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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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 becoming king of the tribe.

When a tribe of native humans migrates into the apes’ territory and one of them kills Kala, Tarzan tracks him down and avenges his “mother.” He goes on to harass and terrify the black tribe, as an unseen god who causes the disappearance of their arrow stockpiles, other items, and occasionally warriors.

Kingship curtails Tarzan’s liberty. As his intelligence and knowledge grow, he drifts away from the apes. After fighting the bully Terkoz but sparing his life, the motherless Tarzan leaves the apes.

When a ship appears in the harbor, Tarzan gets his first sight of humans with white skin like his own. After the mutineers ransack the cabin, Tarzan writes a note warning against further harm: “Tarzan watches.” They leave behind five passengers, including Jane Porter, and Tarzan almost immediately falls in love with her.

Unseen, Tarzan spears a sailor to save William Clayton’s life....

(The entire section is 1,102 words.)