Although on its surface the book Tarzan of the Apes seems to be a mere description of a figure under strange circumstance (such as adoption to an animal family), Tarzan is significantly symbolic in historical context; it is only when we analyze a work more deeply that we find significance in it. In this book alike, Tarzan, a man whose significance could have been overlooked simply as a man who goes through various adventures, gains significance because of his skin color, or, because he is white AND lived with the apes. The combination of his heritage and the ape society he lives reveals a lot about how imperialistic idea was formed.
The story is basically about a white male who happens to be adopted by an ape family. It is the conflict between his ethnicity and the environment in which he has been raised that help reveal Tarzan’s basic instinct to follow his heritage; by making Tarzan live in the ape community, the author is posing a hypothesis that human instincts are all alike, regardless of their races, while the capability of changing into more complicated ones does depend on races. For instance, in the part where Burroughs mentions cannibalism, it seems as if it was only because Tarzan was of different race that he could realize eating humans was a savage ritual. Burroughs writes: “Did men eat men? â€¦ Why, then, this hesitance! Once more he essayed the effort, but of a sudden a qualm of nausea overwhelmed him. He did not understand. All he knew was that he could not eat the flesh of this black man, and thus hereditary instinct, ages old, usurped the functions of his untaught mind and saved him from transgressing a world-wide law of whose very existence he was ignorant.” Tarzan hesitates, but the hesitance is solely from the nature of his heritage which he does not understand or control. The hunting knife that Tarzan pilfered from his father’s hut also plays a good role in revealing Burroughs’ intention to show how Tarzan adapted this “civilized” equipment to his advantage, and finally was able to ascend to a higher status in the ape society. He literally becomes a hero after he kills Kerchak with this very weapon.
Not only is Tarzan sufficiently symbolic in the book itself, the time period the author lived suggests that Tarzan of the Apes was created on the basis of some degree of imperialistic idea; Burroughs was born in 1875 when Scramble for Africa had just begun and lived through the apex of the era in which Social Darwinism was actively debated over. He had his book Tarzan of the Apes published in 1914, when the dispute on Social Darwinism was still ongoing. While Darwinism is based on natural selection, which accounts for the emergence and elimination of some species, Social Darwinists extended the theory and applied it to the differences between the civilizations of the “higher race” and that of “lower races.” Social Darwinism was “highly influential during the last few decades of the nineteenth and first four decades of the twentieth century” that the influence had extended “beyond the realms of social theory to encompass popular culture, literature, and medicine.” Some European scholars even thought that Africans were supposed to be long eradicated of their species according to law of natural selection. Although the idea that Social Darwinism influenced the entire European imperialistic background is sometimes criticized that it is an exaggeration, such criticism tells us that Europeans themselves are shifting burden of proof to one another, and once criticism is posed on those who believe Social Darwinism was significant, they go ahead and argue that it is an exaggeration. Even more, it is by all means provable that Burroughs applied the Social Darwinistic idea to his novel in that he mentions cannibalism as a marker to distinguish savage from civilized. Tarzan represents a man who originally walks on the fine line between savage and civilized, but changes gradually to a civilized human; Burroughs seems to have described Tarzan as who has a primitive instinct in the beginning, including how he calls himself a “great killer” and attains physical strength just like the apes do. Tarzan, however, has a more sophisticated instinct as well to follow civilization, unlike the savage apes. This goes along with some of the enlightenment thinkers’ ideas, in that the hereditary factor that contributes to Tarzan’s superiority of other races is unchanged, as it is nature-given, or God-given. The savageness that Tarzan originally has differs from that in the apes that surround him. They are compared even more explicitly as they live together; Tarzan is originally savage but unlike the apes’ savageness, that of Tarzan was rather a more complicated one. Tarzan is not simply savage, but is a noble savage, a concept that arised from “European nostalgia for a simple, pure, idyllic state of the oversimplifications and sophistications of European urban history.” Tarzan first acquires physical strength, and from the very beginning of the seventh chapter Burroughs writes about Tarzan’s exceptional intelligence and swift adaptability. The progress Tarzan makes in adaptation somewhat resembles that of evolution; Tarzan himself evolves from noble savage to the civilized. Tarzan therefore symbolizes a figure who follows the path of evolution that Social Darwinists believe humans, especially the higher classmen, have been evolved to a civilized being.
