Tarzan of the Apes

Edgar Rice Burroughs
Tarzan of the Apes Cover

Tarzan of the Apes


Tarzan of the Apes is a 1912 pulp novel that has had extraordinary influence on popular culture. Disappointment comes with the territory of reading such books a century after they were written. Its flaws of style and cultural viewpoint could overwhelm many readers. Overlooking them and reading the book more like a case study than a novel may be too dry an approach, but so long as such an analytical mode doesn't blind one to the best parts of the narrative, it is really the only way to get through the novel. (I admit to doing some skimming towards the end.)

Everyone thinks they know this story, but depending on which movies you grew up with and what you have read about the history of the book, the back story can still hold surprises. The early part of the book that concerns the child Tarzan raised by the great Anthropoid Apes (whatever exactly those are supposed to be) after the death of his aristocratic British parents on the coast of Africa, is the best part of the book. Burroughs' account of Tarzan's acclimation among the apes and his growing sense of difference is presented in action scenes that are well done and genuinely exciting.

When the next group of white people are stranded on the shore by mutinous sailors, which to judge from this novel must have been a fairly regular occurrence, Burroughs keeps the action entertaining for a while but things fall apart with Tarzan's surprisingly chaste love for Jane, the Baltimore heiress on the trip, and the supposedly comic relief of her senile father and companion. Tarzan has taught himself to read by studying over the years the books left in the cabin that also contains the skeletons of his real mother and father. But he can only speak the language of the apes, with a little lion and elephant thrown in. The famous "Me, Tarzan. You, Jane" moment from the 1932 film becomes a "Me, Tarzan. You Monsieur le Captiaine Benoit of the French Navy" scene when only Tarzan and the naval officer are left behind. Tarzan becomes fluent in French, escapes the jungle with le Capitaine, and pursues Jane to a farmhouse in Minnesota. All this takes far too long and much of it could have resolved by a telegram. His rescue of Jane from a forrest fire is the most gratuitous moment in a book that is not lacking in the same.

The novel ends in a way that sets the stage for the dozen or so sequels to follow, although it is also clear that those sequels will take a different direction than those produced by Hollywood.