was obviously taken with the idea of white people being marooned on the coast of Africa by mutinous sailors, because he re-uses this plot-device to introduce Jane Porter, lovely young American heiress, her eccentric father Professor Porter, and her suitor Clayton, Lord Greystoke. Yes, another Lord Greystoke, Tarzan’s cousin, has pitched up on the same shore in the same manner, twenty years on. This sums up the laziness of Rice Burroughs writing. Why bother inventing a new plot device when there’s a perfectly good one available that is only 15 chapters old?     

You won’t be surprised to hear that this novel is profoundly racist. The African natives Tarzan encounters are uncivilised, superstitious cannibals, and they are wiped out by the French sailors towards the end of the novel without compunction.  Jane’s maid, Esmerelda, is a cliched American  lawks-a mercy caricature, always using clumsy malapropisms in a very unfunny manner, and fainting every few minutes. The novel appears to accept an evolutionary link between man and beast, but the natural order in which white men are superior to dark-skinned men and beasts, and aristocratic white men are superior to all, is insisted on throughout.

Only in the novel’s portrayal of sex is there any hint of transgression. When Jane is first kidnapped by one of the apes, it is made explicitly clear that he intends to rape her.

“The tribe had kept his women. He must find others to replace them. This hairless white ape would be the first of his new household, and so he threw her roughly across his broad, hairy shoulders and leapt back into the trees” (Chapter 19)

Jane’s response to Tarzan when he rescues her is intensely sexual.

Jane—her lithe, young form flattened against the trunk of a great tree, her hands tight pressed against her rising and falling bosom, and her eyes wide with mingled horror, fascination, fear, and admiration—watched the primordial ape battle with the primeval man for possession of a woman—for her.

As the great muscles of the man’s back and shoulders knotted beneath the tension of his efforts, and the huge biceps and forearm held at bay those mighty tusks, the veil of centuries of civilization and culture was swept from the blurred vision of the Baltimore girl.

When the long knife drank deep a dozen times of Terkoz’ heart’s blood, and the great carcass rolled lifeless upon the ground, it was a primeval woman who sprang forward with outstretched arms toward the primeval man who had fought for her and won her.

And Tarzan? He did what no red-blooded man needs lessons in doing. He took his woman in his arms and smothered her upturned, panting lips with kisses. For a moment Jane lay there with half-closed eyes. For a moment—the first in her young life—she knew the meaning of love.

Note Jane’s response is in part to Tarzan’s muscles, but also to his violence, and she goes to him – indeed springs towards him. This would have been titillating to Rice Burrough’s Edwardian audience. This is not a novel for nice young women, but an adventure story for frustrated young men. The erotic and constant emphasis on Tarzan’s musculature is relentless.

A feeling of dreamy peacefulness stole over Jane as she sank down upon the grass where Tarzan had placed her, and as she looked up at his great figure towering above her, there was added a strange sense of perfect security. As she watched him from beneath half-closed lids, Tarzan crossed the little circular clearing toward the trees upon the further side. She noted the graceful majesty of his carriage, the perfect symmetry of his magnificent figure and the poise of his well-shaped head upon his broad shoulders.

What a perfect creature! There could be naught of cruelty or baseness beneath that godlike exterior. Never, she thought had such a man strode the earth since God created the first in his own image.

However I am not sure how transgressive this actually is – while sexual activity between a young woman and a jungle man would have been taboo, we are never allowed to forget Tarzan’s aristocratic origins.

If you enjoy reading origin stories out of a sense of curiosity (in what way does the popular culture version of the character differ from the original?) Tarzan will keep you diverted for a couple of hours, but I doubt few if any readers will feel compelled to read any further in Tarzan’s adventures, which I suspect are simply reiterations of this template.

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