A couple of weeks ago, I read and finished Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes. Before this, Disney’s 1999 adaptation was the only one I have ever watched. While I love that movie (Phil Collins rocks!), I’ve always been curious to see the original story, and how different the movie is from the book. How much did Disney have to change up to make the story appealing to their audience, and have that all-important fairy-tale feel and ending? It turns out they had to change a lot – including cutting out some unsavory themes and stereotypes. Even so, the original story is just as fascinating. It’s still easy to see why it earned critical acclaim and is still a well-loved story today.
Origins of the Story
According to his website, Edgar Rice Burroughs was born in Chicago on September 1, 1875. Unfortunately, he struggled quite a lot for the first 36 years of his life.
After graduating from Michigan Military Academy in 1895, Burroughs failed the entrance exam to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He became a private in the Seventh U.S. Cavalry, thinking he’d be promoted to officer if he proved himself. He asked to be sent to “the worst post in America” – which was Fort Grant in the Arizona desert. As he described it, his assignment was to “chase the Apaches.”
Eventually, Burroughs had his father arrange his discharge. From there, Burroughs tried many different professions, including being a cowboy in Idaho, a shopkeeper, a railroad policeman, a gold miner, and an accountant. None of these ventures succeeded for him. He started several businesses which all failed.
Finally in 1911, with a wife, two children, and another on the way, he got desperate and became a lead-pencil sharpener wholesaler. It didn’t make much, but it was at least something.
To escape the reality of the situation, and to entertain his family and anyone else around, Burroughs would make cartoons with dark humor and write all kinds of otherworldly tales. In his leisure time at his wholesaler job, he started writing his first story, Under the Moons of Mars.
He turned in half of the story to All-Story Magazine in 1911. The magazine’s editor, Thomas Newell Metcalf, responded with a positive review of that first half, and encouraged Burroughs to send the second half. Burroughs did, and the entire story was published in the magazine. He earned $400 for first magazine serial rights. To a man that had been struggling for so long, it meant life. He said that check was “the first big event in [his] life.”
But it was just the beginning. Burroughs had another novel in the works that was rejected many times. He would have given up writing, too – if it hadn’t been for the publisher that wouldn’t let him.
Finally, Tarzan of the Apes appeared in All-Story Magazine in 1912. It earned Burroughs only $700 at first – until it was printed and published by A.C. McClurg and Co., and became a bestseller in 1914. For Burroughs and his family, it was all uphill from there.
Burroughs published more stories – including many sequels to the first Tarzan – and became the “master of adventure.” After a life of literary success and a brief career as America’s oldest war correspondent, Burroughs died in his modest home in Encino, California, on March 19, 1950.
From the first part of the novel to the end, you get nice bits of foreshadowing of what’s going to happen, starting with Tarzan’s parents’ voyage to the African coast on the Fuwalda, and going beyond. It made me keep reading to see what will happen. Unfortunately, great plot aside, there are a lot of sexist and racist themes in this book. The first hint of the sexism comes when John and Alice Clayton, Lord and Lady Greystoke, are marooned on the African coast. Alice especially is terrified. When John tries to comfort her by telling her that their distant ancestors survived in prehistoric times, so they could survive too, this is Alice’s reply:
Ah, John, I wish that I might be a man with a man’s philosophy, but I am but a woman, seeing with my heart rather than my head, and all that I can see is too horrible, too unthinkable to put into words.
Even though this comes from the time period Burroughs lived in when this came out, it still isn’t okay. From what I searched around, it repulsed people enough to not want to read the sequels – if they even got through the first book, anyway. Not a good thing for Burroughs in this day and age! It repulsed me, too, and even though I continued reading just to learn what happens in the book, I don’t blame you if you stop reading at this or any other point.
