Tarzan of the Apes | Study Guide

Edgar Rice Burroughs

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Tarzan of the Apes | Themes


White Superiority

Tarzan of the Apes is the story of a white man who survives and thrives in the wilds of the African jungle. He is stronger, faster, smarter, deadlier, and more dashing than every animal and human he meets. This could be said for dozens of adventure heroes were it not for the insistence of the book's narrator that Tarzan's superiority is directly correlated to his race. Over and over again the reader is told how Tarzan is genetically perfect. His thin nose, sculpted physique, intelligence, and good manners are attributed to his heritage. The narrator even goes so far as to describe Tarzan's blood as "the best of a mighty race of fighters." There is nothing this man can't do: he teaches himself to read and write, he annihilates foes twice his size and strength, and he masters Western culture in the span of three months to reunite with his true love. Tarzan is perfect, and he comes from perfect stock. John Clayton, a white English lord and Tarzan's biological father, is described in similarly glowing terms. Strong and virile, he's the type of Englishman the narrator associates with "the noblest monuments of historic achievement upon a thousand victorious battlefields." John Clayton's superiority is also a function of his heritage; when Professor Porter and Mr. Philander examine his remains, they say his skeleton belongs to someone of "the higher white races."

The supremacy of white people in Tarzan of the Apes is also supported by the less-than-flattering depictions of African and African American characters. The native Africans who live near Tarzan's hunting ground are described as "poor savage negroes" "more wicked than his own apes," with "bestial faces" and "sleek and hideous" bodies, all of which serve to make them seem evil. Their penchant for human flesh only enforces that image. The villagers are not depicted as smart; when they can't figure out who is stealing arrows and killing their warriors they immediately blame an evil spirit. Even more damning is the fact that Tarzan doesn't attempt to communicate with them through writing the way he does with white people. The pictures in Tarzan's alphabet primer show him that B-O-Y and M-A-N have light-colored skin. The N-E-G-R-O has dark-colored skin and is neither boy nor man. Tarzan automatically assumes the villages don't know the "language of men" because he doesn't view them as his equals. The villagers' primitive and animalistic behavior makes them foils—characters whose qualities highlight the qualities of other characters—for the story's upper-class white people. In short, the black characters are presented in such a bad light that it makes the white characters look really good in comparison.


Since his story was first published in 1912, the name Tarzan has become synonymous with the masculine ideal. There is no one as fast or as strong or as cunning or as brave as he, and he comes by all of it naturally. The narrator describes him as a "perfect type of the strongly masculine, unmarred by dissipation"—that is, Tarzan is not subject to the squandering of energy or resources, or brutal or degrading passions. Tarzan is rational and even-keeled; nothing fazes him, not even ceremonial killings (and meals) at the stake. Perhaps the most important aspect of his masculinity, aside from his physical perfection, is his fearlessness. Tarzan literally does not understand what it means to be afraid. His father, John Clayton, is also described as being "brave and fearless." He has the added gift of being able to empathize with those who are afraid, which is a trait his son seems to have inherited. Tarzan makes Jane Porter feel safe and unafraid after one of the most harrowing ordeals of her life, even though she's been whisked through the forest by a strange, seemingly primitive man who doesn't speak any human language. The manliest of men fear nothing and protect those who are afraid.

The character of Tarzan fulfills the stereotypically "masculine" desires of companionship, survival, and advemanture. Completely free from societal pressures and human-made laws and limitations, he does what he wants when he wants—stalking a lioness one day and reading a book the next. For most of his young life he has no home base and simply sleeps wherever his travels take him; by the time he is an adult he is completely self-sufficient. He's also incredibly attractive and sexually desirable, and based on the thoughts Jane has about him, it's safe to say he wouldn't have a problem attracting a mate. Tarzan is what many men in the early 20th century wished they could be, but many who read his story were more like Cecil Clayton: kind, intelligent, and completely unremarkable when compared to the "forest god." Bound as they were by societal, cultural, and familial expectations, the millions of men who read Tarzan's stories did so to live their masculine fantasies through him.

