Tarzan of the Apes | Study Guide

Edgar Rice Burroughs

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Tarzan of the Apes | Chapter 4 : The Apes | Summary



Kerchak, a hulking male gorilla and the leader of the ape tribe that harassed the Claytons for the past year, is in a mad rage. He lashes out at his fellow gorillas, killing one of them, and then chases Kala, a nine-year-old female who is oblivious to his ire until it's too late. She jumps out of his reach, but her baby, losing its grip on her fur, falls to its death 30 feet below. Kerchak's fury disappears and he leads the tribe to the Claytons' cabin so he can try to learn more about the big black stick that makes noises and kills inhabitants of the jungle. Kala gathers her baby's broken body into her arms and refuses to let go.

The door to the cabin is ajar when they arrive. They sneak in, afraid of waking "the little black stick." The "strange white ape" is lying across the table with his head on his arm and a baby is crying in the cradle. John Clayton wakes just before Kerchak attacks and kills John. Kerchak then turns his attention to the cradle, but Kala snatches the baby from under his hands, trading her dead baby for the live one. She scurries into a tree and feeds the baby from her breast.

Kerchak finds the black stick—the rifle—hanging on the wall. After working up the courage to take it off the wall, he finally examines it. His finger closes on the trigger and the gun discharges into the cabin. There's a mad dash to escape the room, and on the way out, the gun (which Kerchak is still holding) trips the lock to the door. The apes can't get back in, so they go back into the forest. Kala joins them but doesn't let anyone else touch her new baby, who seems much frailer and more delicate than the other ape children. She grips him tightly, unwilling to lose another child.


The narrator of Tarzan of the Apes doesn't try to conceal his dislike of the apes roaming the African jungle. Though he often refers to them as "people," he by no means thinks of them as being equal to humans; it's just his way of saying "tribe" or "kind." But that word does beg a comparison between humans and their primate ancestors. Kerchak, the brutal leader of the tribe, is described as having an "extremely low and receding forehead," small bloodshot eyes, a "coarse, flat nose," and "ears large and thin." These characteristics indicate gorillas are not as physically or mentally advanced as humans, and the narrator offers them as examples of the species' inferiority. It must also be noted how similar these descriptions are to the stereotypical notion of what people of African descent look like. Tarzan of the Apes is laden with imagery that implicitly connects the apes to native African people. This is a delicate matter, but one that critics and modern audiences consistently come back to. Edgar Rice Burroughs's intentions are unknown, but his reputation as a champion of social Darwinism is an indication to many readers that the similarities between the descriptions of the apes and Africans are purposeful. Social Darwinists apply Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection (which applies to plants and animals) to humans, and believe Caucasians have evolved to be better than every other race. This "evidence" often supported arguments in favor of Western colonialism and imperialism in India and Africa. Burroughs beliefs in social Darwinism are well known and often cited as the impetus behind his portrayal of the apes and African natives as being less intelligent and more dangerous than their white human counterparts.

Kala, Tarzan's foster mother, is an exception to Burroughs's portrayal of the apes as being a vicious, war-mongering species. She has a "round, high forehead," which the narrator says is a sign of intelligence not found in most of her species. She also has "a great capacity for mother love and mother sorrow." The descriptions of Kala are more like those of the white humans than of her own species, yet she is still not as gentle or conventionally attractive as Lady Alice Clayton. As a "fierce female," Kala will always be second best to Tarzan's "tender and beautiful" human mother. These comparisons again position white humans as being the superior species.

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