Tarzan of the Apes (1912)

Edgar Rice Burroughs

Rating: 8/10

I was initially skeptical about this work, thinking it a simple pulp piece in a long line of a pulp series.  I was pleasantly disproved (for the most part) by the first of what seems to be a promising serial.  What impressed me the most was the ambiguity with which Burroughs treated the themes of duality throughout the book.  One (or at least I) was unclear exactly where the author came down on these issues, and consequently led me to think about the polarities even more.  For example…

Ethnicity

Written in the time it was by a white man, one could expect to find ethnic and derogatory stereotypes, and to be sure, they are indeed found sporadically throughout the work.  The black “savages” of the African jungle are described as unsophisticated and with “flabby lips.”  They, (being a tribe of cannibals), take to torturing a white prisoner with the utmost brutality before eating his flesh.  Yet, Burroughs writes, this tribe came into conflict with Tarzan because they were fleeing cruel and thankless taskmasters (i.e. white imperialist soldiers).  Thus, as it appears to me, that though the author might give an implicit superiority to the white men (and the breeding of the upper class), he labors under no illusions that cruelty for cruelty’s sake is a distinctly human condition, regardless of what continent we hail from.

More obviously crude was the depiction of Esmeralda, the Porter family’s black nanny/servant.  She was portrayed in a hysterical (as “in hysterics”) and ignorant manner complete with broken English.  I’m not sure if she was supposed to provide comic relief, but to a modern reader it was easily the most disappointing part of the book.

Civilization

Again, where exactly Burroughs comes down on nature vs. “civilized” is not readily clear.  He seems to extol the exhilaration and physicality of the jungle and its effect on a well-bred man (Tarzan is often referred to as an idealized Greek/Roman god in physical form).  But Tarzan certainly needs the rudimentary trappings of civilization (and reason) to become king of the apes (tool use which he steals from his dead parents and the local tribe of natives).  When Tarzan finally interacts with men, (which he had been yearning for ever since he figured out he wasn’t an ape), he’s a bit appalled and disgusted with many of his kind (the natives and scoundrel sailors particularly).  Nor does the civilized man understand his reasoning easily.  The “I am not hungry” quote is Tarzan’s answer to the disbelieving “civilized” men about why he won’t go hunt a lion at that very moment, even though he has claimed he is quite capable to do so (and has done so repeatedly in the past).  When money is laid on the line, Tarzan has come to understand its importance and then accedes to the bet (which he wins of course).

Tarzan has trouble fitting into society not because he doesn’t understand it, but because the more primal instinctual reaction seems appropriate and is engrained in his nature.  When he grabs Canler by the throat (who was extorting Jane to marry him) and threatens his life, the civilized folk are in turn appalled.  Yet it gets the job done (albeit coupled with the fact that Tarzan brought Professor Porter’s fortune back to clear his debt which Canler was using as leverage) and the blackmailer agrees to depart.  Even when Tarzan has the option to reveal himself as the true Lord Greystroke (and probably win Jane’s approval), he refuses out of respect for Jane and his rival (the one she chose).  Perhaps a mix of both is the ideal, though Burroughs lets us judge for ourselves.

I’m glad I finally got a chance to read the beginning of this saga, and look forward to more.

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