Nature versus Nurture

Through the character of Tarzan, Burroughs addresses the idea of nature versus nurture. This debate centers around whether an individual's genetic predisposition (nature) is more influential than the environment in which that individual grows up (nurture). Burroughs does not come out in favor of either; he shows how both can combine to create the ultimately perfect human being.

Tarzan already has a lot going for him, thanks to his good genes. He got his patrician, or aristocratic, facial features from his parents. The narrator also indicates Tarzan's intelligence, which is "his by his right of birth" and chivalrous nature are by-products of his gene pool. That his gentlemanly manners are instinctual is clear when Tarzan abandons his initial plan to whisk Jane into the jungle and claim her for himself. Sensing she is afraid, he suddenly becomes wholly attuned to Jane's well-being. His "heredity spoke louder than training." The kiss he later places on the locket is a "hereditary instinct of graciousness with a lifetime of uncouth and savage training and environment could not eradicate." Like Lieutenant D'Arnot says, God—or good breeding—made Tarzan "a gentleman at heart."

If genetics and divine intervention made Tarzan a well-bred gentleman, 20 years spent in the jungle made him a ferocious warrior with impeccable survival skills. It is at the giant hands of his ape tribe Tarzan learns to hunt, fight, and forage for food. Kala raises him to be as nimble and fast as the other children in the tribe, which an older Tarzan uses to his advantage when avoiding the wrath of Kerchak and Tublat. He has thrived in the jungle for this long due to his training. Even Lieutenant D'Arnot, who is an officer in the French Navy, would be unable to survive for more than a few days alone in the jungle. The same goes for Cecil Clayton, who shares half of his bloodline with Tarzan. Clayton can't even navigate the jungle, much less defend himself from a hungry lion. Tarzan has survived for so long—and enjoyed it—because of his upbringing. Nature and nurture play equally important roles in his life, and they combine to form what the narrator insinuates is the perfect man.


The plot of Tarzan of the Apes follows the natural arc of Tarzan's search for his personal identity. The narrator and the reader know Tarzan is a human—and a high-born one— but Tarzan doesn't even know humans exist until he is 10 years old. He spends his formative years thinking he's an ape, and a really strange looking one at that. The discovery of his species is both a relief and a burden. Tarzan knows what he is but he doesn't know what it means. What do humans do? How do they act? With no one else to guide him Tarzan has to figure these things out on his own. When he finally does see another human—Kulonga, the native African who kills Kala—he is alternately excited and disappointed. Tarzan does not identify with the black murderer of his foster mother. Tarzan learned from the illustrations in the alphabet primer (with which he taught himself to read) that people with dark skin are "negroes," not men.

The older Tarzan gets, the more he understands he has "grown away from his people." He is no longer content living the life of an ape, and he breaks with his tribe so he can search out other humans—white humans—like him. When he finally does meet them, the experience doesn't go as he had hoped. Tarzan thinks of himself as an equal to the Porters, Cecil Clayton, and Mr. Philander. He's white just like them, and he wears clothing and other ornaments symbolic of personhood. But the Westerners don't view Tarzan as being one of them. He is primitive and wild and nearly naked. His skin, which he calls white, is a deep tan from a lifetime spent in the tropics with only the jungle canopy for shelter. Both Clayton and Jane Porter think Tarzan is of a race different than theirs, though they don't know which one.

Jane's departure leaves Tarzan at a crossroads. His broken heart tells him to retreat to the jungle and become an ape-man once more, but his conscience tells him he must do what humans do and help his fellow man. "What are you, Tarzan? .... An ape or a man?" he asks himself before turning around and returning to the cabin and Lieutenant D'Arnot. Tarzan makes the conscious decision to be human, and he spends the remainder of the book actively learning everything he can about proper behavior in human society. To the untrained eye he is the perfectly refined gentleman, but Jane knows that the unbridled passion of the wilderness will always be a part of him, and she fears it will take him away from her. Tarzan also knows there will always be a part of him that is more ape than man—or, as he explains it, he is "still a wild beast at heart."

Questions for Themes

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