Tarzan of the Apes | Study Guide

Edgar Rice Burroughs

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Tarzan of the Apes | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Origins of the Hero

Tarzan of the Apes is the story of a man who is raised in the African jungle by a tribe of apes. The man's parents, John and Alice Clayton—also known by their noble titles, Lord and Lady Greystoke—sail to Africa in 1888 as part of John's official duties with the British Colonial Office. They intend to live on the continent for at least five years, but they never make it to their destination; a mutiny on their ship leaves them stranded on the uninhabited west coast.

Hoping they will be rescued, John builds a one-room cabin complete with latching door and a window while the pregnant Alice prepares to give birth. Their initial fear of wild animals gradually dissipates, and after a month John is so comfortable he forgets to carry his gun when working outside the house. His neglect proves costly when he and Alice are attacked by an enormous ape. The ape dies, but Alice is never the same.

That night, Alice gives birth to a son. John spends the next year caring for his family; Alice is completely detached from reality and thinks they are at home in London. She dies on the baby's first birthday. The next morning John awakes from a nap to find a band of apes in the cabin. The leader, Kerchak, kills John and heads for the baby, who is crying in his cradle. Kala, a female gorilla whose own child had just died, snatches the human baby and puts the corpse of her child in the cradle. Back in the treetops, Kala names the boy Tarzan, which means "white ape." He is now her child.


Ten-year-old Tarzan knows he isn't like the other apes in his tribe. Pale and hairless, he envies their broad facial features and hair-covered bodies. He finally understands why he is different after rummaging through the contents of the Claytons' cabin. The shelf of books brought from England contains an alphabet primer, and Tarzan studies the pictures and "little bugs" inside. He sees pictures of beings like himself, but no one like Kala or Kerchak. Tarzan soon realizes he isn't an ape but a B-O-Y. He reluctantly leaves the cabin that first day but takes a souvenir with him: John Clayton's hunting knife. Tarzan inadvertently figures out how to use it during a battle with a gorilla. He emerges victorious, but just barely. Kala nurses him back to health, and after a month he is swinging through the trees again.

Tarzan returns to the cabin as often as possible and teaches himself the meaning of the little "bugs," which are letters of the alphabet. He begins to understand he is a human, which makes him feel superior to his ape family. By the time he is 17 he can read and write in English, though he can only speak the apes' language. He has also mastered the knife and figured out how to make rope out of the jungle grasses, which he uses to harass his foster father, Tublat. Tarzan and Tublat come to blows after a special ape ceremony. Tarzan kills Tublat, which earns him respect from the rest of his tribe.


Tarzan's world changes when he is 18. Native African villagers, led by a king named Mbonga, settle in the apes' territory after being forced out of their village by Western forces. Tarzan learns of the tribe when Mbonga's only son, Kulonga, kills Kala. Tarzan is stunned to discover his mother's killer is human. Tarzan has never seen another human before, not even a "negro," as people of Kulonga's skin tone are described in the books Tarzan reads. He kills Kulonga and then deposits his body at the village entrance before stealing a pile of poison-tipped arrows and causing mischief in the village. The cannibalistic villagers are terrified of the "evil spirit" haunting their new home.

Tarzan finally accomplishes his lifelong goal of killing Sabor, the lioness, but his bragging sends Kerchak into a furious rage. Tarzan and Kerchak have a brutal fight, from which Tarzan emerges victorious. He is now King of the Apes. The tribe thrives under his guidance, but soon the emotional and intellectual gulf between him and his primate family becomes too much. He wants to leave the tribe so he can spend more time in the cabin, but he doesn't want the apes to think he is weak. He fights Tublat, who has always hated Tarzan, but lets him live. The apes are more in awe of Tarzan than ever before. He leaves the tribe with his pride intact and moves into the cabin.

Ten days later a ship called the Arrow arrives in the harbor. Aboard are 19-year-old Jane Porter; her father, Professor Porter; Mr. Philander, the professor's assistant and friend; Cecil Clayton, a family friend and the son of the current Lord Greystoke, who is John Clayton's brother; and Esmeralda, Jane's black maid. They have come to Africa to look for a long-lost treasure, which they found. But the mutinous sailors strand the Porters and their friends on the beach, taking the treasure chest for themselves.

