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Volume 6616

Heaving Bosom Syndrome:
An ERB Malady — It’s Symptoms, Causes & Treatment
by Alan Hanson
The substance of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ heroines has long been a subject of friendly debate among fans. Detractors point out that ERB’s fictional women are usually physically weak, dependent on men, and often in need of rescue. Supporters tout the women’s spunk, self-reliance, and loyalty. In reality, the average Burroughs heroine was a little of all those things, with the exact mix varying from woman to woman. There was one characteristic, though, common to many Burroughs females. It was a malady seemingly inherited by all women born of the pen of Edgar Rice Burroughs. It has many qualities of a medical condition, although it has no official designation. Let’s call it “Heaving Bosom Syndrome.”

Some Burroughs women, such as Jane Porter-Clayton and Queen Nemone, had frequent heaving bosom seizures, while others suffered through but a single episode. But few Burroughs females made it through their fictional existence without at least some sort of attack of  “Heaving Bosom Syndrome.” The major series heroines — Jane, La, Dejah Thoris, Duare — were all seriously afflicted, as were many single novel love interests, such as Meriem, Victoria Custer, and Nadara.

Like all ailments, “Heaving Bosom Syndrome” has its causes and its treatments, but before getting into that, let’s first take a look at its symptoms. The first is heaving, or rapid rising and falling, of the female breasts, from which the condition derives its name. For example, in “Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar,” High Priestess La was called upon to plunge the sacrificial knife into the heart of a Sun God offering. The emotion of the moment was heightened by her passionate love for the intended victim — Tarzan. Her bosom, safely covered by gold breastplates, nevertheless betrayed her excitement. Burroughs noted, “With heaving bosom she leaned close above him.” Palpitating breasts, then, was the classic and certainly the most eye-catching symptom of an ERB “Heaving Bosom Syndrome” attack, although, as we shall see, there were other less serious symptoms.

The "Clenched Bosom" Variation

Before going on to those other symptoms, however, it should be noted that there is a variation of “Heaving Bosom Syndrome,” which could be called, “Clenched Bosom Syndrome.” In this variation, the heaving of the bosom is partially or wholly concealed by the victim’s hands, which cover the breasts. For example, in “The Monster Men,” the abducted Virginia Maxon watched as Number Thirteen, attempting to rescue her, waded through a half dozen head hunters with a bull whip.

“With hand tightly pressed against her bosom the girl leaned forward, tense with excitement, watching every move of the lithe, giant figure, as, silhouetted against the brazen tropic sky, it towered above the dancing, shrieking head hunters who withered beneath the awful lash.”

The most intense example in Burroughs’ fiction of the “Clenched Bosom” variation is in “The Eternal Lover.” When the cave woman Gron saw her husband Tur about to roll a big rock down on Nu, she was torn by her feelings for both men.

“Gron stood with her hands clutching her naked breasts, the nails buried in the soft flesh until blood trickled down the bronze skin.”

Certainly Jane Clayton, or any of ERB’s other more refined heroines, would never be so crude as to draw blood while in the throes of a heaving bosom seizure, but then they didn’t live in the violent time that Gron did. She resolved her confusion by stabbing her husband in the back, and then plunging the same knife into her own chest.

When a heroine’s bosom was heaving particularly violently, or perhaps when her breasts were too big to be concealed by both hands, the result was a combination “Heaving Bosom-Clenched Hands” spasm. For instance, when two men fought over her in “The Cave Girl,” Nadara experienced both heaving and clenched bosom action.

“Her slim, brown hands were tight pressed against her rapidly rising and falling breasts as she leaned forward with parted lips, drinking in every detail of the conflict between the two beasts.”

"Parted Lips," "Wide Eyes," and "Disheveled Hair"

That description of Nadara reveals another symptom of “Heaving Bosom Syndrome” — parted lips. The lips separated, ostensibly, to allow air to move quickly in and out of the lungs, which of course caused the breasts to rise and fall noticeably. As an alternative to parted lips, ERB at times made the lips tremble, as Bertha Kircher’s did after Tarzan saved her from being raped in “Tarzan the Untamed.”

“The girl was standing with her saber still in her hand and an expression on her face that he had never seen there before. Her eyes were wide and misty with unshed tears, while her sensitive lips trembled as though they were upon the point of giving way to some pent emotion, which her rapidly rising and falling bosom plainly indicated she was fighting to control.”

During a heaving bosom attack, the victim’s eyes were often wide open and transfixed, as Bertha’s were in the above scene. Another example is in “The Lad and the Lion,” when the Arab maiden Nakhla saw her “Beloved” in the company of a young French lady. Raging emotions set her bosom in motion.

