Tarzan of the Apes was the first book in a series of 24 adventure novels by American author Edgar Rice Burroughs
It tells the tale of an orphaned boy who is taken in and raised by apes in the jungles of Africa, and it’s become one of the most famous stories of the 20th and 21st centuries worldwide
But brace yourselves. Burroughs’ novel was published way back in 1914, and boy, can you tell. Unlike Disney’s memorable movie adaptation, the original story contains a pretty jaw-dropping amount of stereotypical racist and sexist themes. So much so that it raised eyebrows among readers even back in the early nineteen hundreds.
The author’s portrayal of native Africans and his perception of white superiority are hard to ignore. Plus, sexism runs rife in his early descriptions of Tarzan’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, Jane.
But, if you’re willing to grit your teeth and explore the story that inspired countless further novels, comics, and movies, Tarzan and the Apes still makes for a fascinating read.
This book, and the two dozen sequels that followed, are considered literary classics, and they’ve been adapted more than any other book in history. So, if you’re a curious reader, it’s well worth suspending your outrage and diving into this world-famous tale.
The Most Interesting Characters from Tarzan of the Apes
In this post, I’ll be exploring six fascinating characters from Tarzan of the Apes.
If you’ve never read Burroughs’ original tales and are more familiar with Disney’s rose-tinted adaptation, you might find some of these descriptions surprising.
Back then, things got pretty gritty in the jungle on Tarzan’s watch!
Tarzan is the main protagonist of the story, and he’s also the most interesting character by a long shot.
Born into an aristocratic family and given the name John Clayton II, Viscount Greystoke, he was set to inherit a vast amount of wealth.
But as an infant, he and his parents find themselves marooned in the western jungles of equatorial Africa, and his fate takes a rather different turn.
By the age of just one, his mother died of natural causes, and shortly after, his father was killed by the savage leader of the Mangani apes.
Orphaned and alone, he’s taken in by a kind-hearted she-ape named Kala, who decides to raise him as one of her own. She gives him the name Tarzan, meaning ‘White Skin,’ and teaches him the tools he needs to survive in the animal kingdom.
Growing up as a young boy, Tarzan knows nothing of his human heritage, but his physical differences from the rest of his family leave him with a lingering sense that something isn’t quite right. He’s deeply ashamed of his smooth, hairless skin and thinks of himself as ugly.
It isn’t until later, when Tarzan discovers the abandoned home of his birth parents, that he realizes he’s not an ape after all. Somewhere out there, there are others like him, and his search for his true identity begins.
As Tarzan grows from a small boy into a young man, he becomes a skilled hunter who can take down a lion with his bare hands. Almost everyone admires his strength and bravery, and the Mangani apes begin to view him as the alpha predator.
But this angers the ape’s leader, Kerchak, who sees him as a threat.
Eventually, the tension between them reaches a crescendo, and Kerchak violently attacks Tarzan in a jealous rage. But ultimately, he’s no match for the ape-man. Tarzan kills Kerchak, and much to the relief of everyone, he takes his place as the King of the Mangani.
Later in the story, the violence continues when Tarzan’s adopted mother, Kala, is killed by a visiting tribesman. Heartbroken and hungry for revenge, he raids their village and torments the tribe as a way to make them pay.
But while Tarzan’s behavior in the jungle isn’t exactly civilized, he’s kind-hearted like Kala, and he only uses violence on those he believes deserve it.
He’s also naturally intelligent, so much so that he teaches himself to read English using the books he found at his parent’s cabin. Eventually, he even learns to speak French, his first human language, after meeting naval officer Paul d’Arnot.
D’Arnot also teaches Tarzan how to behave like a civilized gentleman, which is just as well, as he needs all the social skills he can get to win the heart of his future wife, Jane Porter.
Jane is the first white woman Tarzan ever encounters, and on their first meeting, he swoops in to rescue her from the dangers of the jungle.
But his primal behavior and her ladylike ways are at odds with one another, and despite their chemistry, Jane decides it can never work, and she leaves Africa behind.
Yet Tarzan doesn’t give up so easily. He makes the long journey across the ocean to Wisconsin, USA, to declare his undying love and prove his true identity as a noble-blooded man. But when he arrives, he finds Jane engaged to his cousin, William Cecil Clayton.
This is where Tarzan’s integrity really shines through. Rather than claim his rightful inheritance from William and try to win back Jane’s affections, he leaves them be, sacrificing his own happiness in order to preserve hers.
Eighteen-year-old Jane grew up in a privileged family in America. So, when she first finds herself marooned along the coastal jungle of sub-Saharan Africa alongside her eccentric father, she’s shell shocked, to say the least.
