Tarzan of the Apes (Censorship (Ready Reference series))
The author of more than seventy novels, Burroughs is best known for his books about Tarzan, a white man who lives in the jungles of equatorial Africa. Tarzan of the Apes (1912), the first novel in the series, begins the tale of a white child reared by an imaginary species of “great apes” after his marooned parents die. He learns the law of the jungle from animals and has almost no contact with other human beings until a party of Europeans enters his domain. From them he learns the ways of humankind, and he marries the Englishwoman Jane Porter. Thereafter he has adventures among both animals and humans.
In 1920—by which time six Tarzan novels were in print—an outcry was rising in England over the books’ Darwinian themes. Several editors and printers expressed strong reservations regarding Tarzan as the evolution of Kayla the Ape. This led to a boycott of publication in England for several years.
The seventh novel in the series, Tarzan the Untamed, was published in English in 1921 and translated into German in late 1924. Its German title was equivalent to “Tarzan the German-Devourer.” Written by Burroughs in 1915, when Germany and Great Britain were fighting in World War I, the story contains several episodes in which lions eat German “Huns”—including one scene in which Tarzan himself orders a lion to eat a German officer. Although the story has Tarzan avenging the apparent murder...
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At the start of Tarzan of the Apes, mutineers maroon the young Lord and Lady Greystoke on the coast of West Africa. They survive only eighteen months, after which point the she-ape Kala takes their year-old son to replace her own dead baby. The boy grows up among apes, learning from them a rudimentary language (the name 'Tarzan" actually means "white skin"), a strong sense of family, and a system of political hierarchy based on kingship of the strongest. Most of the book takes place in the African jungle, although Burroughs makes frequent implicit comparisons between the two worlds that lay claim to the ape-man. In the jungle, Tarzan depends solely upon his own physical and mental powers; when he ventures into civilization, he feels a prisoner.
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Just as many of the characters in the Tarzan series recur from book to book, so too do the plots. Burroughs wrote quickly, with a firm knowledge of what pleased his readers. He usually spent from one to three months on a novel, rarely rewriting except to accede to an editor's request. Writing at such speed almost necessitated the use of episodic plots, in which coincidences abound and logic usually disappears. Mutinies, shipwrecks, menacing beasts, sojourns in lost cities, kidnappings, rescues, chases, and wars pop up again and again. Burroughs also became adept at the cliffhanger ending; the ending of Tarzan of the Apes, in which Tarzan and Jane are separated, called out for a sequel. Since the novels were originally serialized in magazines and newspapers, most seem to break naturally into novelette-length episodes.
A recurring technique in the series is Burroughs's use of a frame story to establish his tale's credibility. These scenes lend a touch of reality to tales weak in plotting, dialogue, and character development. Throughout the series, an outside character—often identified as "Burroughs"—will receive a telling manuscript or message. Thus Tarzan of the Apes begins, "I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other"; the narrator proceeds to piece together an account of the apeman, drawing on various sources.
It seems likely that Burroughs's ideas came from popular fiction of the time...
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Politically, Burroughs's views reflected the conservative ideas of his time. He distrusted communism, and his early villains were often Russians (ironically, his books later became extremely popular in the Soviet Union). In the 1930s, his extreme anti-German sentiments hurt his foreign sales, and Burroughs attempted to tone down his consistent use of foreign villains. As he grew older, Burroughs came to emphasize the brutality and waste of war for war's sake, deploring this instance of "civilized" man's inhumanity to his fellows. In Tarzan of the Apes, Burroughs comments that the ape-man "killed for food most often, but, being a man, he sometimes killed for pleasure, a thing which no other animal does; for it has remained for man alone among all creatures to kill senselessly and wantonly for the mere pleasure of inflicting suffering and death."
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Topics for Discussion
1. Why is Tarzan so successful as a member of ape society?
2. Does Burroughs portray Jane as Tarzan's equal? Are there any ways in which she is better equipped for life in the jungle than he is? Are there any ways in which he is better equipped for life in civilization than she is?
