I know, I know, I know. This novel is a product of its period, its writer is only human, and we shouldn’t hold it against a writer that he wrote in a way that reflected the accepted understanding of the world at the time of writing. We should though, reflect on why a novel is so enduring despite being pretty darn offensive. We can talk about racism or sexism in relation to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes, I have a plethora of offensive pull quotes from which to choose. I think Burroughs’ racism is the more obvious problem and the more oft-discussed. That said, I’m apprehensive about the SEO implications of posting Burroughs’ thoughts on race here so let’s discuss gender roles in the book instead, shall we?
Tarzan of the Apes can be enjoyable to read, in the same way that much of the pulp fiction published in the early part of the twentieth century is enjoyable. If you ignore the obvious problems with plot (some major coincidences tie the whole thing together), one-dimensional characters (southern belles, absentminded professors), and fact (silly Burroughs, there are no tigers in Africa), the pacing and the action make Tarzan a page-turner. I often quite like genre stories by the likes of Burroughs and Kipling though I’ve never understood why some are elevated to Important Books and cease to be treated as un-serious pulp. Why are we reading, talking about and making films about Tarzan 100 years later?
We’ll read other works of pulp fiction later in this series by writers who have more understandably been elevated above their news stand roots: Dashiell Hammett, Ray Bradbury. But Burroughs is considered one of the fathers of modern science fiction and the Tarzan stories are by far his best known work. Why?
My unproven thesis is that men love the Tarzan character because he is an accessible superhero and demonstrates the potential of masculinity. More than anything Tarzan and the Apes is about what it means to be a Man.
“Again he laid his hand upon her arm. Again she repulsed him. And then Tarzan of the Apes did just what his first ancestor would have done.
He took his woman in his arms and carried her into the jungle.”
I’m being sensationalist by posting that quote. We learn a chapter later that Tarzan decides not to rape Jane. But she will soon be so swept away by his manliness that she will swoon for him and be unable to resist his charms, even if she was initially repulsed. And he will provide this delicate (ie. weak) woman with food and shelter and protection – even lynching the ape that tried to rape her (oy – I’m not touching that one). He will do all that because in appearance and character, he is the ideal man, and even without the benefit of a noble upbringing, perfect manliness has been bred into him and will override the savage parts of him.
“Ah, how to begin… Tarzan raised me from a little boy and helped me become a man.”- John Conrad, commenter on Tarzan of the Apes goodreads homepage.
What the Tarzan character has held for boys and men for 100 years is the promise that it is within their nature to be a hero, to be needed, to be a good man. The Good Men Project gets 5 million visitors per month by attempting to define modern masculinity, by encouraging men to not be ashamed to be men and by implying, as Tarzan does, that there is a natural definition of masculinity; a way a Man should be.
When I said we were going to talk about gender, I bet you thought we were going to talk about the one-dimensional role of women in the book, didn’t you?
“Nor was [Clayton] following the trail of the old men. That, they had crossed and left long since, though it had been fresh and plain before Tarzan’s eyes.”
No, I think the bigger problem is the definition of Man, and the implication that masculinity requires stature above six-feet, the ability to track a target through the woods, to fight a lion, to make a woman swoon on sight. The Tarzan character is one that raises our little boys, and helps turn them into men. Is this narrow definition of masculinity the best way to do that?