Tarzan watches from afar as these travelers come to grips with life in this unfamiliar and frightening land. He falls in love with Jane and protects her and her companions as best he can without letting them see him. A month later, while he is still working up the courage to meet them face to face, Jane is kidnapped by Tublat, who wants to make her his wife. Tarzan kills Tublat and then follows his natural instincts and whisks Jane away to a quiet part of the jungle. He can't speak any human language and she can't speak ape, but she falls in love with him.

While the rest of Jane's group looks for her, a French naval cruiser appears in the distance. French sailors have been looking for the Porters and their friends ever since they captured the Arrow. The sailors readily agree to help look for Jane, but the expedition goes horribly wrong when Lieutenant D'Arnot is kidnapped by the African villagers. He is moments from death when Tarzan rescues him. Jane is already safely back at the cabin, but D'Arnot is too injured to be transported very far. He and Tarzan stay in the jungle for a week, during which D'Arnot teaches Tarzan how to speak in French. When they finally return to the beach, Jane and the rest of the Westerners are gone.

Westward Bound

Tarzan is heartbroken and angry. He renounces his humanity and returns to life in the jungle, only to reconsider a few hours later out of concern for D'Arnot, who accidentally shoots Tarzan upon his return. The two men recover for a week and then begin a 10-week trek through the jungle. They arrive in a harbor town, where they wait for D'Arnot's bank to wire him funds for the rest of the journey. Tarzan looks nothing like the man swinging naked from the trees just two months ago, but he is still wild at heart. He accepts a dare to kill a lion using only a knife and a rope; then he uses the winnings to charter a boat to return to the cabin so he can dig up the treasure chest, which he saw the crew of the Arrow bury before their departure. At the time he didn't understand what they were doing, but now he knows the chest is very valuable to the Porters.

Tarzan and D'Arnot sail to France a few weeks later. Tarzan is eager to get to the United States, but D'Arnot insists they stop in Paris. During the trip to the Western outpost, Tarzan had D'Arnot read John Clayton's journal, which was written in French. The journal has a tiny set of fingerprints in one of the margins, and D'Arnot wants Tarzan to be fingerprinted for comparison. D'Arnot is certain Tarzan is the heir to the Greystoke title, but Tarzan is still convinced Kala is his biological mother. The fingerprinting expert is out of the office, so they will have to wait a few weeks for the results.

Meanwhile, Tarzan sails to America. He first stops in Baltimore to search for Jane, only to learn she and her father have moved to their family farm in Wisconsin. When Tarzan arrives there, the surrounding forest is engulfed in flames. He swings through the trees and rescues Jane, who had been on a walk when the wildfire began to close in. At first delighted to see her "forest god," Jane soon wonders if she was ever really in love with him. Jane already has plenty of man trouble. She's engaged to Robert Canler but despises him; unfortunately, her father owes him a large debt, so she feels obligated. Cecil Clayton is also vying for her hand.

Canler flees with the minister. Tarzan attempts to speak with Jane alone, but Cecil Clayton gets there first. Jane accepts his proposal, though she thinks of him only as a friend. She immediately regrets her decision when she learns just how much Tarzan loves her, but she won't break her word to Clayton. Although she reciprocates Tarzan's feelings, she says they must never see one another again. Moments later, Tarzan learns he is the son of John and Alice Clayton and therefore the real Lord Greystoke. He says nothing of his lineage or title so as not to ruin Jane's chances of a happy life.

Tarzan of the Apes Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 John and Alice Clayton are stranded on the African coast.

Rising Action

2 Kala adopts Tarzan after the Claytons' deaths.

3 Tarzan kills Bolgani with a knife.

4 Kulonga kills Kala, and then Tarzan kills Kulonga.

5 Tarzan kills Kerchak and becomes King of the Apes.

6 Tarzan saves Jane Porter from Tublat. They fall in love.

7 Tarzan saves Lieutenant D'Arnot from the cannibals.

8 Tarzan gives up his jungle life to find Jane.


9 Tarzan rescues Jane from a Wisconsin forest fire.

Falling Action

10 Tarzan scares away Robert Canler.

11 Jane declines Tarzan's proposal in favor of Cecil Clayton's.


12 Tarzan learns he is Lord Greystoke.

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