Tarzan of the Apes | Study Guide

Edgar Rice Burroughs

Download a PDF to print or study offline.

Study Guide
Cite This Study Guide

How to Cite This Study Guide

quotation mark graphic


Course Hero. "Tarzan of the Apes Study Guide." Course Hero. 29 Nov. 2017. Web. 21 Jan. 2019. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Tarzan-of-the-Apes/>.

In text

(Course Hero)



Course Hero. (2017, November 29). Tarzan of the Apes Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved January 21, 2019, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Tarzan-of-the-Apes/

In text

(Course Hero, 2017)



Course Hero. "Tarzan of the Apes Study Guide." November 29, 2017. Accessed January 21, 2019. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Tarzan-of-the-Apes/.


Course Hero, "Tarzan of the Apes Study Guide," November 29, 2017, accessed January 21, 2019, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Tarzan-of-the-Apes/.

Tarzan of the Apes | Motifs



Race is a preoccupation for the characters of Tarzan of the Apes. Tarzan is obsessed with finding other white people like himself, and he instinctually characterizes the neighboring black villagers as being inferior. Lieutenant D'Arnot is also concerned about race. D'Arnot is automatically afraid of the person approaching in in Mbonga's village until he sees it is a white man. Even Jane Porter makes remarks about peoples' races, referring to the villagers who tried to kill D'Arnot as "poor savage negroes." In every instance where a person's race is mentioned, it is always assumed white people are good and friendly, while black people are violent and dangerous. This line of thinking supports Burroughs's theme of white superiority.

Burroughs doesn't just note whether a character is light- or dark-skinned, white or black, as would be somewhat normal for a text featuring characters of different ethnic backgrounds. Instead, he describes skin colors and racial characteristics in detail. Modern readers may find this level of attention creepy and fetishistic, or overly obsessive. Kulonga (one of the villagers) is described as a "sleek and hideous thing of ebony, pulsing with life." Note that he is called a thing, not a person. Conversely, Jane (who is white) is described as having "delicate ... snowy skin." The narrator's description of Jane makes her seem fragile and worthy of admiration, while his words about Kulonga are meant to inspire fear and disgust. The white people are better than the native Africans because of their skin color.

Skin color is also important when it comes to people from the same country. Esmeralda, Jane's African American maid, is spoken about negatively throughout the book to show she is of lower status and class than the white people she serves. Her weight is ridiculed, her eyes are always "rolling" as if she were a character in a minstrel show, and her dialect is about as far from the King's English as one can get. The character exists only to provide comic relief. She and the other black figures in the book are caricatures rather than fully developed, nuanced characters. Their purpose is to highlight the superior characteristics of the white people in the book.


Cannibalism is the purposeful eating of one's own species. Though unusual in Western society, it has been practiced throughout history in various places around the world. Cannibalism is most often associated with "native tribes" that have not adapted to Western culture. In Tarzan of the Apes, cannibalism represents the animalistic behaviors of the "lower orders" of animal species, including different races of humans. The African natives who infiltrate the apes' territory are defined by their cannibalism. Their teeth are sharpened to fine points, and they always seem to have some enemy tied to the stake for a ritual death ceremony. Their first instinct upon capturing Lieutenant D'Arnot is to eat him. This puts them on equal footing with Tarzan's tribe of apes, which also eats their enemies, though the apes do not kill specifically for food.

Tarzan instinctually knows it isn't okay to eat other humans. The thought of eating Kulonga makes Tarzan feel nauseous, so even though the apes have taught him to eat his dead, he easily passes up the meal. This speaks to Tarzan's "good breeding" and upper-class lineage. That's not the case for the mutinous sailors on the Arrow. They are not as highborn as the ape-man, and some of them end up eating their dead shipmates. The narrator notes how hunger changes them "from human beasts to wild beasts." They are even worse than the native tribespeople and the apes, who don't eat their own dead. Throughout Tarzan of the Apes, cannibalism is a sign of racial, class, and species inferiority to white humans.


The romance between Tarzan and Jane is described throughout the book as being "primeval" in nature. That means it is based on primitive or raw instinct. Jane falls in lust with Tarzan after just a glimpse of his "godlike exterior," and she desires his kisses even though she knows it is unbecoming for a young woman of her status to have that kind of physical contact with a man who is not her betrothed. More importantly, Jane feels safe in Tarzan's care, and for a time she even thinks she could live with him in the jungle for the rest of her life. She is drawn to his strength, fearlessness, and protection, all of which are thought as very masculine traits. Tarzan falls in love with Jane for similar reasons. Her beauty is marvelous, but what really attracts him is her obvious need of someone to take care of her in this dangerous new land. He knows "she was created to be protected, and that he was created to protect her."

The idea that men are duty bound to protect women is connected to stereotypical ideals of masculinity and femininity. Men were long considered the family protectors, which meant they needed to be brave, strong, and smart. Conversely, women were considered the heart, or emotional center, of the family. Femininity is therefore traditionally associated with tenderness, grace, and vulnerability. Tarzan and Jane both fit within these gender-prescribed molds, and their romantic interactions emphasize the traditional roles of masculinity and femininity in human relationships.

Cite This Study Guide

information icon Have study documents to share about Tarzan of the Apes? Upload them to earn free Course Hero access!