Tarzan of the Apes

Tarzan of the Apes. Cover of the 2014 Penguin edition.
Tarzan of the Apes. Cover of the 2014 Penguin edition. Page references in this article are to this edition. Tarzan of the Apes was first published in 1914.

I recently read, for the first time, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ prototypical superhero novel, Tarzan of the Apes. The book was first published in 1914 — well before comic books spawned Superman, Batman, or any other of the plague of ubermenshen who have titillated the urge to fascism in the Western world over the last hundred years.

As adventure stories go, Tarzan of the Apes is pretty good. After a mutiny at sea, Lord Greystoke and his pregnant wife are cast away in Africa. Overcoming many dangers, Greystoke builds a cabin in the jungle. Lady Greystoke dies a year after her child is born, closely followed by her husband. The Greystoke infant is rescued by Kala, a great ape whose own baby has just died. She names the child Tarzan. He is raised among the tribe of savage apes. Using his superior intelligence and the resources left in the Greystoke cabin, Tarzan teaches himself to read and to use a knife. He becomes an ape/man who combines the physical perfections of the primitive with the intellectual superiority of an aristocrat. He overthrows the tyrannical leader of the ape troop. He kills the leopard and the lion who prey upon his ape family. He becomes the greatest in the jungle. Later, when more white people come to the jungle, he is able to rescue them from wild beasts and dangerous black savages. In particular, he rescues and falls in love with Jane Porter, a beautiful white woman, who awakens in him a desire to become more than a king of beasts. In time, his white friends teach him to speak (although he reads English, print cannot teach him how to say it) and they are able to solve the mystery of his origins. Tarzan comes to America in pursuit of Jane, becoming truly civilised but no less physically magnificent. In the end, however, he gives up his love for Jane and his rightful claim to be Lord Greystoke. These magnaminous gestures are intended to secure the greater happiness of his friends, but the book closes with the suggestion that there will be further developments in the next instalment of Tarzan’s adventures.

There is an element of tragedy about the hero’s birth, a mythic grandeur in the jungle setting, a fast-paced series of violent actions that carry us forward from crisis to crisis, comic touches, and a central character whose fundamental goodheartedness makes him likeable — all the goods that define the ‘ripping yarn’. Of course, to enjoy the story, one must discount its flagrant racism, casual sexism, snobbish class consciousness, ignorance of ecology and acceptance of colonialism — but of course, these prejudices would have been invisible to the author and to his intended British and American readers. I don’t think it hurts us to be exposed to the appalling attitudes that prevailed in polite society before World War One, although it is shocking to consider that these attitudes persist in the backwoods of our culture even now. I suspect that many Americans would still swallow the Tarzan story whole, as would some of those Australians who like to vote for Pauline Hanson and who see nothing offensive in her ‘One Nation’ (Ein Reich) slogan and ‘one people’ (Ein Volk) policies.

Just to be clear, here are the key offensive prejudices explicitly presented in the book:

  • Nature is savage and must be conquered.
  • A man has a natural aptitude for violence, and this is more than understandable — it is admirable.
  • People have an innate superiority to animals.
  • White people have an innate superiority to black people.
  • Tarzan’s aristocratic breeding gives him an innate superiority to other white people.
  • Men have an innate superiority to women.

These ideas are morally reprehensible. I am not writing about the Tarzan story to promote them. Tarzan and the Apes can be condemned as a vessel for the promotion of fascistic nonsense. For that matter, I would argue that the entire crop of superhero stories, right down to the MegaMovieUniverses of today, promote anti-democratic fascistic fantasies. There is something politically rotten with the idea that some people are super, that they move according to special laws (above the law) and that they are worthy of an adulation above that accorded to ordinary human leaders. When we look for that sort of thing in our heroes, we are opening ourselves up to exploitation by strongmen who promise to do our thinking for us.

There are counter arguments, perhaps. I’m not going to present them. There are plenty of fans out there who can cheer for the superheroes.

Returning to Tarzan, what is more interesting to me is the author’s not-entirely-stable messaging about the nature/nurture of Tarzan. The book must traverse a strange split in the usual dialogue of  nature/nurture. Tarzan, as man, is not nurtured in the natural human (ie, civilised) environment, therefore he develops his natural human nature (ie, whatever is genetically native to him as a human). Tarzan, as ape, is unnatural (ie, not an ape), but he is nurtured in the natural ape (ie, non-human, uncivilised) environment, therefore he develops his nurtured ape nature (ie, whatever the ape environment can impart to man). 

Burroughs is fascinated by the idea that a man raised by apes might become a kind of ‘brute’ or ‘beast’ — inhuman, uncivilised, and yet also more physically perfect than other humans. On the other hand, Burroughs is sure that certain characteristics must be intrinsic to Tarzan’s ‘human nature’ — more than this, that his aristocratic origins would be also be displayed in values such as intelligence, nobility, moral worth. The narrative traverses this problematic terrain towards an unlikely but attractive happy ending.

When boy Tarzan first sees himself mirrored in the water next to an ape (p49):

It was on a sultry day of the dry season that he and one of his cousins had gone down to the bank to drink. As they leaned over, both little faces were mirrored on the placid pool; the fierce and terrible features of the ape beside those of the aristocratic scion of an old English house.

