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
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
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
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
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 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
Jane’s Deep-seated Sexual
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.
“ … 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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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