Tarzan of the Apes

Tarzan's portrayal

In the novel, Tarzan is portrayed as the epitome of man, standing apart from 'civilized' society. Instead of disadvantaging him, this social construct imbues him with an inherent strength that exceeds that of any other character in the novel. This strength is shown reflected in his physique, mental and emotional ability, and personal essence. Burroughs created an exceptional example of an idealized, fierce-yet-noble, iconoclastic male figure—with few physical or psychological flaws. As a result of the rigors of being raised in a great-ape tribe, Tarzan's scantly-clad, supernatural physique gives him a godlike stature.

" His straight and perfect figure, muscled as the best of the ancient Roman gladiators must have been muscled, and yet with the soft and sinuous curves of a Greek god, told at a glance the wondrous combination of enormous strength with suppleness and speed".[1]

In the novel, Tarzan is described as a Caucasian male who is extremely athletic, handsome and tanned, with grey eyes and long, black hair. Tarzan's ability to swing through the trees, sleep on tree branches, and hide behind jungle brush allow his physical self to be conditioned in a superhuman way. The way he was raised not only shapes his physical sense, but also his sense-of-self. Burroughs depicted society as robbing people of one of their most important features: their intimate relationship with nature, and through it, a deeper understanding of themselves as members (instead of masters) of it.

"But, be that as it may, Tarzan would not ruin good meat in any such foolish manner, so he gobbled down a great quantity of the raw flesh.., And then Lord Greystoke wiped his greasy fingers upon his naked thighs and took up the trail of Kulonga, the son of Mbonga, the king; while in far-off London another Lord Greystoke, the younger brother of the real Lord Greystoke’s father, sent back his chops to the club’s chef because they were underdone, and when he had finished his repast he dipped his finger-ends into a silver bowl of scented water and dried them on a piece of snowy damask".[2]

This passage depicts a comparison scene of Tarzan and his cousin, William Clayton (Lord Greystoke), who was eating pork at the same time under vastly different circumstances and codes of etiquette. Tarzan, believing that wasting fresh meat was morally wrong, ate all that he could, whereas, Lord Greystoke would rather reject good meat than eat something not cooked to his liking. Furthermore, Burroughs goes on to describe the way in which both men ended their respective meals—Tarzan simply wiping his fingers on his thighs, versus Lord Greystoke engaging in an elaborate hand-washing exercise. The passage represents differences in perceived masculinity: that Tarzan's masculinity is part of his human essence, whereas Lord Greystoke's "manhood" is inferior by comparison, due to its need to be supported by complexity, formality, and accessories. Burroughs' point is that human society is sabotaging, self-limiting, and even toxic, to an individual’s own essence. Lord Greystoke is still a man, yet manifests "feminine" qualities, which arise at times when they should not, obscuring the fact that a man should eat meat, raw or cooked, to sustain his individual self. Yet Clayton's qualities exist because he was raised and conditioned in a human society where norms (e.g., etiquette, table manners)--not nature—define the social class in which one was raised and thus determine a man's essence. Tarzan, on the other hand, is outside of human society and has not been shaped by societal rankings or classes.

A secondary example of this phenomenon is when Tarzan made the decision to leave his tribe but was unsure if he should kill his enemy, the current great ape tribe leader, Terkoz. “‘If I kill him,’ thought Tarzan, ‘what advantage will it be to me? Will it not but rob the tribe of a great fighter? And if Terkoz be dead, he will known nothing of my supremacy, while alive he will ever be an example to the other apes’”.[3] This passage highlights Tarzan's ethical dilemma regarding a sworn enemy, Terkoz. Tarzan may not like him, but does not want to punish or impose injustice upon him. This social confrontation is comparable to human society where we have a justice system that will punish criminals for their crimes. Tarzan understands that merely killing Terkoz would hurt Tarzan's own long-term self-interests. “But deep in the minds of the apes was rooted the conviction that Tarzan was a mighty fighter and a strange creature. Strange because he had had it in his power to kill his enemy, but had allowed him to live – unharmed”.[4] Tarzan knows within himself that killing Terkoz will not make him feel better. If anything, he inherently knows that it is wrong to kill solely because one can. Instead, Tarzan decides to make an example of out his enemy and take the "high road". Tarzan's removal from society, one in which "justice" and punishment are synonymous (and therefore, often result in "inustice" in the name of short-sighted, socially-approved vengeance), is what enables him to make this distinction. His relationship with nature enables him to know the difference between right and wrong, to see how he is interconnected with others, and to think strategically/wisely. Tarzan is meant to represent the essential, natural man. He depicts the true human essence that is inside every individual, but that is constrained by the various short-sighted rules of "civilization".

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