Tarzan was appalled. It had been bad enough to be hairless, but to own such a countenance! He wondered that the other apes could look at him at all.

At this moment in the narrative, the author invites us to see Tarzan as he is, that is, as an aristocrat (apparently a superior kind of human), but the narrative acknowledges that Tarzan, having been raised by apes, could not possibly see himself that way. The boy Tarzan sees himself as inferior, having been nurtured in an environment that teaches an ape-standard for beauty and power.

Later, fully-grown, Tarzan becomes a great fighter based on a fusion of ape nurture and human nature: strong, fast, ruthless, intelligent, able to use weapons. There is a telling moment when he meets and kills a [black] man for the first time (p101):

… Tarzan of the Apes was hungry, and here was meat; meat of the kill, which jungle ethics permitted him to eat.

How may we judge him, by what standards, this ape-man with the heart and head and body of an English gentleman, and the training of a wild beast?

Tublat [an ape], whom he hated and who had hated him, he had killed in a fair fight, and yet never had the thought of eating Tublat’s flesh entered his head. It would have been as revolting to him as cannibalism to us.

But who was Kulonga [the man Tarzan has killed] that he might not be eaten as fairly as Horta, the boar, or Bara, the deer? Was he not simply another of the countless wild things of the jungle who preyed upon one another to satisfy the cravings of hunger?

Of a sudden, a strange doubt stayed his hand. Had not his books taught him that he was a man? And was not The Archer [Kulonga] a man also?

Did men eat men? Alas, he did not know. Why, then, this hesitancy! Once more he essayed the effort, but of a sudden a qualm of nausea overwhelmed him. He did not understand.

All he knew was that he could not eat the flesh of this black man, and thus hereditary instinct, ages old, usurped the functions of his untaught mind and saved him from transgressing a worldwide law of whose very existence he was ignorant.

Before this, Tarzan’s ‘hereditary instinct’ has enabled him to learn to read and write by using a few books left behind by his deceased parents, despite never hearing or learning spoken human language — a feat of ‘aristocratic’ brilliance. Now ‘hereditary instinct’, not knowledge, will prevent him being a cannibal — although instinct will never restrain him from killing people. Should we deduce that ‘jungle ethics’ and human ethics agree on the rightness of killing to advance our interests?

When Jane first sees Tarzan (p227):

The face above her was one of extraordinary beauty.

A perfect type of the strongly masculine, unmarred by dissipation, or brutal or degrading passions. For, though Tarzan of the Apes was a killer of men and of beasts, he killed as the hunter kills, dispassionately, except on those rare occasions when he had killed for hate — though not the brooding, malevolent hate which marks the features of its own with hideous lines.

When Tarzan killed he more often smiled than scowled, and smiles are the foundation of beauty.

This is the Tarzan who has never seen [white] human civilisation, which appears at this moment in its negative guise, as the source of ‘dissipation’. As the only [white] man in the jungle, Tarzan has of course been chaste (neither black women nor sexy ape girls ever catch his eye). Why and when the aesthetic ape standards he learned as a boy fall away is not discussed. He is about to fall in love with the first white woman he has ever seen, and she with him. The author explicitly links Tarzan’s uncivilised (natural) violence with his natural beauty. Killing appears with approbation, a part of man’s nature that is good until it is spoiled by civilisation. The moral difficulties of a respectable woman falling in love with a ‘savage’ man are acknowledged, and remain unresolved at the end of the book. However, when Tarzan, motivated by love, travels to the civilised [white] world and teaches himself the ways of [white] men, he learns restraint along with the manners of a gentleman.

These few quotations and notations are just a gallop through the representational quandaries that Burrough’s narrative brings to light. The whole notion of what is nature and what is culture is magnificently tangled throughout the book. The apes, for instance, are presented as nature, except that they have culture (language, rules, social order, conventions, emotions but also calculations). Their culture is depicted as ‘lower’ than the culture of the jungle blacks, which in turn is lower than the culture of white pirates, which is lower than the culture of white English, French and Americans. Conversely, as I have suggested above, the ‘culture’ of Tarzan (an aristocrat) is depicted as partly a part of his nature, something essential to him, something there even when he is not aware of it. The culture of the apes is also a part of their nature, not a product of intellect. Culture is simultaneously represented as part of and not part of nature. Flowing through and perturbed by this nature/culture dialectic, morality and ethics have an uncertain and unstable foundation. The one sure thing — the one value held in awe by all the characters, human or animal, in this novel — is power.


I wrote these notes on Tarzan of the Apes without referring to secondary sources, and then went to the interweb to see what others had said. There is a good although not completely accurate Wikipedia article (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarzan_of_the_Apes) that gives context and links.

The text of the novel, with images from the first edition, is available for free at http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks/fr009616.html

The page references in this article are to the Penguin edition published in 2014. The cover of this edition is shown above.

© 2020 Craig Bingham

Read something similar:

March into morning [opinion]
Enmeshed — thoughts on ‘Never let me go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro [opinion]

carcinoma of the sentence structureRead something different:

Five very short stories [fiction]
Buried [fiction]
Carcinoma of the sentence structure [fiction]

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