It’s not long before she finds herself in danger, but luckily Tarzan is on hand to rescue her.
Jane is a classic damsel in distress, as demonstrated by lines like “He knew that she was created to be protected and that he was created to protect her.”
This quote sums up Tarzan/Jane dynamic in a nutshell, but thankfully, later in the series, Jane transforms. She becomes a feisty, independent, and capable woman who can hold her own in the jungle without the need for Tarzan’s help.
Jane is beautiful, but in the original novel, she’s often depicted as a mere prize to be won or an object to be owned, rather than an individual with free will.
She has a string of suiters to choose from, but these seemingly eligible gentlemen are only after one thing. Yet Tarzan is different, he truly loves her, and he’ll do pretty much anything to make her happy.
Unfortunately, Jane isn’t always quite so convinced. For much of this opening novel, she sways between desire and repulsion for the handsome jungle dweller, admiring his strength and bravery while being repelled by his primitive ways.
Thankfully, Tarzan wins Jane’s heart in the end, and in the later books, they get married, move to England, and have a child together.
William Cecil Clayton
William ‘Cecil’ Clayton is Tarzan’s biological cousin, and as far as the aristocracy is concerned, he’s the heir to the Greystoke estate.
Despite his Western clothes and tidy appearance, Cecil bears a close resemblance to Tarzan. But there’s a stark contrast between these two men, and Cecil’s character reminds us who the ape-man might have been had he not been raised in the animal kingdom.
Cecil arrives in Africa alongside Jane and her father, and he does his best to protect them both when things get hairy.
He has strong feelings for Jane, and though he’s usually a reasonable and rational man, her obvious affection for Tarzan makes him wildly jealous.
But luckily for him, his high social standing and noble bloodline are enough to secure her hand in marriage, and he claims her as his own.
Yet while Cecil has the charm, wealth, and title that Jane is looking for, he lacks Tarzan’s brute strength, primal passion, and unshakable integrity. Despite her choice, it’s clear where Jane’s true feelings lie.
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Kala is the good-natured she-ape who took Tarzan in when he was a helpless infant and raised him as if he were her own.
She is instinctively compassionate and one of the most intelligent of her kind. And unlike the rest of the Mangani apes, she’s described as having “a great capacity for mother love and mother sorrow.”
At the start of Burroughs’ original tale, Kala loses her firstborn child in a tragic accident, and so when she sees baby Tarzan lying helpless and alone, taking him home with her seems like the obvious thing to do.
Kala’s husband, Tublat, doesn’t share her affections for Tarzan; in fact, throughout most of the story, he despises him. But Kala is fiercely protective of her adoptive son, and she goes to great lengths to keep him safe from harm.
Sadly, Kala’s story comes to a tragic end when she’s killed by a human settler from a nearby tribe. Tarzan loved his primate mother more than anyone else in the world, and so he embarks on a long and bitter quest to avenge her death.
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Kerchak is the reigning king of the Mangani apes at the start of the story, and he rules over his tribe with violence, intimidation, and fear.
His unpredictable behavior and tendency to fly into a rage mean that no one dares disobey his orders. Instead, to survive his wrath, they stay as far away from him as possible.
It was Kerchak who killed Tarzan’s birth parents and left him orphaned and alone in the jungle before Kala came to his rescue. Since then, he’s never had a moment’s sympathy for the human child, but his casual disdain turns to resentment and hatred as Tarzan grows older.
The ape-king feels threatened by the ape-man’s strength, skill, and wit, and ultimately he turns to physical violence to settle the score.
But his jealousy becomes his downfall, as Tarzan wins the fight, killing Kerchak and ending his reign of terror once and for all.
Lieutenant Paul D’Arnot is a French naval officer who first arrives in the jungle alongside Jane and her father when their ship is marooned along the African coast.
Almost immediately, he and the rest of the ship’s crew are captured by a tribe, and Tarzan steps in to save him.
And so, feeling indebted to the ape-man, D’Arnot decides to help him transform into a ‘proper Western gentleman.’ He teaches him to speak French and practice traditional Western customs, and together, the pair embark on a long journey across the ocean so that Tarzan can reconnect with the love of his life, Jane.
D’Arnot is a generous-spirited man who goes to great lengths to help his friend. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that without him, Tarzan may never have had a shot with Jane in the first place.
There are plenty more fascinating characters to explore from the original Tarzan of the Apes book, but the six listed above are among the most interesting of them all.
Have you read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ famous novel or any of its many sequels? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Which characters did you find the most intriguing, and did the story surprise you at all? Let me know in the comments below!