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Volume 6622

The Romancing of Suicide
In the Works of Edgar Rice Burroughs
by Alan Hanson

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The Romancing of Suicide
In the Works of Edgar Rice Burroughs
by Alan Hanson
It is one of the most memorable scenes in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan saga. On a secluded African plain, a woman stares down at a dead lion. "Belthar is dead!" she screams, and, pulling a dagger from its sheath, she quickly plunges it deeply into her own heart. Dropping to her knees, she tumbles forward across the body of the lion, whose life and death were mystically linked to her own.

While her death in the closing pages of “Tarzan and the City of Gold” might be the most dramatic and the most remembered, Nemone was far from the only Burroughs character to take her own life. In dozens of his stories, Burroughs used suicide, or the threat of it, to achieve a variety of effects. Most often, he used it as a romantic element, at times even portraying it as an honorable act. In just a few cases, ERB took the time to reflect upon the darker side of self-destruction. As the following survey shows, Edgar Rice Burroughs made extensive use of the suicide theme in his fiction. Identifying some of the various reasons why some Burroughs characters contemplated suicide, whether or not they actually carried it out, reveals what ERB was trying to accomplish by so often giving this tragic act a role in his stories.


Let’s start with what drove Nemone to take her own life. It is apparent from ERB’s descriptions, that the Queen of Cathne was mentally ill. Tarzan noticed her mood swing — soft and passionate one moment, cold and cruel the next. Nemone felt that the life of Belthar, her favorite hunting lion, was somehow supernaturally linked to hers, and that when he died, so would she. When Belthar was killed by Jad-bal-ja on the Field of Lions, Nemone’s madness required her death as well, and she obliged it. That her mental illness was hereditary and carried a predisposition for self-destruction was confirmed in “Tarzan the Magnificent.” In that story, Tarzan returned to Cathne and saw Nemone’s successor, her brother Alextar, fall prey to the same madness. After Tarzan led revolutionaries to the throne room, the King went berserk.

He broke into maniacal laughter, while those in the room stood stunned and silent; then, as quickly as he had done before, he paced the point of his sword at his heart and threw himself upon it. Thus died Alextar, the last of the mad rulers of Cathne.”

Another ERB character whose madness led to suicide was Orthis in Part 1 of “The Moon Maid.” When Julian 5th and Orthis met in a decisive air battle, the fate of the human race was to be decided, as was the private feud between the two leaders. For Orthis, the latter was the most important, and so he was willing to kill himself if that’s what it took to kill Julian. After Julian fought his way to the deck of Orthis’ ship, Orthis destroyed them both. He pulled a lever on his control board, and the resulting explosion sent both ships plummeting to the ocean below.

Despite the suicides of Nemone, Alextar, and Orthis, it should be noted that, while there are plenty of madmen to be found in ERB’s stories, very few of them died at their own hands. Most had their evil lives taken from them unwillingly by a Burroughs protagonist or in some other way designed by ERB to show the triumph of good over evil. ERB occasionally used the suicide theme more extensively and more consistently in other areas.

A Fate Worse Than Death

While ERB did have a number of his characters actually take their own lives, as Nemone did, his more common use of the suicide theme was the prospect of the act, rather than the deed itself. For instance, all Burroughs readers are familiar with the heroine’s vow to kill herself rather than suffer sexual defilement. ERB used the “fate worse than death” scenario dozens of times, cutting across all his major series and independent works.

At one time or another, all of ERB’s major heroines were bent on self-destruction to save their virtue. In “The Beasts of Tarzan,” Lady Greystoke “faced the fearful reality of choosing between the final alternatives — Nikolas Rokoff on one hand and self-destruction upon the other … She must find some way to take her own life before the Russian could harm her further.” Again, in “Tarzan the Terrible,” Jane vowed to kill herself before Lu-don, the high priest of A-lur, could possess her. In Pellucidar, Dian the Beautiful was emphatic about refusing the advances of Jubal the Ugly One. “The sea is there,” she declared, pointing to the precipice, “and the sea shall have me rather than Jubal.” Carson Napier’s beloved Duare would have died by her own hand rather than mate with Muso, the jong of Korva on Amtor. 

Meanwhile, on Barsoom three generations of the Warlord’s family were ready to choose death over dishonor. Dejah Thoris actually attempted suicide once. "When she realized that she was in the clutches of the black pirates, she attempted to take her own life, but one of the blacks tore her dagger from her." Her daughter Tara of Helium, when forced with a similar fate, was as determined to avoid it as was her mother. In “The Chessmen of Mars,” Tara eloquently voiced her willingness to die by her own hand. “You may play at jetan for a princess of Helium, you may win the match but never may you claim the reward. If thou wouldst possess a dead body press me too far, but know, man of Manator, that the blood of The Warlord flows not in the veins of Tara of Helium for naught.” That blood was also in the veins of Tara’s daughter, Llana of Gathol, who told Hin Abtol, Jeddak of Okar, “I shall kill myself before I shall mate with such an ulsio as you.”

