In honor of Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d re-read and review one of the best love stories ever written. It’s particularly appropriate, since the book turns 100 years old this year, and I thought I’d see how it’s held up over the century. Don’t worry, you know the story. It’s Tarzan of the Apes.
So, yeah, I know, it’s not the first thing that jumps out at you as a love story. Oh, sure, it’s got beatings, killings, maulings, beheadings, and all sorts of good jungle violence. Some characters die for vengeance, some die because someone else was angry – or just hungry. At least 16 men or apes are killed before chapter 10 – and I mean right in front of you, with guns, knives, or teeth. All told, there are probably around 80 deaths in the book. There’s a lot of blood.
Warning: Hereafter lie spoilers. I know, you think you know the story. Disney didn’t cover the books very well, and many people really don’t know the original story. If you’re interested in reading the original, I’m going to give away the ending here – be warned. (Also, for those who know me well and are curious, no, I don’t have a first edition. I’m reading a later reprint, from around 1916. If anyone wants to get me a first printing/first edition, they’re most welcome!)
But still, it’s a love story. The first time Tarzan lays eyes on Jane Porter, his world changes – as does hers. He goes from wondering about his purpose in life as a man among apes, to a man with a mission – Jane. She left the jungle without him, against her will while fearing him dead or worse, but left him a love note. For Jane, he leaves the jungle, learns the ways of civilization, and crosses continents. He went to Paris, then to Baltimore, only to find she had moved to Wisconsin.
He makes his way to Wisconsin, just in time to save her from a raging forest fire, and then moments later from a loveless marriage to a miser. He gives her father enough money to cover his debts, restoring the family’s honor.
And then, at the end, Jane has a crisis of faith, and agrees to marry William Cecil Clayton, Lord Greystoke, who inherited his title, wealth, and lands when his uncle was declared dead – his uncle, who was Tarzan’s father. Tarzan, for his part, receives a telegram from Paris just moments later, from his friend who had been investigating the matter, stating: “Finger prints prove you Greystoke. Congratulations.”
He realizes that at a word, he can have Clayton stripped of his title, lands, and money – and in doing so would strip them from Jane, too. Clayton chooses that exact moment to walk up to him, thank him for all the help he’s been, and ask how he had wound up in the jungle anyway.
“I was born there,” said Tarzan, quietly. “My mother was an Ape, and of course couldn’t tell me much about it. I never knew who my father was.”
Yes, Burroughs was a privileged white man born in Illinois in 1875, and wrote what he saw. The impression he had of Africans as savages, the idea that women were little better than chattel, the concept and conceit that British nobility would of course shine through despite a life lived as a brute among brutes, all of those products of Burroughs’ time that we now look back on and cringe – these are all here in this book. The anachronisms, the patois of racism and privilege, grow worse with each passing year. As a book, it doesn’t hold up well to modern morality.
But – that’s a love story. He swept her off her feet, she fell in love with his savage nobility, and at the end he renounces his true identity and birthright, giving her up, to secure her happiness and well being – without telling anyone.
I hope everyone had as Happy a Valentine’s Day as that kind of love can bring!