The story of Tarzan of the Apes is one that has endured the test of time. Throughout the novel, Edgar Rice Burroughs depicts a jungle society where Tarzan is the king and his subordinates are the natives and animals of the jungle. This hierarchal system appeals to the general public of white, Anglo-Americans who might otherwise have difficulty identifying with an “uncivilized jungle setting. The novel provides adventure and excitement for those seeking an escape from the mundane life of the office or general store.
Burroughs was the George Lucas of his day, creating characters as profoundly mythical – and as stereotypically superficial – as Darth Vader. Like Luke Skywalker’s saga, the tale of Tarzan mixes and matches motifs from the archetype-haunted dreamtime of humanity with the theories of Carl Jung. The tale of the prince raised in secret by adopted parents (King Arthur, Luke Skywalker) is fused with the story of the feral child raised by animals (Romulus and Remus, Pecos Bill).
Stories such as these fall into the genre of escapist, pulp fiction which is essentially simple romantic stories to entertain the masses. Tarzan fits the mold of escapist literature in several ways. The book helps readers forget harsh real-world events, if only for a short while. Tarzan’s story is a romantic one that celebrates a heroic figure’s triumph over the conventional and superficial restrictions of society. This is a concept that the public can identify with even today, which explains Tarzan’s enduring qualities.
Burroughs understood the need for adventure in the lives of the public and he appealed to them with an entertaining love story implanted within a story of the white-man’s conquest over all adversity. The concept of Tarzan thus functions as both theme and character. Tarzan embodies grace, speed, strength, and skills that match his cunning and resourcefulness. Readers empathize with the white-ape-man in his simultaneous frustration with and love for Jane.
Although Tarzan helps readers to escape into a world filled with adventure and excitement, subtleties that exploit native African people and reveal the white-supremacist nature of the era are embedded within his world. The fact that Tarzan is really an English lord – Lord Greystoke, to be precise – was central to Burroughs’ conception of his character. In the pulp fiction of Burroughs, (as in pulp fiction of any period) timeless archetypes rub shoulders with the vulgar prejudices of the writer and his audience.
In the works of Burroughs, today’s theorists can easily find a key to the racial, social, and sexual anxieties of early 20th century white American men and boys. When Tarzan was first published, the British Empire ruled the waves, the United States had recently joined the ranks of imperial powers, and white supremacy was the norm in the United States and throughout the world. Confidence in the innate superiority of the Caucasian race – and, within that race, of its Anglo-Saxon variant – coexisted with paranoia about the yellow peril and black “savagery.
Tarzan provided American men of all ages with an idealization of the perfect white man. Tarzan was a strong and powerful physical presence in the jungle and was also by birthright, an aristocrat entitled to a large estate. The thought of a man of the jungle being entitled to a large inheritance gave hope to the readers of the Tarzan novels. This hope carried over into the romantic choices of mates available to the bourgeois men because although Tarzan could not speak English, he managed to woo a beautiful woman and convince her to be his mate.
The audience could empathize with Tarzan; however the subtleties of the audience’s affections towards Tarzan are more elusive. Burroughs’ Tarzan was loveable and identifiable by white men because Tarzan was a white man. Tarzan allowed scrawny boys to imagine themselves as a powerful ape-man roving through the unknown, unexplored jungles of Africa. However, this fantasy is grossly inaccurate. One popular misconception created by the Tarzan story is that Africa is a land of jungle.
The word comes from the Sanskrit “Jungala” meaning “dry, desert,” and in English it means the opposite – “thick vegetation and dense forest. Africa actually has less forest per square mile than any other continent. Africans and African-Americans have for centuries been conditioned to feel shame for being “Jungle Bunnies,” and although the term is insulting and inaccurate, it still exists and Tarzan helped to put it and keep it there. All of the “Tarzan Untruths” facilitate harmful stereotypes for ethnic groups. For Anglo-Americans, Tarzan fosters the embrace of Africa as a “Safari-land” of intrigue and entertainment where the sea, the land and the people are not subjects of honor, but instead are objects of pleasure – or danger to be overcome.
Yet for non-whites everywhere, the Tarzan story shows a white man conquering their land, their wildlife, and their tribes. The racist stereotypes of dominating white-men and subordinate black people and all women reflect and perpetuate the problems of ethnic and sexual division in society. All of this fits finely into the “mind-feel” of the white-American whose self image as adventuring explorer, converting missionary, agent of civilization and “rational” science has justified crimes against the humanity of native Africans before.
Burroughs himself felt no remorse for perpetuating the ethnic divisions in society. Before creating Tarzan, Burroughs wrote: Take up the white man’s burden, the yoke ye sought to spurn; and spurn your father’s customs, your father’s temples burn… Take up the white man’s burden, go learn to wear his clothes. You may look like the devil, but nobody cares who knows… (Burroughs; 1899) Burroughs is saying that blacks should adopt the culture and customs of the “civilized” white society; however, no matter how much they attempt to assimilate, they will still look different.
Tarzan (which meant “white skin” in the Ape’s language) was the character that could assimilate into the Western culture because he was white skinned, and Jane could easily assimilate into the Jungle culture, because she too was white skinned, however Mbonga could not exist in western culture, and certainly not Kerchak since he was even more primitive than Mbonga. Burroughs, later in his life, advocated the extermination of “moral imbeciles” and the deportation of all Japanese from the United States. One wonders if Burroughs would have advocated the extermination of the primitive and uncivilized Tarzan.
Burroughs established the imagery of savagery for his Anglo-Saxon ape-man. In the mythology of white supremacy, even before Charles Darwin, black Africans and other nonwhites were compared to apes. Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, offers his belief in the rumor that African women mate with orangutans. In much 19th and early 20th century pulp fiction, American Indians and black Americans have a mystical rapport with animals, which author and audience alike understood arose from their proximity on the evolutionary scale.
But Burroughs’ Tarzan is closer to the animals than the black Africans who live nearby. The Great White Hope is at once more civilized and more savage than the “natives” – he is the Lone Ranger and Tonto. With Tarzan monopolizing the highest and lowest rungs of the Chain of Being, the “natives” find themselves deprived of the one asset that racist mythology attributed to them, closeness to the animals, leaving them without any particular function in the economy of kitsch literature, except to be rescued by Tarzan from rogue elephants and the occasional witch doctor. Tarzan provides welcome reassurance of the white man’s supremacy over his women and his blacks, a supremacy that is maintained in any circumstance, no matter how dire… ” (J. Newsinger; 1986). Tarzan is racist, sexist, and adventurist.
Thus, the massive Tarzan media march will thrive in America for exactly as long as racism, sexism, military adventurism and greedy individualism thrive in America. The novel is not an escape from reality at all; it is merely perpetuating the problems of society through passive acceptance of the injustices perpetrated by Tarzan and ultimately, the irrational generalizations perpetrated by Burroughs.