Friday, September 7, 2012

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Title: Tarzan of the Apes
Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs

Genre: Fiction (Vintage / Pulp / Early 20th Century / Orphan / Noble Savage / Apes / Action Adventure / Africa / Colonialism)
Publisher/Publication Date: Library of America (4/12/2012)
Source: My public library!

Rating: Okay.
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: An orphaned English lord is raised by apes in early 20th century Africa until he is discovered by white colonialists.

Do I like the cover?: I do -- it's simplistic but eye-catching, vaguely vintage-y in feel, and the silhouette of Tarzan features items he uses/wears, so that's fun.

I'm reminded of...: H. Rider Haggard

First line: I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow if you want to read a pulp-y classic.

Why did I get this book?: I picked up this book because I really want to read Jane by Robin Maxwell, which features Tarzan's love interest. I figured I ought to learn about the man himself first.

Review: I enjoyed this book for the most part; it reads for what it is, a Victorian potboiler, a silly and at times offensive action lark featuring the man who has become a pop culture icon of sorts, a joke and a genre. Much like Stoker's Dracula, I suspect the plot and premise of Tarzan is one many think they're familiar with but may not actually know -- myself being one. In fact, after waiting around for Shere Khan to show up, I realized I was conflating this book with Kipling's The Jungle Book.

Burroughs opens the novel with some unnamed narrator telling us a story someone told him, which, I'll be honest, is one of my least favorite 'old timey' devices for setting up a story. Thankfully, Burroughs drops it quickly in favor of just telling the story directly, which is this: An English couple -- the Greystokes -- are abandoned by their murderous crew en route to a posting in Africa. Lord Greystoke, despite being an English peer with no wilderness survival training, manages to create an astounding little bungalow hideaway for himself and his now-pregnant wife. Then they die dramatically, leaving their infant heir to be raised by apes. Tarzan, as he's named, thrives among the apes, and through some improbable circumstances, teaches himself to read, and shoot with a bow and arrow, etc. When Tarzan is in his 20s, Professor and Jane Porter are stranded on the very same beach Tarzan's parents were, with Tarzan's cousin, the new Lord Greystoke. There's a dramatic meeting of the savage white man, lots of amazement, more racism, Tarzan's acquisition of the English language, is he/isn't he heir to the Greystoke fortune, budding romance, and transatlantic travel. It's an excess of ridiculous circumstances and over-the-top encounters, written plainly, and is entertaining -- to a point.

Whatever is fun about Tarzan's story was, however, negated by the racism in this novel. Regardless of whether it was 'appropriate for the time', Burroughs has people of color in this novel be evil, baseless, cowardly, and flat caricatures. It was discomforting for me, and to ignore it or accept it felt gross. I mean, Tarzan's preferred choice for killing African tribesman was by way of a dropped noose -- which read too much like a lynching every time he then strung them up on a tree. How do you ignore that? I couldn't.

The Introduction by Thomas Mallon is kind of a throwaway; in it, he sounds a bit like a family friend setting you up on a blind date ('He's awkward around women, and can be a bit weird on race; he chews with his mouth open; but he's really well-meaning and...') and so, when you complain that your date is awkward around women and is weird on race and chews with his mouth open, etc. he can simply say, 'Well, I warned you.' So...

I wouldn't have picked this up were it not for my keen interest in Robin Maxwell's upcoming Jane, in which she takes on Tarzan's love interest, Jane Porter. While I suspect Maxwell's novel doesn't depend on a reading of Burroughs', I figured it couldn't hurt.

All that said, this book ends very clearly with a sequel in the works, and I'm a leeeeeetle bit curious. (Just like I'm a teeeeeeeeeeeeeny tiny bit curious to read the sequel to She. Curious and apprehensive.)


  1. You're right, I thought I knew this story but from the synopsis you give I really don't. The Jungle Book is an awesome book though, you should read that :)

    1. I've always thought I've read Kipling, and I think I have -- his Just So Stories -- but likely not much else. He's on the someday TBR!

  2. Yeah, not sure this is for me - I wasn't crazy about the show or the movies.

  3. I do like the cover of this one...I haven't actually read this book though.