Tarzan of the Apes

by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Tarzan of the Apes is the book that introduced the world to the now all but ubiquitously known king of the jungle. After the death of his parents in a remote region of Africa, the infant Tarzan is raised by a great ape, taught to survive in the wild. As he gets older and asserts dominance within his tribe, he finds the remnants of his parents’ abandoned cabin and begins to understand what separates him from his simian peers. After man once more invades his long untouched home, Tarzan sees not only the compassionate, commendable nature of humans as he starts to fall in love with a woman he protects from dangers of the jungle, but also their cruel and destructive side.

I picked up Tarzan of the Apes with the impression that it was antiquated, which I took to mean backward and racist, so imagine my surprise to find that it wasn’t actually that bad, so to speak. Sure, black tribesmen were portrayed as savage, but Burroughs made clear that much of this was a response to similar treatment to them at the hands of Dutch colonials. He seemed to suggest that people of all stripes had the potential to be monstrous, when compared to animals in the wild, though the end goal didn’t seem to be to prove that either animals or men were necessarily better or worse. Tarzan himself seems to be representative of the ideal in both: the inhuman physical prowess and heightened senses developed in order to survive the simple brutality of the jungle; the intelligence, ingenuity and capacity for kindness of man free from the corrupting influence of society.

Class impacts the author’s plot and characterization, and this is where things seemed strange to me, Tarzan being able to learn language and have an innate understanding of gentlemanly behaviour on account of a noble birth rather than anything taught. But it makes sense that someone must have believed in heredity affecting traits thought to be linked to class, and that people still do, otherwise dynasties and birthrights would arguably not hold great weight. As such, I treat this aspect of the story not as something that ruins my enjoyment or immersion but, rather, as something to allow insight into thinking unlike my own––rubbish though I may believe it to be. Besides, even the most gentlemanly and well-bred of secondary characters is shown to be significantly flawed in some way, and definitely well at the mercy of the forces of the jungle, so even Burroughs likely felt that class only accounted for so much.

The story itself feels at least a bit dated or amateurish in the way the author spends great lengths taking us through things I thought could have been at least partially glossed over in the service of pacing, but I honestly liked it more than I didn’t. Things carried on well enough with punchy, often brutal, action, and that’s really all I would expect from something that originated as pulp fiction. That it had at least some interesting commentary on the nature of man in the mix likely means it’s probably at least above average pulp fiction.