Tarzan of the Apes: An Adventure Novel with a Complicated Legacy

A book cover depicting a silhouette of a man in a tree and text reading "Tarzan of the Apes."
The original book cover for Tarzan of the Apes.

Tarzan of the Apes was written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, an American author best known for his science fiction, fantasy and adventure stories. In 1912, the story was serialized in a pulp fiction magazine. It was published in novel form in 1914. Tarzan of the Apes was so popular among readers that Burroughs wrote more than two dozen sequels featuring the adventures of Tarzan. The story remains a classic adventure novel, but the current of racism that runs through the text has led to a more complicated legacy.

Summary of Plot

In the late 1800s, John and Alice Clayton, the Earl and Count find themselves marooned on the western coast of Africa. They build a shelter in the jungle and Alice gives birth to a son. The child is named John, after his father.  When the young John Clayton is just a year old, his mother dies. Shortly afterward, his father is killed by an ape named Kerchak.

Young John Clayton is adopted by a female ape named Kala, who names him Tarzan. Tarzan grows up with the apes, fully aware that he is different from his ape family but unaware of his human heritage. He eventually discovers the shelter that his biological parents built, as well as a few of their possessions. He uses their books to teach himself how to read and write English. However, he has never had another human to talk to, so he is unable to speak the “language of men.”

Growing up in the jungle helps Tarzan become a fierce hunter and warrior. When the savage ape Kerchak attacks and tries to kill him, Tarzan wins the fight and takes Kerchak's place as the king of the apes. When Tarzan is just over 20 years old, he discovers a party of treasure hunters marooned on the coast. Tarzan protects them and saves a young American woman named Jane.

Jane and Tarzan fall in love, and when Jane leaves Africa, Tarzan eventually decides to track her down by traveling to the U.S. During the journey, Tarzan learns how to speak French and English, and tries to develop "civilized" manners. He also meets Paul D'Arnot, a French naval officer who discovers that Tarzan is the rightful heir to an esteemed English estate. When Tarzan arrives in the U.S., he saves Jane from danger once again, but soon discovers she is engaged to man named William Clayton. Ironically, William Clayton is Tarzan's cousin, and is set to inherit the estate and title that rightfully belong to Tarzan.

Tarzan knows that if he takes the inheritance from his cousin, he will also be taking away Jane's security. Thus, for the sake of Jane's well-being, he decides not to reveal his true identity as the Earl of Greystoke.

Major Characters

Tarzan: The protagonist of the novel. Although he is the son of a British lord and lady, Tarzan was raised by apes in the African jungle after the death of his parents. Tarzan is somewhat contemptuous of civilized society, but falls in love with a young American woman named Jane.

John Clayton: Also known as the Earl of Greystoke, John Clayton is Alice Clayton's husband and Tarzan's biological father.

Alice Rutherford Clayton: Also known as the Countess of Greystoke, Alice Rutherford Clayton is John Clayton's wife and Tarzan's biological mother.

Kerchak: The ape that killed Tarzan's biological father. Tarzan eventually kills Kerchak and takes his place as the king of the apes.

Kala: Kala is a female ape who adopts and raises Tarzan after his biological parents die.

Professor Archimedes Q. Porter: An anthropology scholar who brings a party of people, including his daughter Jane, to the jungles of Africa under the guise of studying human society. His real goal is to hunt for a long-lost treasure.

Jane Porter: The 19-year-old daughter of Professor Porter. Tarzan saves Jane's life, and she falls in love with him.

Paul D'Arnot: A French naval officer who finds proof that Tarzan is really John Clayton II and heir to an ancestral English title and estate.

Major Themes

Escapism: When asked by an editor to write an article about the theme of the Tarzan books, Edgar Rice Burroughs said that the theme consists of just one word: Tarzan. Burroughs claimed that the Tarzan books did not have a particular message or moral agenda; rather, he said, Tarzan of the Apes was intended to serve as an escape from thought, discussion and argument.  

Civilization: The novel raises questions about the true meaning of civilization. Tarzan exhibits behaviors that outsiders consider uncivilized, such as eating raw meat and wiping his hands on his clothing after a meal. In contrast, members of "civilized" society exhibit behaviors that appear unseemly to Tarzan. For example, the supposedly civilized men gang up on animals and use weapons that give them an unfair advantage during a hunt. Tarzan eventually conforms to many of these "civilized" norms, but he concludes that he is still wild at heart.

Racism: Racism is an ever-present theme in Tarzan of the Apes. White characters, including Tarzan, are written as superior beings. Tarzan's father is referred to as a member of the “higher white races.” Tarzan is also depicted as physically and genetically superior to the native tribes who live nearby. These black African characters are referred to as “poor savage negroes” with “bestial faces.” Tarzan does not try to befriend them, communicate with them or protect them in any way, but he makes great efforts to help and support the white men that he meets in the jungle. The novel also implies that Tarzan is able to teach himself how to read and write because of his white heritage.  

Literary Style

Tarzan of the Apes is classified as an adventure novel. The perils of the jungle and the life and death struggles that ensue between characters are meant to give readers a sense of excitement. Burroughs stated several times that the story was influenced by the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus. Tarzan of the Apes has influenced other works as well. It has been adapted into films, comics and radio adventure programs. 

Key Quotes

The following quotes are spoken by Tarzan, after learning to speak "the language of men." 

  • “Only a fool performs any act without reason.”
  • “You have admitted that you love me. You know that I love you; but I do not know the ethics of society by which you are governed. I shall leave the decision to you, for you know best what will be for your eventual welfare.”
  • “For myself, I always assume that a lion is ferocious, and so I am never caught off my guard.” 

Tarzan of the Apes Fast Facts

  • Title: Tarzan of the Apes
  • Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs 
  • Publisher: A.C. McClurg
  • Year Published: 1914
  • Genre: Adventure
  • Type of Work: Novel
  • Original language: English
  • Themes: Escapism, racism, civilization
  • Characters: Tarzan, Jane Porter, Alice Rutherford Clayton, John Clayton, William Cecil Clayton, Paul D'Arnot, Kala, Kerchak
  • Notable Film Adaptations: Tarzan of the Apes (1918), The Romance of Tarzan (1918), Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), Tarzan (1999) and The Legend of Tarzan (2016).