Category Archives: Tarzan

Torgovnick 2

Torgovnick Chapter 2: Taking Tarzan Seriously

Tarzan is one of the most popular book series there are, and this in itself makes it worth studying: what is going on, why is Tarzan so popular?

– Tarzan the character is British, but the books are American and share many characteristics with the Western

– The first Tarzan novel was published in 1912, and the Western was born around the same era

– Tarzan lost ground during WWII, but in 1963 one in every 30 paperbacks sold was a Tarzan novel – partly due to audience demand. Traditional critics say Tarzan was popular because it was escapist fiction, and so on.

– But note that the middle class fiction considered “good” tells stories of limitation, acceptance of the establishment, and so on; Tarzan does not.

The original advertisements for the Tarzan novels promised a re-creation of the modern world, not an escape from it. Tarzan is white, aristocratic, intelligent, and so on; what he rejects is the drabness of the modern world. (Note: there is a modern Latin American tradition of presenting Latin America as an alternative (more human, more artistic, more spiritual, more ‘aristocratic’) modernity to the industrial modernity of the United States. We might consider ways of tying Tarzan into this.) The idea of recreation also echoes the avant-garde spirit of “making it new” (W.C. Williams). The primitive here is full of energy, and is a source of empowerment. (Note: this is like Sarmiento’s gaucho, which we will soon discuss.)

– Tarzan is presented as the primitive man, but the ape societies and some of the lost civilizations he encounters are as well, so that the primitive here has multiple meanings

– Burroughs (the author) repeatedly addresses ethnographic issues such as the nature of the primitive mind, the status of primitive beliefs, the nature of language, gender relations, and leadership patterns.

– The primitive in Burroughs also performs some of the functions of science fiction: commentary on the author’s society, projections of alternative possibilities, etc.

– For all of these reasons, the Tarzan novels are a great place to begin figuring out what stake modernity has in the primitive.

– The word primitive means first, original, originary, and so many have been interested it as a present which mirrors the past of Western civilization. It is ourselves gone “natural.”

That is why knowledge of the primitive is seen as capable of effecting social change (46).

– The Tarzan novels ultimately affirm white over black, man over woman, and so on, but early on, when Tarzan is a child, they also show how unnatural these hierarchies are, how subject they are to cultural variation (i.e. they are not universal), and how problematic Tarzan himself finds them (see examples, 47).

– But through Tarzan’s encounters with Africans and women, the race and gender hierarchies we are familiar with are (re)established. Tarzan learns that he is a man, a white man, etc.; he instinctively knows that Africans are not apes but men, yet not white men, and humans should not be cannibals (although the first African he meets, and kills, is a cannibal, i.e. a more savage being, and has killed Tarzan’s ape mother: notice how the whole story engages the boundaries between races and species).

– The Africans are savage, but the series points out that the Belgians are moreso: it is sharply critical of colonial savagery

– Jane gets to the jungle because she is abducted by a rebel ape, Terkoz, who of course is not interested in her Black servant, Esmeralda. See the quotation (51) from the battle scene between Terkoz and Tarzan, and Jane’s reaction. It is natural that man is woman’s protector, and that she can be won by strength and daring. And love of white women naturally makes white men civilized. (White women, of course, incite lust in villainous hearts, so one way we can tell the difference between white and other men, perhaps, is how they react to white women.)

– The threat of miscegenation is most directly invoked in Jungle Tales of Tarzan, the sixth book in the series. Tarzan wants a mate but does not consider a Black one. He fights an ape for an ape woman, and then realizes it would be inter-species sex and is a bad idea. So miscegenation and bestiality are associated, and the rejection of miscegenation is disguised as rejection of bestiality. The phrase “Tarzan is a man. He will go alone” is uttered when Tarzan has, importantly, distinguished himself not only from women but also from animals and Black men. He then goes on to establish himself as the head of various hierarchies.

– Tarzan becomes a king twice early on: of anthropoids and of an elite tribe of people. When he meets this tribe they mediate for him between ape society and white civilization. He has by now visited the U.S., Paris and London, and found them corrupt and more dangerous than the jungle (shades of Macunaíma, which we will read! This novel is from 1928: had author M. de Andrade read Tarzan?).

– When he is initiated as their king it is in a tribal rite, but he converts them to feudalism as they live with him on his estate as a sort of serf, and as they start calling him not king but the more colonial “big bwana.” According to the novels, Tarzan is evolving and bringing them with him: from tribalism to feudalism to an early form of capitalism. Really the relationship between the two exemplifies certain versions of imperialism and liberal neocolonialism. Western superiority is voluntarily recognized and rewarded by natives who had first adopted Tarzan as a lonely outsider.

– The references to slavery and representations of servitude in these novels may also be an indirect way of addressing U.S. race relations… (58) It is not that the books explicitly accept or promote slavery or subservience for Africans, it is that they are so used to it that they (re-)present as almost natural.

– Important: Tarzan’s encounter with the ruins of a lost white civilization – actually, of twelve of them. (Ancient advanced cultures, in the colonialist mentality, had to be white! Note also the prevalence of the idea that the South American pyramids must have been built by space aliens, as Native Americans could not have built them!) So civilization in Africa was originally white, Blacks are just the people there now, they are not creators of culture, and Africa can be taken over by whites again.

