Tarzan of the Apes | Study Guide

Edgar Rice Burroughs

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Tarzan of the Apes | Chapter 5 : The White Ape | Summary



Tarzan doesn't grow the way the other ape children do. He is smaller and weaker than the other infants in the tribe. His foster father, Tublat, wants Kala to abandon him so they can produce stronger, most useful children, but Kala refuses. The helpless white baby grows into a strong and resourceful 10-year-old who is just as comfortable swinging between the trees as his primate cousins.

It's around this time Tarzan and his "cousin," a young male ape, venture to the lake. Tarzan is distressed by his reflection in the deep waters. He feels ugly compared to his broad-nosed, hairy cousin. He's so busy cataloging his small mouth, blunt teeth, and hairless body that he doesn't hear Sabor, the lioness, preparing to pounce. She lets out a wild shriek and leaps into the air. Tarzan throws himself into the water, but his cousin's reflexes aren't so fast. He becomes lunch. Tarzan calls the rest of the apes from his watery hideout and Sabor slinks away.

Kerchak's tribe is always on the move in search of food, safety, and good weather. Tarzan sleeps in Kala's arms no matter where they stop for the night, giving "the great, hairy beast all the affection that would have belonged to his fair young mother had she lived." Tublat still hates Tarzan, but now the feeling is mutual. Through some trial and error, the human boy learns how to tie knots in ropes of twisted grass. He eventually figures out how to make a noose, and he delights in strangling Tublat with it. Thanks to his "divine power of reason," he eventually realizes he could use the rope on Sabor, too, though that vision won't become a reality for several years.


Ten-year-old Tarzan is finally beginning to realize he isn't the same as the rest of the apes of the tribe. The differences he's noticed so far are purely physical: he's smaller than the apes his age, his skin is a different color and mostly devoid of hair, and his facial features are narrower and more defined. Throughout his life Tarzan has never come across another ape who looks remotely like him, and he automatically assumes his differences make him ugly. The envy with which he looks at his cousin suggests that one's notion of what is attractive is heavily influenced by the society to which one is exposed, not genetics. In this instance, nurture (or the way someone grows up) is stronger than nature.

Though Tarzan focuses on the physical differences between him and his ape family, the reader can see the cognitive differences, too. Unlike his primate siblings, Tarzan is capable of rational thought. While everyone else is following their instincts—hunting, hiding, and forming family groups—Tarzan is playing tricks on Tublat and making tools. The ropes he creates have multiple uses, mostly for harassing Tublat, but Tarzan is always thinking of new ways to use them. The apes aren't capable of that type of thought. Tarzan also proved his intellectual superiority when Sabor crept up to him and his cousin at the lake. His cousin instinctually freezes upon hearing Sabor's screech, but Tarzan quickly analyzes the situation and decides jumping into the water (which he hates) is better than being eaten by a lion. Tarzan thinks clearly enough not only to make a decision but also to make the right one. His newfound love of the water also separates him from the rest of the tribe; they all dislike swimming. Tarzan is clearly different from everyone around him, but at this age only the physical differences bother him.

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