There were many other Burroughs females who were ready to do themselves in to avoid a fate worse than death. It’s interesting to note, however, that although 30 Burroughs heroines threatened to commit suicide if necessary, not a single one did so. Some tried and were stopped, but for most self-destruction never went beyond the resolution stage. ERB always wrote away their despair, and, in the end, their vows of self-destruction served only as a testament to their purity of character.

Choosing a Kinder Death

While never having to fear sexual assault, some of ERB’s male characters did have their own “fates worse than death,” which led them to contemplate or commit suicide. For instance, recall the fate that awaited Von Horst in “Back to the Stone Age.” A winged creature called a Trodon captured him. Paralyzed and placed in a circle with other stunned victims, Von Horst watched daily as a Trodon young hatched and devoured the next creature in line. After hearing the screams of a man who was slowly eaten alive, Von Horst understandably wished he had the means of self-destruction as an alternative to what awaited him at the front of the line.

In “The Return of Tarzan,” sailors Wilson and Spider faced a similar grisly death, but, unlike Von Horst, they had the means to choose a different manner of death. Along with Nickolas Rokoff, Jane Porter, and William Clayton, the two sailors were occupants of a lifeboat after the “Lady Alice” sank. As days past and hunger and thirst set in, the lifeboat occupants agreed to a lottery, the loser to die and the body to provide sustenance for the survivors. Wilson was the first loser, but “with an awful scream, and before any of his companions could prevent, he staggered to his feet and leaped overboard.” In the second go-round, Spider drew the fatal coin. He too “lunged over the side of the boat, to disappear forever into the green depths beneath.” In ERB’s fantasy world, if one had to be eaten, better by sharks than by one’s fellow man.

Then there’s the case of Harold Bince in “The Efficiency Expert.” Afraid of being exposed as the embezzler that he was, Bince framed Jimmy Torrance for the murder of their employer. At the last minute, a new witness showed up at Jimmy’s trial and fingered Bince as the murderer. Suddenly seeing life imprisonment or execution in his future, Bince chose an alternative fate. “For a moment longer he stood looking wildly about the room, and then with rapid strides, he crossed it to an open window, and before anyone could interfere he vaulted out, to fall four stories to the cement sidewalk below.”

In a couple of other Burroughs cases, the fate worse than death was not gruesome demise, but rather having to live life with dishonor. For instance, take those few naval commanders of the future who had the misfortune of having their ships drift “Beyond Thirty” degrees west longitude. ERB protagonist Jefferson Turck explained, “To cross thirty or one hundred seventy-five has been, as you know, the direst calamity that could befall a naval commander. Court-martial and degradation follow swiftly, unless as is often the case, the unfortunate man takes his own life before this unjust and heartless regulation can hold him up to public scorn.” Another Burroughs character who committed suicide rather than face public dishonor was Lt. Gernois, a French officer serving in Algeria in “The Return of Tarzan.” The French government sent Tarzan to keep an eye on Gernois, who was suspected of being a traitor. After he was involved in a failed plot to kill Tarzan, Gernois knew he would be exposed as a spy. As an officer and a gentleman, he chose the honorable alternative. “He is dead,” another French officer told the ape-man. “He shot himself about eight o’clock this morning.”

In each of the above cases, Burroughs provided his characters a future they couldn’t accept. As was usually the case with his protagonists, fate saved Von Horst, but the others quickly quieted their fears with suicide. And, typically with Burroughs, the reader got the feeling that each took the nobler course. Even the villain Bince earned a modicum of respect when he flew out the courthouse window.

Life Has No Meaning

In “Llana of Gathol,” some citizens of ancient Horz, after a million years of sleep induced by an evil scientist, walked out of the pits of their city to find the teeming world they knew was long dead. John Carter reported that, “A warrior drew his dagger and plunged it into his own heart.” This unknown warrior was one of another group of Burroughs characters who considered or committed suicide. For each a certain event caused them to conclude that life was no longer worth living. For example, as an officer in a European principality in “The Lad and the Lion,” Hans de Groote participated in a military coup. That he was one of six officers who shot the king was something with which he could have lived. That he was compelled to shoot the king’s mistress, who happened to be his own sister, was something he could not. He immediately shot himself in the head and died instantly.

Other Burroughs characters who lost loved ones considered ending their lives rather than go on without them. Duare once told Carson Napier, “I should not have lived long, Carson, if you hadn’t come. With you dead, I didn’t care to live … I was only waiting for an opportunity to destroy myself.” In “Tarzan Triumphant,” the lovely Midian girl Jezebel formed such an attachment to Lady Barbara Collis that when Abraham sought to have the Englishwoman drowned, Jezebel tried to join her friend in death by throwing herself in the water. Abraham stopped her, but the attempt showed the intensity of her feelings for Lady Barbara.

