Tarzan of the Apes | Study Guide

Edgar Rice Burroughs

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Tarzan of the Apes | Chapter 3 : Life and Death | Summary



John Clayton builds a house for himself and Alice over the next month. Though it is a simple one-room log cabin, it is well built and secure. The Claytons soon get used to the howls and screeches of the jungle, even befriending the local birds and little monkeys. While cutting down a tree one afternoon, John notices the monkeys are in an uproar. He quickly spots the source of their unease: an enormous "man-brute" of an ape "crashing through the underbrush directly toward him." John is quite a distance from the house and completely unarmed save for his axe. He shouts a warning at Alice and tells her to go inside and lock the door behind her. Instead, she runs inside and returns with a rifle. The ape lunges at John, who swings the axe only to have it taken from him by the enormous beast. The ape attacks, but a gunshot rings out before his fangs sink into John's throat. The bullet pierces the ape's back, and he whirls around to direct his fury at Alice, who can't figure out how to fire the gun again. She faints as the ape tackles her. John rushes to her rescue and realizes the ape is dead from the gunshot wound.

Alice wakes two hours later and tells John about the "awful dream" she had about leaving London to live "in some horrible place where great beasts attacked us." Alice is never the same after that. She gives birth that night to a little boy, and spends the next year convinced that she, John, and their son are in their cozy London home. Nevertheless, "the joy and happiness she took in the possession of her little son and the constant attentions of her husband" made it one of the happiest years of her life. John, glad Alice doesn't know about their hopeless situation, gives up the hope of rescue. He busies himself with continual improvements to the cabin, including a wooden lock for the front door to protect Alice when he's away from the cabin hunting or searching for fruits and other supplies.

Alice dies on the baby's first birthday. A distraught John writes his final journal entry—"My little son is crying for nourishment—O Alice, Alice, what shall I do?"—and then drops his head to the table. The baby cries in the background.


John and Alice Clayton haven't just left England; they've left human civilization. Instead of trying to adapt to their surroundings, they try to make their surroundings adapt to them. John chops down trees to build their house, hunts the local animals for food, and crafts interior decorations out of clay and wood. His and Alice's home is symbolic of the security of Western culture. Within its walls they are civilized. They read books, have conversations, and try to make their lives as normal as possible. Forgetting the reality of their situation, they are lulled into complacency, which results in the dire effects of the first ape attack, proving that the resourceful white Westerners are no match for the strength and speed of the jungle's inhabitants. The jungle is the embodiment of danger, and its dark and deadly reach seeps through the cabin's walls following Alice's injury. Despite the trappings of home, John now realizes he is powerless against the dark creatures hiding within the trees. Threats surround his family on every side, and it is only a matter of time before he and his son meet their end, too.

John's knack for building houses and interior decorations out of rudimentary materials is certainly unusual for a man of his title and social class. Lords don't build their own houses or hunt for their food; they have people to do that for them. Yet Lord Greystoke is perfectly at ease hewing logs and skinning leopards and lions. This is partly because of the nature of pulp adventure stories, which are often laden with improbable events and fantastic characters that require a suspension of disbelief to be accepted by the reader, but it's also a function of John's overt masculinity. John Clayton is the embodiment of male strength, talent, and virtue; therefore, he can do these things without any training. His inherent knowledge of masculine tradecraft is similar to Alice's innate maternal instinct, which remains intact even after her sanity is gone.

Chapter 3 includes references to two things that will become important later in the book. The first is the unnamed baby, who the reader learns in the next chapter is none other than Tarzan. The second important reference is to that of John's journal. Written entirely in French, it is the one item in the cabin that contains any clues about what befell the Claytons when they reached Africa. It is also the missing piece to the adult Tarzan's identity. Connecting his past to his future, the journal must be discovered, interpreted, and understood before Tarzan can fully understand himself.

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