Tarzan of the Apes

Tarzan of the Apes is the first of twenty-four novels in the Tarzan/Adventures of Lord Greystoke series by Sir Edgar Rice Burroughs. The book is an American publication and was first published in 1912 in a magazine titled the All Story.

Tarzan was born in the African jungle to Lord John and Lady Alice Greystoke. After the death of Lord and Lady Greystoke, Tarzan was taken and raised by the ape Kala. Tarzan grew knowing nothing of his "human" life, always thinking that he was an ape. With the help of the books and tools left in what was once the cabin where Tarzan's parents lived, he was able to teach himself to read and write, but not to speak.

Years later, an American gentleman and his daughter Jane visited the jungle in hopes of finding buried treasure. Instead, they found Tarzan, who worked to protect them. The Americans and other men in their group did not stay long, they returned to America. Tarzan was so in love with Jane that he followed her to America and once again protected her, this time from a forest fire and an unsuitable suitor, only to be turned down when she decided to marry another man.

About the Author

Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950)

After a chain of unsuccessful jobs, Burroughs turned his efforts to writing in order to support his family. Although he was first successful with a series of stories set on Mars, Tarzan was the character that cemented his name into literary history.


Tarzan of the Apes illustrates Tarzan as not only a jungle hero, but a man who is able to communicate in many languages and styles. He can speak with animals in their language and teaches himself to communicate in English writing and later the spoken word. However, he uses each language differently and treats the recipiants of his languages differently as well.

Tarzan to the Animals

Tarzan, though a citizen of the jungle, shows little respect for the other animals in the jungle. He is continually looking to kill lions and other animals for their skins and simply to show his brute strength. When dared by men, not knowing of his jungle upbringing, to kill a lion with nothing but a bit of rope and a knife, he complies. Having lived among these animals for so long does not influence his decision, he simply kills for sport.

Tarzan to Women

Lacking in respect for the animals of the jungle, Tarzan lacks none for Jane. He loves her and tries his best to care for her. Although Jane's reactions to his advances seem somewhat shocking, she adores him and admires his strength and animal behavior. Tarzan likewise has fallen in love with Jane and gives up all he knows in order to follow her to the United States, and saves her life once again. This time, rather than take her away into the jungle, he chivilriously allows her to make her own decision in the face of marriage.

Unlike many of the male characters in African literature, Tarzan choses not to devote his life to any woman except Jane. In this way he is devoted like Mbenda in Agatha Moudio's Son, yet different from Okonkwo or El Hadji in Things Fall Apart and Xala.

Tarzan to the Villiage of Mbonga

Tarzan behaves essentially as a colonist toward the Villiage of Mbonga. He steals arrows from them and frightens them into thinking he is a god. Although these people look more like him than any ape in the jungle, Tarzan views them as completely different. The racism Tarzan shows toward this tribe in not unlike that which Kurtz and Marlow show toward the Africans in Heart of Darkness.

Tarzan to American and European Men

Tarzan shows great respect to the men who accompany Jane to his jungle. He protects them and makes sure that they are always safe. He then conforms to their ways, in a similar fashion as El Hadji does in Xala ending his colonization by taking the place of the colonizer.



Edgar Rice Burroughs' novel Tarzan of the Apes seems to strongly indicate his feelings of the full civilization of white men and the lack of civilization of for other humans. "The immediate vision of the book figures those ideological correlatives of the Western sign - empiricism, idealism, mimeticism, monoculturalism - that sustain a tradition of discipline of Commonwealth history" (Berglund 55)

Tarzan, even though secluded in the jungle, teaches himself to read. Burroughs explains this simply by the fact that as a human his knowledge is superior to that of not only the apes, but to the villagers of Mbonga's tribe. In fact, when Jane Porter and her father arrive in the harbor, Tarzan writes them a note warning, "This is the house of Tarzan, the killer of beasts and many black men. Do not harm the things which are Tarzan's. Tarzan watches" (Burroughs 116). The "black men" that Tarzan killed, were lynched by his hand and his rope. In addition, Tarzan gives no thought to writing to the Porters, yet not once does he write to the village of Mbonga. In response to this, Jeff Berglund critiques, "If he [Tarzan] intuits that writing is a product of humans, why does he refrain from using it with other humans? If the binary opposite of textuality is orality, then the Africans of the Mbongan tribe in their extreme orality - cannibalism - are alienated from the English book, from all that it connotes, the power it bestows. Burroughs seems to be suggesting that WRITE = WHITE = RIGHT(CIVILIZATION). Moreover, he suggests that Tarzan senses an inherent connection between the written word, the self-created English book and whiteness: he intuits that writing is a means of communication between white humans, not just between paper and reader" (60). Through his writing, Burroughs creates a character that does not view life and humanity, but only to better his own circumstances and those of Jane Porter.

Films and Other Tarzan Paraphenalia

Tarzan is one of the best known characters in all fiction. In 1917, the first movie based on his adventures was made starring Elmo Lincoln. There were later movies, most recently a Disney version, as well as comic books, comic strips, Playstation games, and countless other forms of Tarzan paraphernalia. Tarzan has become an archetype of the great lover, and the strongest man. One could even say he was one of the sources for the hit series Survivor.


Although there are thousands of Tarzan sites, there were a few of my favorites:

***Tarzan of the Apes (Project Gutenberg)

Full text of Sir Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes.

***Tarzan of the Apes Movie

This site provides the slides from the first Tarzan film starring Elmo Lincoln and Gordon Griffith made in 1917.

*Edgar Rice Buroughs: An Illustrated Chrono-log

Includes illustrations from many Tarzan book and comic covers.

*** Tarzan of the Internet

A good site containing many Tarzan links.


Allen Carey-Webb sets up an interesting reading plan using Tarzan of the Apes and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness together. Draw comparisons between the two novels concerning the invasion of the jungle and the perspectives of each novel. In addition, read Chinua Achebe's essay on racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

The Empire Writes Back: Reading Postcolonial Literatures with and Against the Canon

A course syllabus for Postcolonial literature at Humboldt State University in Calafornia including Tarzan of the Apes.

2000-20001 Senior Seminars

A course offering from the Department of English at the University of Washington which focuses on masculinity. Tarzan of the Apes is one of the included texts.

Wild Children

This site contains word and sentence exercises intended for ESL students. Although not for the advanced student, it is an interesting teaching concept that links literature and technology while keeping them both fun!


Berglund, Jeff. "Write, Right, White, Rite: Literacy, Imperialism, Race, and Cannibalism in Edgar Rice burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes." Studies in American Fiction 27 (Spring 1999): 53-76.

Burroughs, Edgar Rice. Tarzan of the Apes. New York: Ballentine, 1973.

Carey-Webb, Allen. "Heart of Darkness, Tarzan, and the 'Third World': Canons and Encounters in World Literature, English 109." College Literature 19-20 (October 1992-February 1993): 121-141.


Colonial & Postcolonial Literary Dialogues

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