“Tarzan of the Apes” by Edgar Rice Burroughs is a classic adventure novel published in 1912. The story follows John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, and his wife, Alice, who are marooned on the west coast of Africa. The couple’s tragic fate leads to their infant son being adopted by a tribe of apes. This child grows up to become Tarzan, the legendary ape-man, who must navigate the complexities of both the jungle and his human heritage.

Comprehensive Plot Summary

In the late 19th century, John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, and his wife, Alice, set sail for Africa. John, a young English nobleman, has been commissioned to investigate reports of native mistreatment by European colonial powers in West Africa. However, their journey takes a dark turn when their vessel, the Fuwalda, is overtaken by a mutinous crew. The mutineers, led by the brutish Black Michael, abandon the couple on an isolated stretch of African coast, leaving them to fend for themselves in the unforgiving wilderness.

Determined to survive, John constructs a small, fortified cabin in the jungle, a testament to his resourcefulness and strength. Alice, already weakened by the journey, gives birth to their son soon after their arrival. Despite their precarious situation, the couple finds moments of peace and joy with their newborn. However, tragedy soon strikes. Alice succumbs to the harsh conditions and the psychological toll of their isolation, leaving John to care for their infant son alone. His resolve, though strong, is not enough to protect him from the dangers lurking in the jungle. One fateful day, a band of apes led by the fierce Kerchak attacks, and John Clayton meets his end, leaving the infant boy defenseless.

The orphaned child is discovered by Kala, a gentle and loving ape who has just lost her own baby. She takes the human infant as her own, naming him Tarzan, meaning “White Skin” in the language of the apes. Tarzan grows up among the apes, learning their ways and becoming remarkably strong and agile. Yet, he knows he is different. He discovers his parents’ cabin and, through the books and a dictionary inside, learns to read and write English. Tarzan’s intelligence sets him apart from his ape family, allowing him to invent tools and weapons that enhance his survival skills.

As Tarzan matures, he becomes a legendary figure in the jungle, both feared and respected by the animals and native tribes. His extraordinary abilities, combined with his human intellect, make him a formidable presence. He befriends Tantor the elephant and battles fierce predators, including the savage Numa the lion and the cunning Sheeta the leopard. Despite his prowess, Tarzan often feels a sense of longing and curiosity about his human origins.

The turning point in Tarzan’s life comes when a group of explorers arrives in the jungle. Among them is Jane Porter, a beautiful and spirited young American woman. Tarzan is captivated by Jane and saves her from various dangers, including a ferocious lion attack. Jane, in turn, is fascinated by this wild yet noble man who can communicate with the animals and move through the jungle with unparalleled grace. Their bond deepens, and Tarzan experiences feelings he has never known before.

Conflict arises as the explorers face threats from both the jungle and unscrupulous treasure hunters. Clayton, Jane’s cousin and one of the explorers, seeks to claim a treasure hidden in the jungle. Tarzan’s innate sense of justice compels him to protect Jane and her companions from these dangers. His dual identity as both ape and man allows him to navigate these threats effectively, using his jungle-honed skills and human ingenuity.

Tarzan’s encounters with the human world become more complex as he learns of his true heritage. He discovers that he is John Clayton II, the rightful Lord Greystoke, and that his parents were English nobility. This revelation challenges Tarzan’s sense of identity, forcing him to reconcile his wild upbringing with his noble lineage. The discovery of his heritage also brings the possibility of a life with Jane in the civilized world.

The climax of Tarzan’s journey comes when he must rescue Jane from a band of native warriors. With unmatched bravery and strength, Tarzan infiltrates the village and rescues her, solidifying his status as a hero. However, the experience leaves him torn between the call of the jungle and his love for Jane.

Eventually, Tarzan decides to leave the jungle and return to civilization, driven by his love for Jane. He bids farewell to his ape family, including Kala, who had given him a sense of belonging and love. Tarzan’s transition to the human world is not without challenges. He must navigate the complexities of human society, which often seems more bewildering and treacherous than the jungle he left behind.

In England, Tarzan’s struggle to adapt to his new life is evident. He faces prejudice and intrigue but also finds allies who help him reclaim his title and inheritance. Throughout this journey, Jane remains a constant source of strength and support, her love anchoring him as he grapples with his dual identity.

In the end, Tarzan embraces his heritage and becomes a bridge between two worlds. He retains his deep connection to the jungle, often returning to its wild embrace, while also fulfilling his duties as Lord Greystoke. Jane and Tarzan’s love story unfolds amidst these challenges, a testament to the power of love and resilience.

Tarzan of the Apes is a tale of adventure, self-discovery, and the enduring human spirit. It explores the themes of nature versus nurture, civilization versus savagery, and the quest for identity. Through Tarzan’s journey, the narrative celebrates the strength and adaptability of the human spirit, highlighting the bonds of love and the triumph of the individual over adversity.

Main Characters

  • Tarzan (John Clayton II, Lord Greystoke): The protagonist, raised by apes in the African jungle. He embodies the physical prowess and instincts of the wild, coupled with the intelligence and curiosity of humans.
  • Jane Porter: A brave and compassionate American woman who becomes Tarzan’s love interest. She is kind-hearted and quick to adapt to the challenges of the jungle.
  • Kala: The gentle ape who adopts Tarzan after losing her own child. She raises him with love and protects him fiercely.
  • Kerchak: The aggressive leader of the ape tribe, representing the brute force of the jungle and often clashing with Tarzan.
  • John Clayton (Lord Greystoke): Tarzan’s father, whose efforts to protect his family ultimately fail, leaving Tarzan to be raised by the apes.
  • Alice Clayton (Lady Greystoke): Tarzan’s mother, who struggles with the isolation and dangers of the jungle before succumbing to illness and despair.

Themes and Motifs

  • Nature vs. Nurture: The novel explores the influence of environment and upbringing on an individual’s identity. Tarzan’s duality highlights the balance between his inherited human traits and the survival skills taught by the apes.
  • Civilization vs. Savagery: Tarzan’s struggle to reconcile his jungle instincts with human civilization underscores the conflict between the wild and the refined, questioning what it means to be truly civilized.
  • Identity and Belonging: Tarzan’s journey is one of self-discovery, as he learns about his human heritage and grapples with his place in both the ape tribe and human society.
  • Heroism and Bravery: Tarzan’s courage in facing the dangers of the jungle and protecting those he loves exemplifies the classic hero archetype.

Writing Style and Tone

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ writing style in “Tarzan of the Apes” is descriptive and action-packed, with vivid portrayals of the jungle setting and the physicality of Tarzan’s world. The narrative combines elements of adventure, romance, and a coming-of-age story, maintaining a brisk pace that keeps readers engaged. Burroughs employs a third-person omniscient perspective, allowing insights into the thoughts and emotions of multiple characters. The tone shifts between the primal, raw energy of the jungle and the more reflective, introspective moments of Tarzan’s self-discovery. Burroughs’ language is evocative, often romanticizing the wild while also acknowledging its brutal realities.

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Categories: Book Summary