Tarzan of the Apes | Study Guide

Edgar Rice Burroughs

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Tarzan of the Apes | Chapter 1 : Out to Sea | Summary



Tarzan of the Apes begins with a brief introduction from the narrator, who originally heard half the story from a friend before researching the rest of it himself. He can't prove the events of the story really happened, but he has amassed enough evidence to feel confident his version of events is somewhat close to reality.

John Clayton, also known by his formal title of Lord Greystoke, works for the British Colonial Office. He is sent to British West Africa to investigate the recruiting practices of an unnamed European power that is essentially forcing young local men into "virtual slavery" under the guise of joining a native army. Lord Greystoke and his young wife, Alice Clayton, sail to Africa in 1888. They arrive in Freetown a month later, where they charter a small ship called the Fuwalda to take them to their new home.

The Fuwalda's officers are "swarthy bullies, hating and hated by their crew." This includes the captain, who beats a sailor after accidentally tripping over him, and then shoots another, Black Michael, for springing to his crewmate's defense. The bullet meant for Black Michael's heart ends up in his leg thanks to the quick work of Lord Greystoke, who "had struck down the captain's arm as he had seen the weapon flash in the sun." The captain and Lord Greystoke are equally furious with one another, but the captain backs down first, out of fear of the English navy, which would hunt him down for mistreating a British civil servant. Lord Greystoke and Lady Alice keep to themselves for the next few days, though they can sense danger is brewing aboard the ship. Lord Greystoke nearly asks the captain for a transfer to a nearby British warship but reconsiders after realizing how weak he will seem in the eyes of his fellow countrymen.

Just hours after the British vessel disappears over the horizon, Lord Greystoke and Lady Alice learn there is to be a mutiny (or rebellion) against the officers of the ship. Upon advice from his wife, Lord Greystoke tries to warn the captain, who tells him to mind his own business. The Claytons return to their room to discover their two revolvers and ammunition have been stolen. A note shoved under the door warns them against reporting the theft and what they know about the upcoming mutiny.


Tarzan of the Apes is told from the perspective of a first-person omniscient narrator. Omniscient narration—wherein the narrator knows everything about everyone in the story—is usually presented by a third-person narrator (or someone who isn't a character in the story). Edgar Rice Burroughs takes a different tact by presenting his tale from the viewpoint of someone who has heard Tarzan's story secondhand and is now relaying it to a new audience. His role is minor—he makes no references to himself after Chapter 1, nor is he present in any of the plot's events—but it makes an incredible impact on the readers' experience by begging the question: Are the events of Tarzan of the Apes fact or fiction? "I do not say the story is true," the narrator cautions. Careful readers will note he also doesn't say the story isn't true. This space between reality and make-believe is where Burroughs captures the readers' interest. Establishing the first-person narrator's doubts about the story's truth pushes readers to question their own beliefs. Readers are no longer simply reading for pleasure; they are trying to figure out whether these events really happened. Even before Tarzan is mentioned, readers are eager to find out more.

Spanning 21 years between 1888 and 1909, most of the events of Tarzan of the Apes take place in a fictional territory in western Africa. This was near the end of colonialism in Africa—the political, economic, and cultural domination of native tribes and land by European powers. Behind the oft-spouted argument that Africans would be better served by European customs, religions, and political structures was the common Western belief that native Africans were inferior to white Europeans. Burroughs emphasizes this misconception throughout Tarzan of the Apes and extends it to include anyone who isn't British, white, and of noble birth. The narrator holds up Lord Greystoke as the paragon of all that is good and manly, the type of man associated with "the noblest monuments of historic achievement upon a thousand victorious battle fields—a strong, virile man—mentally, morally, and physically." In contrast, the narrator refers to the crew of the Fuwalda as "the offscourings of the sea—unhanged murderers and cutthroats of every race and every nation." Lord Greystoke's appearance and social rank make him a hero to be admired, while the sailors are all cast as villainous, uneducated "brutes." In Chapter 1 (as throughout the rest of the book), noble rank and familial lineage make the man.

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