Tarzan of the Apes Postmortem

Tarzan book cover

Last night I finished Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. This is the original 1912 novel that started it all: the countless sequels, the radio dramas, the TV shows, the cartoons, the movies – and above all, Tarzan himself, who went on to become far more famous than Burroughs ever would be.

By the way, the entire text of the novel is free online at Project Gutenberg, which is pretty cool. No, I didn’t read it there; I actually own the fabulous item pictured above.

All right, so Tarzan is not a Great Work of Literature (whatever that means) and a snotty critic could certainly find lots of things to be snotty about. For one thing, there’s the atrocious language, which features cringe-inducing sentences like the one below:

It was on the morning of the second day that the first link was forged in what was destined to form a chain of circumstances ending in a life for one then unborn such as has never been paralleled in the history of man.

Burroughs also says things like “commenced to realize” instead of “realized,” and his dialogue is laughably bad.

And don’t forget, this is 1912, so it’s no surprise to find a particularly pure and undiluted brand of racism and sexism. Friends, you don’t find many sentences like this anymore:

“Ah, John, I wish that I might be a man with a man’s philosophy, but I am but a woman, seeing with my heart rather than my head, and all that I can see is too horrible, too unthinkable to put into words.”

Jane, in particular, practically defines the term “Too Stupid To Live.” In one memorable scene, she faces down a lion with a gun in her hand, and her strategy – I cannot make this up – is to shoot herself in the head to spare herself the lion attack. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Tarzan saves her.

Plot issues are equally egregious, with coincidences (one in particular) that strain credulity. Characters, too, are pretty flat. Tarzan himself not only has no character flaws whatsoever, he is also better than everybody at everything; so, I mean, that’s convenient.

Here’s the thing, though: I liked this book. It is even, dare I say, a good book.

Yes, the language is awful in a lot of ways, but for the most part it has one major virtue: it’s clear and precise. You get a good sense of what’s going on. And Burroughs uses a lot of vivid detail without dumping it on you in big chunks.

As for the racism and sexism, I should say – in the author’s defense – that you do find occasional, startling passages that break the mold: women behaving heroically, a condemnation of white colonialism in Africa. Granted, they’re only startling because the rest of the book is so bad in this regard, but they do exist.

And the plot and character issues? They didn’t actually bother me that much. Yeah, it’s a little ridiculous that Tarzan kills lions in hand-to-hand combat without breaking a sweat, taught himself to read and write, and learned fluent French in, like, a month. But on the other hand, it’s actually kind of nice to read about a character who isn’t forever grappling with some obsession or stumbling over his own Tragic Flaw or brooding about this and that. Tarzan, man. He gets shit done.

What it comes down to, really, is that Tarzan has a good story. Burroughs knows the formula – danger, action, heroic victory – and he uses it very well. The book is a page-turner, and frankly, that’s pretty high praise right there.

So tell me: what are you reading these days?

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