Lord Greystoke and his wife, the Lady Alice, are marooned on the West African coast, where they manage to survive long enough to have a son. Within a day of the boy’s first birthday, both his parents are dead and the infant has been taken by a female ape to replace her own lost baby.
Named Tarzan (‘White Skin’), the boy grows up amongst the apes, learning their way of life and behaving as they do. However, when he chances upon the cabin formerly inhabited by his parents, he discovers books and pictures that suggest his ancestry is not what he has grown up to believe. Through the books, he teaches himself to read and gradually learns a little about the world of men.
His world is turned upside down when another group of humans is marooned on the same stretch of coast. Through meeting Jane Porter, Tarzan discovers what it is to love; and his attempts to help the newcomers survive result in his being taught to speak French by one of them.
By this time, Jane and the others have departed, and so Tarzan sets out on a dual mission: to discover his true identity and to reclaim the woman he loves. To find out whether he succeeds in both these aims, you will have to keep reading right up to the very last sentence of the novel.
Where did I get hold of the book?
The university library didn’t stock it, and the public library catalogue was down when I tried to access it. As I’d left it a little bit late, I didn’t really want to spend time going to the library only to find it wasn’t there, so I was very pleased to find a ebook version available on Kindle for only 59p.
- Find the book in a library near you.
- Support local independent bookshops by buying the book from Hive (UK).
What did I learn from it?
I learned that the attitudes of less enlightened times can affect my enjoyment of what is otherwise a rollicking adventure story. As much as I tried to tell myself that Burroughs was merely a writer of his age (and, for all I know, more forward thinking than his peers), his perspectives on racial issues and gender roles still grated.
I wouldn’t say I didn’t enjoy the novel: it is possible to appreciate the romance, be carried away by the swashbuckling and the derring do, and gasp in awe at Tarzan’s physical prowess, without slamming the book shut in disgust. But I could never quite lose myself in it, as Jane’s subservience and the portrayal of the African natives as savages kept leaving an unpleasant taste in my mouth.
On a more positive note, I learned a little about the art of tracking beasts in the jungle (Burroughs gives quite a detailed description of the techniques Tarzan uses); and I learned that the science of fingerprinting was already being used by the police at this time.
How did it make me see the world differently?
The story brought up the whole issue of nature versus nurture: what aspects of Tarzan’s behaviour are intrinsic, and what has he merely been taught? Of course, this touches upon the abovementioned problem of Tarzan’s supposed racial superiority: he is portrayed as having a natural inclination towards honourable behaviour, and we are told that this is because of his high-born ancestry.
But even if we don’t subscribe to this view, the balance between nature and nurture is still fiercely debated to this day. How can any of us really tell which aspects of our personality are determined by genetic inheritance, and which by habit and environment? It is impossible to recollect the time before our behaviours became ingrained, and so we can never really know the true origin of our inclinations.
In the end, we all have the ability to make a choice about how we interact with the world. Even if certain traits are naturally present in us, we are not obliged to express them; and, even if our upbringing does not involve swinging from branch to branch through tropical forests, we can still make decisions on which elements of our life we wish to keep hold of and which we need to let go.
What changes will I make to my life as a result of it?
Oddly, when I finished this book, I was rather stuck for ways I could use it to move forward. My reading this time had come at the end of a very busy couple of weeks, and I felt totally out of sync with my own life: I’d lost all sense of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do.
So it felt quite ironic to realise that what I’d lost was my own intuition: the sense of knowing instinctively what was right for me. And I realised that one lesson I could learn from Tarzan was to get back in touch with it! Despite the above point about choosing how we behave in civilised company, we still need to know what drives us underneath, so that we may tell what we can afford to sacrifice for the sake of social niceties and what we can never afford to abandon if we wish to remain true to ourselves.
The other thing I found myself hankering for was the ability to swing through the trees to freedom! And I realised that, even if I had the technical ability, I am seriously lacking in fitness. So I’ve decided to start looking out for some sporting activities I can do to increase my strength and stamina.
I’m not a gym bunny or an aerobics fiend: if I’m going to get active, it needs to be something in the open air, that feels like fun rather than hard work. And I remember I’ve always fancied trying something like rock climbing or hang gliding. They may not quite replicate the experience of jungle life, but it’ll sure beat sweating on a treadmill day in day out!
Over to you…
Has this post inspired you to read the book for yourself?
If you’ve read it, do you agree with what I’ve said? Did you have insights that I’ve not mentioned?
Please share in the comments below!