Tarzan of the Apes (1912) [Edgar Rice Burroughs]


Before I even begin talking about the book, I want to get something out of the way: The racism/sexism/other problematic elements of the book. (Note: I have not done any extensive research into this matter, so feel free to correct me wherever you feel I am wrong). This is something that is brought up a lot nowadays when concerning this book and I feel like it’s better to just address this first. It is true that there are a lot of racist stereotypes in the book – with Mbonga and his tribe being written as your basic “savage” stereotype/cliche, Esmeralda is a really bad “black mammy” stereotype and is used only for comic relief – and there are lots of moments where the book reinforces certain gender stereotypes. Yet, at the same time, Burroughs outright condemns King Leopold II and his actions in the Congo Free State, he has Tarzan observe that the white men (the mutineers) seem like savages themselves, and he constantly has the women (Alice, Jane) showing strength in moments where you wouldn’t expect them to. This seems very contradictory, doesn’t it? Why this dichotomy, then, you might ask? Well, I think the thing here is that racism, sexism, etc., like every other “-ism,” manifest themselves in two different ways: the external and internal. The external is the more obvious – you could absolutely be against racism and certainly condemn something as horrible as a genocide, but there is a subtler, more internal component to it, something that depends on the social environment you grew up in. These things aren’t always obvious, not until someone points them out to you, and I don’t think during those times that such avenues were easily available; that such matters were being raised in a way that was public and visible. I mean, today, it’s easier for me to go online and ask some social justice activists why so-and-so thing is racist or sexist or whatever. Remember, despite slavery having been abolished, a lot of sociopolitical change didn’t come about until the Civil Rights Movement. I mean, words like “negro” were still common until the 1970s at least (correct me if I’m wrong), and hell, there are still white people you will come across online even today who ask why they can’t use the word “nigger” even though black people do. So does this mean that Edgar Rice Burroughs was racist? I’m sure he didn’t believe himself to be; more importantly, coming to this novel, shall we dismiss it as racist crap or shall we accept that it has problematic aspects and not dismiss it outright? I, for one, have chosen to do the latter.

Coming to the novel, first thing I must say is that it covered a lot despite being very short, yet it was actually quite an easy read for me and I’m usually a slow reader. I managed to finish the book quite fast and found it a really entertaining read. I have to say I was surprised by how dark and violent it sometimes got, with Burroughs constantly describing a lot of the fights between Tarzan and other animals or Tarzan and other men in gory detail (though never quite to the point where it would seem he’s getting some sort of delight out of it).

I found the character of Tarzan quite interesting. In many ways, he was one of the very first superheroes (one character even describes him as “superman”). He’s intelligent from even when he’s very young, he’s able to teach himself how to read and write English, although he can’t still speak it – which was quite confusing to me because I kept wondering what it’d be like to be able to read and write a language without being able to speak it and I just couldn’t imagine it – but he’s never portrayed as a “good” guy. He was raised in the jungle and lives by the rules of the jungle. There are a lot of themes about human nature vs. animal instincts, heredity vs. upbringing, the effects of your social environment on you as a person… all of which I found fairly interesting. One of the most interesting scenes in the book for me was when he discovers the remains of his parents, and Burroughs states that had he known those were the remains of his actual parents, he would not have actually been fazed by it much. I also liked it when Burroughs randomly started comparing Tarzan to his cousin in London and how they both ate food or did certain things, etc.

The second thing I have to say is that I thought the novel felt a bit… structure-less. Now, I don’t know how deliberate this was but certainly I found it very interesting – especially as the novel gets to its rather exciting climax, it seems to suddenly end. Does it qualify as a cliffhanger? I don’t know, but it certainly felt a bit incomplete (in a good way) and made me want to check out the next novel.

The problematic aspects of course are still there – I cringed every time Esmeralda had any dialogue – but overall I found myself not able to dismiss this novel outright as I found there were many themes that were quite interesting, and there were certainly quite a few that made me think and rethink the whole “is this novel racist?” issue a lot. I suppose some will find the answer to that question rather clear-cut, that yes, it is racist, though the man who wrote it may not have been one himself. Regardless, I think the context – of the time when it was written, etc. – is just as interesting as the novel itself, and I would certainly be very interested in finding out more about Burroughs, about where he got his information on Africa from, what his political views were, etc., to get the whole picture.

Grade: B+


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