Tarzan of the Apes and Darwinian Racism

I was only planning to read female authors from my Classics Club list this year (since they’re having their Women’s Classic Literature event), but a recent film trailer took me back to Tarzan of the Apes (1912) by Edgar Rice Burroughs. When I first read Tarzan as a young teen, “with the noble poise of his handsome head upon those broad shoulders, and the fire of life and intelligence in those fine, clear eyes”┬áhe became one of my (many) literary crushes (Chapter XIII).

While he was “muscled as the best of the ancient Roman gladiators … yet with the soft and sinuous curves of a Greek god,” what impressed me most was that Tarzan taught himself to read from books he found in his human parents’ cabin. He could read and write fluent English by the age of 18, even though the only other language he had any experience with was the limited vocabulary of the fictive “anthropoid apes” who raised him. By the end of the book, he speaks fluent French as well. I consider myself reasonably intelligent, had the advantage of not being raised by apes, and I haven’t even managed to become bi-lingual.

Tarzan of the Apes and Darwinian Racism | marissabaker.wordpress.com
photo credits: “Tarzan” by Sean MacEntee and “Gorilla” by Hendrik Dacquin, CC BY via Flickr

Yet shadowed by these descriptions of a super human Tarzan is a disturbing form of racism. Racism is evident from the moment the first black characters appear in the story, yet it goes far deeper than a matter of antiquated ideas about race popping up in the way a Classics author writes descriptions. Burroughs’ racism in Tarzan represents a mindset heavily influenced by evolutionary ideas about biology and race. Read more