The Characters (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
The characters in Tarzan of the Apes are largely stereotypes of the elements found in any adventure story—action hero, villains, romantic heroine, romantic opposition, and comic distractions.
Tarzan, of course, is the principal action hero. He is much stronger than most men and more highly skilled as a fighter. These traits come naturally to one who grows up in a world in which survival requires him to make up for the differences between his body and those of the animals around him. He also exhibits great intelligence, inquisitiveness, and moral rectitude, and he uses these traits to overcome his physical inferiority among the jungle animals.
Villainy is well-distributed, providing an ever-changing set of challenges to his growing abilities. The child Tarzan has the apes Kerchak and Tublat to harry and torment him and his adoptive mother Kala. The adolescent Tarzan has the bully Terkoz to worry about. The newly independent Tarzan has to combat the natives who kill Kala and later torture d’Arnot. After being introduced to civilization, he has Canler to counter. Subsequent novels continue to provide him with scores of varied villains with which to contend.
There are two heroines, the ape Kala, who adopts Tarzan and protects him through the early years when he is puny and retarded relative to all the surrounding youngsters, and Jane, the romantic heroine for the last half of Tarzan of the Apes and the rest of the...
(The entire section is 259 words.)
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Themes and Characters
Tarzan of the Apes is a quintessential tale of the "noble savage"—a theme, especially prevalent in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Romantic literature, that equates natural goodness with lack of exposure to civilization's corrupting influences. Burroughs believed that humankind had sacrificed its moral integrity in the pursuit of material goods. Tarzan, in his jungle world, knows a freedom never to be attained by those people defined and thereby trapped by the expectations of civilization.
The Tarzan books are escapist literature in several senses. At the time of the series' original publication, which spanned two world wars and a Depression, the books helped readers forget, if only for a short while, harsh real-world events. And in a manner still applicable today, the books celebrate a heroic figure's triumph over the conventional and superficial restrictions of society. The conception of Tarzan thus functions as both theme and character in the novels. Tarzan's grace, speed, strength, and skill match his cunning and resourcefulness, and readers empathize with the ape-man in his simultaneous frustration with and love for humankind.
Other equally simple themes recur throughout Burroughs's works. Foremost among these is the power of love, as depicted in the perfect physical and mental union of Tarzan and Jane Porter. His love for her tames his savagery, while her love for him releases some of the natural instincts repressed by...
(The entire section is 439 words.)