While Social Darwinist idea was originated in Europe, it “had been put to a variety of theoretical usages by American intellectuals.” Burroughs seems to have been influenced from Brace, who “made it the basis of a science of racial development”, and James, who “extolled the evolutionary significance of genius.” The timeline also matches, since the spread started in the beginning of the 1880s, while Burroughs wrote Tarzan of the Apes thirty years later.
Yet some might still argue that Tarzan is simple literary creation, since Burroughs somewhat goes back and forth between for and against the idea of Social Darwinism; Burroughs writes: “That they more greatly feared an attack from the rear than whatever unknown enemies lurked in their advance was evidenced by the formation of the column; and such was the fact, for they were feeling from the white man’s soldiers who had so harassed them for rubber and ivory that they had turned upon their conquerors one day and massacred a white officer and a small detachment of his black troops.” It certainly does generate some confusion about Burroughs’ attitude towards Africans. However, the quote is a notion of Belgian Congo, of which conqueror, King Leopold II, was cruel enough for Burroughs’ to accept his deed as worthy of sympathy towards Africans. George Washington Williams claim: “Instead of the natives of the Congo ‘adopting the fostering care’ of your Majesty’s (King Leopold’s) Government, they (Congolese) everywhere complain that their land has been taken from them by force; that the Government is cruel and arbitrary, and declare that they neither love nor respect the Government and its flag. Your Majesty’s Government has sequestered their land, burned their towns, stolen their property, enslaved their women and children, and committed other crimes too numerous to mentionâ€¦” Burroughs, then, simply cannot deny the human right invasion, and that was pretty much the only reason he mentioned it. Burroughs soon goes ahead and makes a point that degrades Africans: “But what meant freedom and the pursuit of happiness to these savage blacks meant consternation and death to many of the wild denizens of their new home.” Although it is true that Burroughs poses some sympathy on Africans, it is not of any significance whether he actually sympathizes them or not. Rather, Burroughs wrote it for the sake of gaining support from, or avoiding criticisms of, those who are against Belgian Congo and King Leopold, at least in its degree of violence.
Whether Social Darwinism affected Burroughs’ novel or not is important because the novel is in a close relation with imperialism. In other words, Tarzan is a character that reveals what bases the author’s idea of imperialism. Yet, whether imperialist ideology and Social Darwinism is in a mutually related is still controversial. Some say that there were “Social Darwinist rationalizations of imperialism” while others argue that there was “no single Social Darwinist perspective on imperialism.” Still others might insist that it is a simple political dispute between one who accuses and the other who gives excuses. Although the relation between Social Darwinism and Imperialism remains controversial, it is still undeniable that Imperialism was based on some superiority of Europeans. They believed it was “the White Man’s Burden” to “fill full the mouth of famine and bid the sickness cease.” Such superiority is easily observable throughout the book. Burroughs writes: “Tarzan is not an ape. He is not like his people. His ways are not their ways, and so Tarzan is going back to the lair of his own kind by the waters of the great lakeâ€¦” Burroughs describes Tarzan as a far different species from the apes, and a much superior one. Tarzan is thus a symbol of superiority which imperialism roots from.
Some might still argue that Tarzan is a mere representation of a special character in a common novel written for the sake of interest or profit. However, the historical context in which the novel was written and therefore other scholars from the imperialistic as well as enlightenment era tells us more than an economic interest about the context of the book. Tarzan in Tarzan of the Apes, in conclusion, is an overlap of a lot of different symbols, but which all combine into one category of American descendent of European imperialism and Darwinist ideas.
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