“Framed in the entrance stood Nakhla, her wide eyes fastened upon his face, one hand upon her rapidly rising and falling bosom.”

In other scenes, to reflect a different emotion, Burroughs described the woman’s eyes as “flashing” instead of being wide. In the following scene described by Carson Napier in “Pirates of Venus,” Duare’s bosom heaved as had Nakhla’s, but Duare’s eyes revealed that the emotion that had triggered her attack was anger instead of the heartache which had overwhelmed Nakhla.

“Her bosom was heaving, her beautiful eyes were flashing, she was very close to me, and an impulse seized me to take her in my arms.”

A final symptom that sometimes played a part in a Burroughs heaving bosom attack was untidy hair, usually described by Burroughs as “disheveled hair.” For example, in “The Warlord of Mars,” Dejah Thoris was dragged into the throne room of Salensus Oll, Jeddak of Okar, who meant there to marry her by force.

“Her disheveled hair and panting bosom betokened that, chained though she was, still she had fought against the thing that they would do to her.”

By now, then, it should be easy to recognize an attack of “Heaving Bosom Syndrome” in an ERB story. It definitely included rapidly rising and falling breasts, and could be accompanied by hands covering the breasts, parted or trembling lips, wide or flashing eyes, and disheveled hair.

Nemone: The Passion of Love Turned to Hate

Now that the symptoms of “Heaving Bosom Syndrome” have been isolated, it’s time to move on to the malady’s cause. In “Tarzan and the City of Gold,” the breasts of Queen Nemone rose and fell in excitement quite often, and so we’ll begin our search for the cause of ERB’s heaving bosoms condition with the Queen of Cathne. To uncover the cause of Nemone’s heaving bosoms we must focus higher on her figure — her eyes.

Nemone decreed that Tarzan fight Phobeg, the strongest man in Cathne, in the arena with freedom going to the winner. Impressed by Tarzan’s quiet confidence, Nemone wagered heavily on the ape-man with her groveling nobles, and so, when Tarzan began throwing Phobeg around the arena, “Nemone leaned from the royal loge, her eyes flashing, her bosom heaving.” On the surface, it appeared it was money that excited the queen, for she turned to one of her nobles and said, “Would you like to bet a little more on the strongest man in Cathne?” However, ERB hinted that it was more than greed that stimulated Nemone at that moment, for a “strange light” burned in her eyes as she watched the encounter between Tarzan and the strongman.

The next time Nemone’s bosoms heaved in excitement there was a different kind of excitement in her eyes. In the Temple of Thoos, Tarzan witnessed the sacrificing of a slave girl. As the tearful maiden was about to be dropped into a lion’s cage, “Nemone leaned forward eagerly; her eyes were fastened upon the old lion. Her breasts rose and fell to her excited breathing.” Tarzan noticed then a variation of the mad light he had often seen in her eyes — “the light of religious fanaticism,” he called it. When she left the temple, Nemone was “quiet and moody,” spent by the excitement of the religious blood lust she had experienced.

It was on the Field of Lions outside Cathne that Queen Nemone’s bosom heaved for the final time. She came there to preside over the death of Tarzan, whose fatal offense was spurning her love. As Belthar, her hunting lion, closed in on Tarzan, the light of Nemone’s eyes again revealed the nature of her frenzy.

“The Queen, in her excitement was standing erect; screaming encouragement to Belthar. Her eyes blazed scarcely less fiercely than those of the savage carnivore she cheered on; her bosoms rose and fell to her excited breathing; her heart raced with the racing death ahead. The Queen of Cathne was consumed by the passion of love turned to hate.”

In the search of the causes of “Heaving Bosom Syndrome” in ERB’s fiction, Nemone leads to one dead end. It was obvious to Tarzan, as it would be to anyone else disciplined enough to look at Nemone’s eyes instead of her breasts during her great moments of passion, that her fervor was driven by an inherited insanity. Tarzan, a near victim himself, could not condemn this woman who presided over the deaths of many, for he understood that she had no control over herself. During one of his meetings with her, the ape-man judged her thus. “There were pathos and tragedy in her voice, and a great pity rose in the breast of the ape-man for this poor Queen who had never known love and who never might because of the warped brain that mistook passion for affection and lust for love.” It was madness that triggered Nemone’s heaving bosoms. Since most of ERB’s other female leads were perfectly sane, we must then look for the cause of their heaving bosom attacks elsewhere than in the tortured mind of Nemone. What was it, then, that made the breasts of ERB’s more rational heroines rise and fall in excitement?

