(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Tarzan of the Apes cover image

Tarzan of the Apes was the first of twenty-four Tarzan novels that Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote over the course of three decades. Most of this introductory novel describes Tarzan’s upbringing in a tribe of African apes and his self-education in written English, but it ends by telling a little of his entry into the world of civilized humankind.

The novel begins with a storyteller’s disclaimer about having gotten the story from an unspecified man who had Colonial Office records to verify the tale. Burroughs then turns to third-person narration, first through the point of view of Tarzan’s father, then largely through that of Tarzan himself.

John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, boards a ship for British West Africa with Alice, his bride. He saves a burly sailor from the brutal captain. When the crew mutinies, the grateful sailor makes sure that the Englishman and his wife are not killed, but he abandons them in a wilderness harbor with all of their luggage and a few supplies. The site has a river mouth for water, and John and Alice gather and hunt to live well after their supplies run out. Although not a tradesman, John builds and furnishes a log cabin with a clever door latch for protection against wild beasts. Their son is born there. A year later, Alice dies, and Clayton is killed by an ape, Kerchak.

Among the attacking apes is Kala, a female whose own baby has died. Finding the now-orphaned, hairless white baby, she takes it up as her own. After ten years, the relatively puny and slow Tarzan—“white ape” in their tongue—begins to mature in both body and brain. Although he knows nothing of his connection with the cabin, it fascinates him. When he discovers how to open the cabin latch, he finds many books, including a brightly illustrated alphabet. The “bugs” on the pages fascinate him, and in time he teaches himself to read them. He also finds a sharp hunting knife and, when a huge gorilla attacks him, he accidentally discovers the knife’s usefulness. With it, he gains status as the tribe’s greatest hunter and fighter, eventually...

(The entire section is 851 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

One of Burroughs's chief strengths is his ability to create fictional worlds vastly different from, but parallel to, the real world. The...

(The entire section is 251 words.)