Can a classic piece of literature be reviewed in modern times? Can someone take one of the best stories told through generations and offer it criticism or praise? For fun, I read Tarzan of the Apes, the first book in the series starring Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I was going to. To expressed my newfound appreciation for the novel, I wanted to pick out what I liked most from it and what I thought could have been improved. Yes, improved. A classic story sitting in the public domain. I must be sitting on my high horse today!
Anything I say from this point onward is nothing but my opinion. Maybe you agree with me, and maybe you don't. That's fine, and no matter my impression of literature, classic literature novels are classics for a reason. My thoughts on them don't trample the art in how the author writes them. I've read some that I didn't care for, but I still respected the authors and their art. That's a discussion for another day.
In the meantime, Tarzan of the Apes starts a little slow. The story begins with the author telling us he heard this story from a friend of a friend or so, bringing Tarzan to life from the book in our hands. Well, not yet because our hero hasn't been born. Instead, we're focusing on his parents, Alice and John Clayton. While sailing, a rowdy mix of crewmembers take over the ship and maroon the couple on an island. Here comes the first issue I have with the novel. It can be incredibly boring at times. Burroughs' writing voice can be quite particular in its detail, which for me, ruins the flow of the story.
This couple is trying to survive on their own. It's heartbreaking. Alice is pregnant, and the jungle is full of dangers they doubt they can get away from by the time the baby's due. Immediately, they must build a shelter. The next page is nothing but the cabin's measurements and how John Clayton constructed it. I began skimming at this point, but the author went into so much detail about the cabin that someone could build it themselves with ease.
I'm not interested in creating a cabin in the jungle. I read this book for the adventures of an orphaned jungle child. The tone is not present all the time, but it can kill the vibe from time to time. The more you read of the novel, the better and more fun it becomes. More issues surface later on too, but I'll get there later.
Tarzan is born, and his parents die when he's about a year old. A bunch of apes finds out how to enter the cabin and the grieving mother, Kala, picks up the boy after losing her own baby and raises him as her own. Of course, he matures a lot slower than the other babies, and the tribe became worried. Tarzan is a smart baby and eventually catches up. He learns how to climb, keep up with the group, and set pranks on the gorillas he doesn't like. When he sees his reflection for the first time, he understands how different he is from the others.
As Tarzan grows older, he finds his parents' cabin. From the moment he steps in, the cabin fascinates him, and he goes through every drawer and book. The books fascinate him further, and Tarzan begins looking for patterns in the books. Without help, he teaches himself how to read English. I didn't realize how smart he was until this point. He's incredibly talented and intelligent! The notion of a feral child teaching himself how to read is also impossible, but impossible things happen all the time in fiction. As long as the story is fun and the impossible things add to the character, I can overlook it.
In his books in the cabin, Tarzan learns he's a man and not an ape, and a new desire to see one of his own kind surfaces. Here's issue number two; the novel carries a racist tone. The book makes it clear Tarzan is the son of a white Englishman. The first human he meets is a black man of a village further inside the jungle. He understands the people in the village are a type of human, but not human enough for him to relate with them in any way. Not only are they savages, but Tarzan begins messing with them, tormenting them, and in several cases, killing them without remorse.
He doesn't believe he's seen one of his own kind until Jane and company arrive at the island. The racist tone becomes more uncomfortable when the book introduces Esmerelda. She's the only black in the company, and she's more of a caretaker to Jane. She's lovable but stupid, and she faints whenever there's trouble, proving she doesn't help in their survival efforts much. As a matter of fact, Jane faints a lot too. She's playing a damsel in distress role, but this story is a hundred years old, so...
I thought Tarzan was a very nice gentleman to her, and I liked their scenes together, but I felt like Jane attached herself to him too quickly. He only had to save her once, and she fell for him. At the end of the book, she questions her feelings for him and thinks it was the adrenaline that brought her head over heels in the first place. That's a bit better, I guess.
My favorite part of the book was the ending. Should I give a spoiler warning for a hundred-year-old book here? Because I wanna talk about the end. After Tarzan rescues Lieutenant D'Arnot from the village of savages, Jane and company return home. Tarzan and D'Arnot decide to travel back to America on their own. Tarzan learns a lot in this timeframe. He learns how to communicate outside of writing, learns the concept of currency, and we even see him drive a car later! Wow! Again, it's unbelievable, but it's an incredible growth to Tarzan's character.
Jane and her father move to a farm after they couldn't find a treasure chest located on Tarzan's island, and Jane is pressured into marrying a rich man, Robert Canler, to help her father. Tarzan arrives in time to save Jane and the group from a wildfire spreading in the area. He barges into the house where all but Jane are, yells their names, and pulls them to safety. He seems familiar to the group, but none recognize him until later. That wasn't the jungle god they remembered!
He later rescues Jane and learns of her plans to marry Robert Canler. Worse comes to worst when the man comes through the door. Tarzan tells him to back off from her and nearly strangles him to death! Jain knew he would have killed the man because of a distinctive scar on Tarzan's face that burns red when he intends to kill. What an extraordinary characteristic! She begged him to let the man live. The rules of the jungle don't apply in these lands, and Tarzan respected her wish.
Tarzan is a fabulous character. He grew so much throughout the book and shone at the end. Tarzan of the Apes is only the first book in the series, but I would have liked to see even more from his character. I'm interested in reading more in the series despite wishing for a better writing style and less racism and sexism. The story, while it's an unbelievable one, is alluring and fun if you can look past the issues listed above. I loved it for Tarzan alone. He's not just a swinging naked man in the jungle. He's super intelligent, a quick learner, and he can be quite the gentleman. He carried a pretty high ego while in the jungle. A challenge on that might be good for him.
As a side note, I've never watched the Disney movie based on this book when I was a kid. I would have liked to compare his character from the book to the one more people are familiar with. I'll have to do that some other time.
If you've read this book, what do you think about the review? Are the other books in the series better or worse? No spoilers! I haven't gotten that far yet! :)