Jane’s Deep-seated Sexual Passion

Certainly Burroughs’ most endearing and enduring example of traditional womanhood was Jane Porter. As the years passed in the years of her marriage to Tarzan, she gradually absorbed her mate’s woodcraft until by the time of “Tarzan’s Quest,” she was perfectly self-sufficient. However, when she first met Tarzan, she was the classic swooning, heaving-bosom ingénue. In “Tarzan of the Apes,” the Baltimore Belle’s bosom heaved on two occasions. The first was when Tarzan came to rescue her from Terkoz. As the ape and ape-man engaged, she watched with awe.

“Jane Porter —- her lithe, young form flattened against the trunk of a great tree, her hands tightly pressed against her rising and falling bosom, and her eyes wide with mingled horror, fascination, fear, and admiration — watched the primordial ape battle with the primeval man for possession of a woman — for her.”

And what did she do after Tarzan vanquished Terkoz? She “sprang forward with outstretched arms toward the primeval man who had fought for her and won her,” allowing the ape-man to smother her “upturned, panting lips with kisses.” Of course, once the passion of the moment had passed, Jane’s stilted virtue reasserted itself, but for a few moments a heaving bosom revealed a deep-seated sexual ardor.

Later, just the memory of the above moment caused Jane’s bosom to heave once again. Alone in the beach cabin, Jane reasoned that the “uncouth, illiterate” ape-man could never fit into her civilized world. But then:

“ … as she sat upon the edge of her bed of ferns and grasses with one hand resting upon her rising and falling bosom, she felt the hard outlines of the man’s locket beneath her waist. She drew it out, holding it in the palm of her hand for a moment with tear-blurred eyes bent upon it. Then she raised it to her lips, and crushing it there buried her face in the soft ferns, sobbing.

“‘Beast?’ she murmured. ‘Then God make me a beast; for, man or beast, I am yours.’”

Years later as Tarzan’s wife, Jane suffered two more attacks of “Heaving Bosom Syndrome.” Both were triggered by the sudden reappearance of the mate she had thought dead. Toward the end of “Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar,” Tarzan, who Jane believed had been buried beneath a mountain of rock by an earthquake at Opar, arrived to save Jane from a lion.

“With parted lips, with palms tight pressed against her heaving bosom, the girl leaned forward, large-eyed, enthralled by the vision of her dead mate.”

Jane’s reaction then to the reappearance of Tarzan was a reprise of the sexual repression released years before when she watched Tarzan battle Terkoz for possession of her. That repressed sexual tension was even more obvious in “Tarzan and the Golden Lion,” when Jane mistook Esteban Miranda for her lost mate.

“She was close enough now for the Spaniard to see her rapidly rising and falling breasts and her lips trembling with love and passion.”

It was the release of repressed sexual tension, then, that caused all of Jane Porter-Clayton’s attacks of “Heaving Bosom Syndrome.” And, as it turns out, it was the most common cause of “Heaving Bosom Syndrome” attacks among all Burroughs female characters. More often than not, the sexual tension was resolved to the satisfaction of both parties; that is, the heroine wound up in the arms of her man, with him covering her ace with kisses.

Repressed Sexual Tension

However, woe to the man who rejected the freshly proclaimed love of a bosom-heaving woman! Three times Tarzan discovered the folly of saying “no” to a passionate woman for whom the only acceptable answer was “yes!” In “Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar,” La’s obligation was to kill Tarzan with the sacrificial knife, but at the last moment she offered to defy her people and spare his life if he would only agree to be her mate. “With heaving bosom she leaned close above him. ‘Yes or no?’ she whispered.”

When Tarzan rejected her, an angered La was ready to kill him, but Tantor showed up to disrupt the ceremony. Another excitable young woman that Tarzan rejected was Janzara, a princess of Veltopismakus in “Tarzan and the Ant Men.” She was as excitable and as mentally unstable as Nemone, who Tarzan also rejected, and when he refused Janzara’s love, her emotional reaction activated her bosom.

“‘And you dare to spurn my love!’ She was breathing heavily, her breasts rising and falling to the tumultuous urge of her emotions.”

Janzara got her bosom under control long enough to get even. She led the ape-man to a false spot in the floor, and her maniacal laugh followed him down the shoot.

Of course, fate allowed Tarzan to survive his spurning of La, Janzara, and Nemone. However, the rejection of another Burroughs woman was resolved in a different, very tragic way. In “The Outlaw of Torn,” Joan de Tany fell hopelessly in love with Norman of Torn. When he came to her father’s castle to tell her that he loved another, it led to a fatally emotional scene for Joan.

“She entered clothed in the clinging house garment of the period, a beautiful vision, made more beautiful by the suppressed excitement which caused the blood to surge beneath the velvet of her cheek, and her breast to rise and fall for Norman of Torn.”