– And, it goes without saying, note the penetration metaphors in the discussion of this: white men have penetrated to the center of darkest (and feminized) Africa.

– Ultimately the books are conflicted about race and colonialism, but not about women. Note that Jane profoundly changes Tarzan: first he goes to live with her in Europe for years and years, and then when they return to Africa, they live on a colonial estate. However Tarzan keeps needing/finding excuses to get back into the trees, and finally Jane stops requiring any – so Tarzan wins out in the end. (Look at this gender role drama! Jane depends on Tarzan in nature, but exercises control in the domestic arena. There she tames Tarzan and ultimately betrays his character. Woman is loved, but also resented …so this is one set of stereotypes about gender that the novels reinforce.)

– Consider the alternative heroine La: a priestess-ruler out in the wild! Ultimately he conquers her and other like her as well, and the Tarzan materials evince interest in and hostility to matriarchal societies. See especially Tarzan and the Ant Men (1924), where Tarzan comes into contact with a hideous matriarchal society which he saves by putting the men back in very firm control.

– Note how the early Tarzan novels flirt with the idea of remaking race and gender relations, and the later ones then back off! This is very important – it is the key issue for this study of primitivism. Contrast to it what happens in the 1984 Tarzan film Greystoke. In the books, unlike in this film, the fall into humanity which happens when Tarzan meets Jane means one cannot go home again: man is to be the master of women and beasts. And man is white, and the nonwhite is part of the world he dominates. And postmodern culture projects into the primitive a harmony and justice it cannot find in itself.

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Posted by on January 26, 2008 in Tarzan, Torgovnick



Here is Tarzan of the Apes, the first Tarzan novel, in full text from Project Gutenberg. It is full of primitivist tropes and very amusing to read! This is a description of the jungle from the end of the second chapter:

Scarcely had they closed their eyes than the terrifying cry of a panther rang out from the jungle behind them. Closer and closer it came until they could hear the great beast directly beneath them. For an hour or more they heard it sniffing and clawing at the trees which supported their platform, but at last it roamed away across the beach, where Clayton could see it clearly in the brilliant moonlight–a great, handsome beast, the largest he had ever seen. During the long hours of darkness they caught but fitful snatches of sleep, for the night noises of a great jungle teeming with myriad animal life kept their overwrought nerves on edge, so that a hundred times they were startled to wakefulness by piercing screams, or the stealthy moving of great bodies beneath them.

The Tarzan character is a white man who has become a noble savage in Africa. Wikipedia, as we know, is “not a reliable academic source,” but the Wikipedia entry on him is actually quite useful. Here are some fragments from it:

He is the son of a British Lord and Lady who were marooned on the West coast of Africa by mutineers. Tarzan’s parents died when he was an infant, and he was raised by the Mangani, Great Apes of a species unknown to science. Kala is his ape mother. Tarzan (White-skin) is his ape name; his English name is John Clayton, Lord Greystoke (according to Burroughs; Earl of Greystoke in later, non-canonical sources, notably the 1984 movie Greystoke). As a young adult, he meets Jane Porter who, with others of her party, including her father, is marooned at exactly the same spot on the African coast where Tarzan’s parents were marooned roughly twenty years earlier. When she returns to America, he leaves the jungle in search of her, his one true love. In later books, Tarzan and Jane marry and he lives with her for a time in England. They have one son, Jack, who takes the ape name Korak the Killer. Tarzan is contemptuous of the hypocrisy of civilization, and he and Jane return to Africa. . . .

Burroughs has created in Tarzan an extreme example of a hero figure unalloyed with character flaws or faults. Tarzan is described by Burroughs as being Caucasian, extremely athletic, tall, handsome, and tanned. He has grey eyes. Emotionally, he is courageous, loyal and steady. He is intelligent and learns new languages easily. He is presented as always behaving ethically in all situations, according to Burroughs’ definitions. He is deeply in love with his wife and totally devoted to her. Always the gentleman, in numerous situations where other women express their attraction to Tarzan, he politely and as kindly as possible declines their attentions. If presented with a situation where a weaker individual or party is being preyed upon by a stronger foe, Tarzan will invariably take the part of the weaker party (and invariably win). In dealing with other men Tarzan is firm and forceful. With male friends he is reserved but deeply loyal and generous. As a host he is likewise generous and gracious. As a leader he commands devoted loyalty.

In contrast to all these urbane and sophisticated capabilities and characteristics, Tarzan’s philosophy embraces an extreme form of “return to nature”. His preferred dress is a knife and a loincloth made from uncured animal hide. His preferred abode is a convenient tree branch which happens to be nearby when he desires to sleep. His preferred food is raw meat, killed by himself; even better if he is able to bury it a week so that putrefaction has had a chance to tenderize it a bit. Although Tarzan is able to pass within society as a civilized individual, he prefers to “strip off the thin veneer of civilization”, as Burroughs often puts it.

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Posted by on January 24, 2008 in Bibliography, Tarzan