3. Analyze the character of Kala, Tarzan's ape mother. Which of her attributes make her most resemble a human?
4. What are Tarzan's feelings about his natural parents?
5. Why does Tarzan return to the jungle at the end of Tarzan of the Apes?
6. How realistic is Burroughs's description of the jungle? Is there any factual information you would change if you updated his book today?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Read Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book (1894). How does Mowgli's upbringing in the wild compare to Tarzan's?
2. View the 1984 film Grey stoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, which is available on videotape. How does it compare to Burroughs's original work? If you can find one of the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan films, view it also. How does it compare to Burroughs's work? To Greystoke?
3. Burroughs wrote twenty-four novels about Tarzan. Read one of the Tarzan books that was published after 1940, and compare the characterization of Tarzan in the later work with that of Tarzan of the Apes.
4. Read one of Burroughs's books about Barsoom, or Mars. Is John Carter, the hero of this series, at all similar to Tarzan? In what ways does the Martian environment resemble the jungle of the Tarzan books?
5. The two strongest female presences in Tarzan of the Apes are Kala, Tarzan's ape mother, and Jane, Tarzan's human love interest. Compare these characters. What does each one provide for Tarzan? What does each one see in Tarzan that initially attracts her to him?
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Tarzan's extraordinary popularity owes as much to his appearances in other media as it does to Burroughs's books. Nearly fifty authorized Tarzan movies starring some twenty different actors have appeared since Elmo Lincoln starred in the 1918 silent classic— one of the first films ever to gross more than a million dollars. Twelve movies released between 1932 and 1948 starred Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller and, originally, Maureen O'Sullivan as Jane. Burroughs disliked these films, primarily because of their portrayal of Tarzan as semi-articulate and uncultured, but the Weissmuller image has continued to dominate public perception. In 1984 Hugh Hudson directed Christopher Lambert, Andie McDowell, and Ralph Richardson in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes—an ambitious film, noticeably more somber than previous adaptations, that attempted to convey Burroughs's original intent.
Under the direction of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., Tarzan came to radio in 1931, with the author's daughter and son-in-law playing the leading roles in what was the first prerecorded, syndicated radio series. More than 350 fifteen- minute shows were sold to stations in every state, Europe, and South America. In 1932, a syndicated comic strip—which continues to this day— began appearing in newspapers. The original artist was Hal Foster, also known for his "Prince Valiant" comic strip. In 1936 Tarzan first appeared in a comic book, and in 1947 he...
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For Further Reference
Bleiler, E. F. "Edgar Rice Burroughs." In Science Fiction Writers, edited by Bleiler. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1982. Brief biographical treatment and critical commentary focusing on science-fiction elements and racist tendencies.
Essoe, Gabe. Tarzan of the Movies. New York: Cadillac, 1968. Informative pictorial history of the Tarzan films.
Holtsmark, Erling B. Edgar Rice Burroughs. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Excellent critical introduction to the author's life and work. Includes an extensive bibliography.
Tarzan and Tradition: Classical Myth in Popular Literature. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981. Informative guide to Tarzan's mythic heritage.
Lupoff, Richard A. Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure. New York: Ace, 1968. Contains a clear critical discussion of Burroughs's books.
Porges, Irwin. Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan. Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1975. Massive, definitive biography based on meticulous research of the Burroughs papers.
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Farmer, Philip José. Tarzan Alive: A Definitive Biography of Lord Greystoke. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972. A detailed biography of Tarzan as a real person, neatly explaining the series’ inconsistencies. Includes a five-generation family tree relating Tarzan to Sherlock Holmes, the Scarlet Pimpernel, Doc Savage, Nero Wolfe, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Bulldog Drummond.
Fenton, Robert W. The Big Swingers. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967. A somewhat superficial discussion of Burroughs and his stories.
Holtsmark, Erling B. Tarzan and Tradition: Classical Myth in Popular Literature. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981. Analyzes Burroughs’s novels and their characters as deriving from the literary traditions of classical antiquity.
Lupoff, Richard A. Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure. New York: Ace Books, 1968. A good study of the man who created Tarzan, John Carter, and other series.
Porges, Irwin. Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1975. An extensive biography of Burroughs and analysis of his works, published on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. Includes many photographs of Burroughs, story drafts, magazine covers, and the maps and character lists that helped him to preserve...
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