Tarzan of the Apes | Study Guide

Edgar Rice Burroughs

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Tarzan of the Apes | Symbols



Tarzan survives in the jungle for so long thanks in part to his weapons—namely John Clayton's knife and his own homemade rope. Weapons are symbols of power: Tarzan's power over his enemies, white Westerners' power over native Africans, and humanity's power over nature. Though Tarzan is smaller and weaker than his ape adversaries, he emerges victorious from each battle thanks to his trusty knife. When they see what he can do with the knife, the apes regard him with awe and respect. It doesn't matter to them how Tarzan maintains supremacy; it just matters that he can do it time and again.

Tarzan also takes away power when he steals weapons. The poison-tipped arrows and spears from Mbonga's village are extremely helpful to Tarzan, but stealing them is more important than using them. The tribespeople feel brave in the unfamiliar jungle when armed with their deadly weapons, and Tarzan's repeated thefts leave them panicked and insecure. Without their weapons they are defenseless against hungry jungle predators and the "trickster spirit" who keeps ransacking their villages.

Tarzan's rope is perhaps the most controversial of his weapons. While he trips Tublat with it a few times, he primarily uses it as a noose. Nooses are associated with lynching black Americans—that is, hanging them without a legal trial. Tarzan uses his noose to kill everyone he deems an enemy, from Sabor the lioness to the native African villagers. He even practices his roping technique on Tublat. The nooses in Tarzan of the Apes don't just represent power, they represent white power over "lesser" races and species.

The Claytons' House

The house John Clayton builds with his bare hands becomes a refuge for him and Alice Clayton from the nightmare their lives have become. Within the cabin walls they can pretend everything is just as it was when they lived in England. Having furniture and books makes them feel civilized, as do their conversations about mundane things. For them, the house is not only a haven from the vicious creatures lurking outside its walls but also a symbol of the safety of Western culture. People who live in houses with windows and locking doors don't worry about being eaten alive or brutally maimed by jungle creatures, and within the cabin's four walls, Alice and John don't have to, either.

Tarzan discovers the cabin when he is 10, and he returns to it again and again, until he finally makes it his home at age 21. To him the Claytons' house is a symbolic gateway to humanity. He doesn't even know humans exist or that he is one when he first enters the house, but the contents within give him a basic understanding of how humans differ from animals. When Tarzan enters the cabin and locks the door, he is shutting out the reminders of his jungle existence so he can figure out who—and what—he really is. The more Tarzan goes to the cabin, the more human he becomes.

White Ducks

The clothing referred to as "white ducks" in Tarzan of the Apes is a lightweight, white canvas men's suit, traditionally associated with Westerners living in or visiting Africa. Cecil Clayton is wearing one when he steps off the Arrow, and Tarzan and Lieutenant D'Arnot are both sewn a set of the garments once they arrive at the French mission. Although this type of outfit may seem unimportant in the grand scheme of things, it has special significance when it is worn by Tarzan. Up to this point Tarzan spent his entire life either naked or as close as one could possibly be while still wearing clothing. Apes don't wear clothes, so Tarzan didn't, either. Donning the white ducks in civilization is symbolic of Tarzan's transition from apelike man to civilized man. His clothing identifies him as human. The white ducks also represent the ease with which Tarzan is accepted into white civilized society. The white hunters in the harbor town never question Tarzan's past—they assume he is just like them because he looks just like them. The ducks make it clear Tarzan has achieved the assimilation he so desired.

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