Tarzan of the Apes

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
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Original ape-man tale more violent, racist than the films.

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The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Burroughs was a successful science-fiction author before he took up the Tarzan series, which came under fire for an Africa that's more wild imagination than scientific accuracy. But most shocking to modern readers -- and perhaps good discussion fodder -- are the story's startlingly outmoded stereotypes, particularly racial ones: Tarzan's innate nobility is attributed to his aristocratic ancestors, while his foes are a tribe of ignorant, vicious cannibals with rings in their noses, and Esmeralda, Jane's obese "Negress" servant, is part Aunt Jemima and part Stepin Fetchit.

Positive Messages

Strong messages about trying to do the right thing and live up to your (often conflicting) responsibilities; being a wise leader; improving yourself for the sake of one you love and sacrificing yourself for your loved one's welfare; displaying courage and quick thinking in defense of your loved ones.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Tarzan is courageous and a wise leader and strives to do the right thing among civilized humans, often at some cost to himself. His ape mother, Kala, is loving and devoted. Most humans, civilized and uncivilized, behave in foolish or evil ways; Jane tries to take care of her absentminded father in often dire situations, and a French soldier proves a true friend. Author Burroughs positions Tarzan as a mix of noble savage and born aristocrat, with values modern-day readers may find puzzling:

"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."

Violence

It's a jungle out there, as humans and animals kill members of their own species and many others with gusto; the body count is rising before young Tarzan is even born. His parents die in his infancy, his mother from shock and disease, his father in a fight with an ape. Besides hunting and hand-to-jaw combat with predators, Tarzan takes great pleasure in terrorizing and killing residents of a tribal village, who for their part have killed his ape mother, among others. They're also cannibals who torture their victims before eating them. Male apes rule with an iron fist and take their mates by force, though when Jane is carried off by an amorous alpha, there's more lurid suggestion than graphic detail. Vengeful soldiers wipe out an entire settlement, and not one but two sets of murderous, mutinous pirates figure in the plot.

Sex

For most of the story, Tarzan and his human friends believe he's the offspring of a human father and an ape mother. There's more lurid suggestion than explicit detail, as Tarzan falls hard for Jane but realizes that what works in the ape world won't work with her. When they're alone together in the jungle, Jane's afraid of his intentions, but he gives her his dagger to protect herself and sleeps outside their shelter. Jane is deeply conflicted about her strong attraction to an "ape"; meanwhile, she has other complications, as back in America she's being forced to marry a creepy rich man to pay her father's debts, while an English aristocrat (Tarzan's cousin, unbeknownst to them all) is in love with her.

Here's the beginning of a legendary relationship:

"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 ...

"When the long knife drank deep a dozen times of Terkoz's 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."

Language

"Ass" (as in, "you are being an ass"); one "all hell broke loose"; several "damned," as in "I've said too damned much."

Consumerism

Tarzan of the Apes launched an empire: Burroughs himself wrote 24 sequels, and the first of many movie versions came along quickly. A shrewd businessman, Burroughs built and promoted the Tarzan franchise in many media during his lifetime and left a lasting legacy in the town of Tarzana, built on the site of his San Fernando Valley Ranch.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

One of Tarzan's exploits involves a scene in which hotel patrons are drinking absinthe and a "huge black, crazed by drink" runs amok.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Tarzan of the Apes, the 1912 book by Edgar Rice Burroughs that launched a pop-cultural empire, is a thrilling page-turner with a minefield on nearly every one of its 400 pages. Murder and mayhem abound, as humans and animals kill each other, as well as members of their own species, with gusto. And there are cannibals. Tarzan himself is fond of snaring members of a jungle tribe with a noose, strangling them, and dropping their bodies from treetops; vengeful soldiers wipe out a village; seafaring scalawags hack and bludgeon one another to death. There are also plentiful, outmoded stereotypes, especially regarding gender roles and race. There's more innuendo about primeval behavior than actual lurid detail in the Tarzan-Jane romance, which involves numerous rescues but only one scene of intense kissing (it ends quickly and leads to much internal conflict).

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What's the story?

In 1888, Lord and Lady Greystoke, a young aristocratic couple on a diplomatic mission to a British colony in Africa, are marooned on a remote coastline after a deadly mutiny on their boat. She dies not long after giving birth to their son, and, after a giant ape kills Lord Greystoke, Kala, a female ape who's recently lost her baby, adopts the infant and calls him "Tarzan," "white skin" in the ape language. As Tarzan grows, he's torn between the world of the apes and the secrets of the shoreline cottage where he was born, though he doesn't know this. The conflict only grows more intense when another crew of nautical no-goodniks abandon their passengers -- including an absent-minded American professor and his spirited daughter, Jane -- on the beach.

Is it any good?

Readers who come to the original from one of the much-sanitized Hollywood versions may be startled to discover a Tarzan tale that's more Quentin Tarantino than Walt Disney. Written for the adult pulp-fiction audience of 1912, TARZAN OF THE APES offers plenty of imaginative adventure, an intriguing premise, and the start of one of pop culture's most notable romances. From the 21st-century viewpoint, it also delivers shocking racist stereotypes (both of African "blacks" and of Jane's cartoonishly useless servant, a "Negress"), lots of gleeful violence, and hilariously improbable plot developments (such as Tarzan teaching himself to read from the children's books his parents left behind). It's a classic adventure and one that's likely to lead to some interesting discussions of what the moviemakers chose to leave out or change -- and why.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about stories of human children raised by wild animals. What other examples can you think of? Why do you think it's such a popular theme?

  • When this book was written, almost no Westerners had ever been to Africa or even seen pictures. Today, if you want to check out a local scene there, you just have to search YouTube. Do you think this helps people have a better understanding of each other's cultures and lives, or does it cause more problems?

  • If this story took place today, how would it be different?

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