After Norman left, Joan could not ease her tortured heart, and the sunrise revealed how she dealt with her pain — a knife was self-embedded in the breast that throbbed in vain for Norman of Torn.

Repressed sexual tension was not the cause of all episodes of Burroughs’ “Heaving Bosom Syndrome.” In a few instances, the activating emotion was simply intense fear. In “The Man-eater,” for example, it was a sound in the night that set Victoria Scott’s bosom in motion.

“It was the roar of a lion. To her tense nerves it sounded close behind her. The girl paused, start and rigid, listening. She stood with her clenched hands tight against her bosom. Her breath came in little gasps. She could feel her heart beating against her ribs — she could hear it.”

In “Tarzan the Invincible,” La had a similar experience, and her bosom also responded to the fear of the moment, though not with the same intensity as had Victoria Scott’s. La was wandering along through the jungle when a leopard confronted her.

“The metal discs, elaborately wrought by the hands of some long-dead goldsmith of ancient Opar, rose and fell above her firm breasts as her heart beat, perhaps a bit more rapidly, beneath them.”

Knife in hand, La prepared to fight, however futilely, for her life, but Jad-bal-ja conveniently arrived to save her.

In summary, then, “Heaving Bosom Syndrome” among ERB’s female characters was the physical manifestation of an intense emotional reaction, usually suppressed sexual tension. In other words, the women got aroused, and it showed. 

Treating "Heaving Bosom Syndrome"

It is time, then, to look at the possibilities of treating or preventing this condition. Of course, there were two Burroughs women who put a sudden and permanent end to their attacks of “Heaving Bosom Syndrome.” Gron and Joan de Tany stuck knives in their own chests. That was an extreme solution to the problem, however, and it turns out that ERB prescribed a more reasonable form of treatment — the passage of time.

The fact is that in the early part of his writing career, Edgar Rice Burroughs perpetuated a then prominent fictional stereotype of women. They were weak, both physically and emotionally, and their feebleness manifested itself in such reactions to stress as heaving bosoms, fainting and flight. As the years passed, however, Burroughs’ perception of women obviously changed, for the depiction of woman as weak began to break down and fade away in his stories. His female characters began to get stronger, assertive and more self-reliant. They fainted less and their bosoms heaved less often.

Here are some interesting statistics. In the 77 Burroughs stories surveyed for this study, 23 heaving bosom scenes were found. It is interesting to note how those 23 scenes were distributed among the 77 stories. Breaking ERB’s writing career down into three equal parts reveals that 15 of the 23 Burroughs’ heaving bosom scenes appear in the first third of his stories, those written between 1911 and 1919. In the middle third of his fiction, those stories written between 1920 and 1932, there are 8 heaving bosom scenes. Finally, in the final third of his stories, those written between 1933 and 1944, not a single heaving bosom scene was found.

Take Jane Clayton as an example. When ERB created her in “Tarzan of the Apes,” he made her a weak, dependent woman, who in excitable moments was subject to heaving bosom and fainting spells. Over the years, however, ERB developed her into a strong, self-reliant woman, and by the time of her appearance in “Tarzan’s Quest,” it was impossible to imagine any intense emotion that could get her bosom heaving.

Why Burroughs Backed Off on "Heaving Bosoms"

As he got older, why did Edgar Rice Burroughs stop using “Heaving Bosom Syndrome” in his fiction? It can’t be said that he simply tired of using it, since his later fiction is filled with so many other formula-written repetitive descriptions. I believe it is reflective of ERB’s changing attitude through the years about the role of women in society. He certainly lived through a time of great change for women in the country. He was only at the one-third mark of his writing career in 1920 when the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote in the United States. He also had the example of his own daughter, Joan, who had aspirations of an acting career outside of the home.

However it came to him, ERB strengthened the character of his fictional women to mirror the existence of their real life sisters. His “Heaving Bosom Syndrome” can be seen as a relic of his early writing years, when society expected woman to act and react in narrowly defined ways. What is not completely clear, however, is what kind of woman Burroughs personally preferred. Was it the heaving bosom type of his early fiction, or the self-reliant type of his later stories? I suspect, like most men, he would have favored a happy medium.

— The End 


From Our ERB Online Bibliography
Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar
The Monster Men
The Eternal Lover
The Cave Girl
Tarzan the Untamed
The Lad and the Lion
.Pirates of Venus
The Warlord of Mars
Tarzan and the City of Gold
Tarzan’s Quest
Tarzan and the Golden Lion
Tarzan and the Ant Men
The Outlaw of Torn
The Man-eater
Tarzan the Invincible
Tarzan of the Apes

Guide to the Alan Hanson Appearances in ERBzine

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