Like in the Disney movie, John and Alice live in a treehouse John builds by the shore. Alice dies there in her sleep when their son John Jr. is one year old. Kerchak, his pack of apes trailing him, catches John Sr. off guard and kills him. Kala, a female ape who just lost her own young, finds and takes baby John from his cradle and raises him as her own. She names him “Tarzan” – “white skin” in the ape language.
From there, we see Tarzan being raised among the apes, and the rest of the story really takes off. Unfortunately, this is where the racist themes start coming into play, too. We see Tarzan discovering his parents’ treehouse and a children’s alphabet book in the bookshelf. Slowly but surely, Tarzan learns to read English. I think preschool and kindergarten teachers would laugh at the impossibility of Tarzan learning to read fluently without the help of another English-speaking human. That aside, with his newly learned ability, Tarzan realizes he is a “M-A-N,” and they are “A-P-E-S.” Literary scholars who reviewed the book have said this metaphorically refers to white supremacy – with Tarzan, the white man, outsmarting and eventually becoming superior to the apes and the African tribespeople that eventually move into his area. Sadly, I can see the metaphor, and I won’t ignore or excuse it.
Speaking of the tribespeople: after one of them kills Kala, Tarzan gets revenge by finding that same hunter and killing him by lynching him with a noose he made. Yes, lynching even shows up in the original Tarzan! He steals poison arrows from the tribe and terrifies the tribe by lynching more of its men and playing other cruel pranks on the people. The tribe, who never catch Tarzan in the act, thinks it’s a tree god punishing them for something by killing their men. The tribespeople leave food and provisions for Tarzan, the “tree god,” in an effort to stop the killing. Sadly, I could see this being a not-so-subtle metaphor for black people appeasing white people to keep from being mistreated – or punished in the days of slavery.
The apes show capacity for motherly love, customs, and culture. But the tribespeople are put below the apes, because they are shown to be cannibals. In a scene when Tarzan has the chance to eat a piece of flesh from the tribesman that killed Kala, he feels “naturally” repulsed by it, and stops.
Tarzan eventually meets newcomers on the African coast – Professor Archimedes Q. Porter, his daughter Jane, her black servant Esmeralda, Jane’s first love interest and Tarzan’s cousin William Cecil Clayton, and their companion Samuel T. Philander. Unlike the Disney movie, Professor Porter and his daughter came from the U.S. Tarzan immediately falls for Jane, the first white woman he’s ever seen. He had seen the tribeswomen before, but was repulsed by them. Esmeralda herself, being of little use to Jane and easily frightened, is also symbolic of the thinking that black people wouldn’t be any better than apes without being civilized by white people. Of course, Tarzan doesn’t feel any impulse to lynch the newcomers.
The themes of sexism continued with a “damsel-in-distress” situation. Jane gets kidnapped by an ape, and Tarzan fights him and saves her. He kisses her, and even though she rejects him, he grabs her and carries her off into the jungle. She fights at first, but then she gives in and even becomes scared when he leaves her alone for a bit. In other words, Jane becomes an obvious symbol of a woman’s dependence on a man for security – financial or otherwise.
Even with these unfortunate elements plaguing the book, the silver lining to Tarzan of the Apes is it still has a fascinating plot with some improbable but compelling moments. There’s a real sense of adventure as Tarzan faces the dangers of the jungle for the first part of his life. We get insight into a whole other world as we get to know the pack of apes and the jungle Tarzan grows up in. (Terk, by the way, doesn’t exist in the book. Tantor the elephant is only mentioned a few times.) Tarzan, in turn, gets to do the same as he gets to see France and Jane’s home in Wisconsin. We also see him change to live in civilization and eventually reclaim his Lord Greystoke title – only to renounce it for Jane’s happiness.
I think the intrigue and uniqueness of the story at its first publishing was what made it so successful and launched an entire media empire of movies, TV shows, and spinoffs that are still being produced today. That’s a great sign you’ve written a timeless story!
What do you think? Have you read Tarzan of the Apes before? What did you think about it? This is my first book review as well – do you think it does the book justice? Let me know your thoughts below!