For Vor Daj it was the unusual prospect of losing his strong, youthful body that made him suicidal. As part of a plan to save Janai, with whom he had fallen in love, Vor Daj had his brain transplanted into one of Ras Thavas’ deformed creatures. Later, when faced with the possibility the operation might not be reversed, Vor Daj made a decision.

“I have given the matter a great deal of thought, and I have come to a final decision. If my own body has been destroyed, I shall destroy this body, too, and the brain with it. There are far more desirable bodies than mine, of course; and yet I am so attached to it that I should not care to live in the body of another.”

One of the most unusual Burroughs suicides was committed by a man who also could not face the life ahead of him. About 50,000 years ago, a cave man was caught in a storm while hunting. Like the warrior in Horz, he woke up in a world quite different from the one he knew. Renamed Jimber-Jaw, the man at first seemed to adapt well to the modern world. He became a famous wrestler and then a boxer. Noticed by movie moguls, he began to move in Hollywood circles, even dating a starlet. But when he caught his girlfriend kissing another man, he disappeared. He was found frozen to death in a cold storage warehouse. His suicide note, containing his final words in “The Resurrection of Jimber-Jaw,” read, “I go to find the real Lilami. And don’t thaw me out again.”

Again, many, many Burroughs characters found themselves facing hopeless situations, but only a few reacted with suicide. Most responded with courage and resourcefulness and made it through to happier days. Suicides were rare for Burroughs in such cases.

Love in Vain

Unrequited love is another classic motive for suicide, and some ERB characters were not exempt from its pain and consequences. In “The Warlord of Mars,” Phaidor, the daughter of the Father of Therns, took a fatal lovers leap to her death. At first an enemy of John Carter, she later fell in love with him. It proved to be a selfish love, but nevertheless one she could not live without. Aboard a Martian airship, Phaidor addressed John Carter and Dejah Thoris, both of whom had recently helped save her from death.

“If Phaidor, daughter of the Holy Hekkador of the Holy Therns, has sinned she has this day already made partial reparation, and lest you doubt the sincerity of her protestations and her avowal of a new love that embraces Dejah Thoris also, she will prove her sincerity in the only way that lies open — having saved you for another, Phaidor leaves you to her embraces.”

Without another word, Phaidor turned and leaped from the vessel’s deck into the depths below.

Another Burroughs character who loved in vain is Joan de Tany, who fell hard for Norman in “The Outlaw of Torn.” In the following romanticized passage, Burroughs explained Joan’s emotional struggle and how she chose to resolve it.

“Torn by conflicting emotions, the poor girl dragged herself to her own apartment and there upon a restless, sleepless couch, beset by wild, impossible hope, and vain, torturing regrets, she fought out the long, bitter night; until toward morning she solved the problem of her misery in the only way that seemed possible to her poor, tired, bleeding, little heart. When the rising sun shone upon the narrow window it found Joan de Tany at peace with all about her; the carved golden hilt of the toy that had hung at her girdle protruded from her breast, and a thin line of crimson ran across the snowy skin to a little pool upon the sheet beneath her.”

These two deaths are again examples of ERB using suicide as a romantic element. The descriptions of the deaths of Phaidor and Joan de Tany are high on style and low on substance. Phaidor’s suicide is treated so lightly that it catches the reader by surprise, and Joan’s inner struggle is referred to only in brief and general terms. Here ERB was using the act of suicide solely for its dramatic effect. There was no attempt to illicit an emotional response from his readers.

Death With Honor

While some Burroughs characters committed suicide to avoid dishonor, others actually took their lives to gain honor. The idea was acceptable on the highly romanticized world of Barsoom. Take, for instance, the case of Martian air commanders, who did American ship captains one better. They didn’t go down “with” the ship; they went down “before” the ship. John Carter first noticed this honorable custom after the fleet of Helium defeated the Zodangan fleet in a colossal air battle in “A Princess of Mars.”

“There was an extremely pathetic side the surrender of these mighty fliers, the result of an age-old custom which demanded that surrender would be signified by the voluntary plunging to earth of the commander of the vanquished vessel. One after another the brave fellows, holding their colors high above their heads, leaped from the towering bows of their mighty craft to an awful death.”

Airship commanders were not the only ones who could gain honor by committing suicide on Barsoom. In certain circumstances, even jeddaks could earn esteem by taking their own lives. Take the case of O-Tar, the Jeddak of Manator, in “The Chessmen of Mars.” O-Tar’s world came crashing down when he was exposed as a coward at the same time he learned that his city had just fallen to the combined forces of Helium, Gathol, and Manatos. One of his chiefs handed O-Tar a jeweled dagger, and John Carter, who was present in the throne room, explained how O-tar won again in death the honor he had just lost in life.

“O-Tar took the proffered blade and drawing himself to his full height plunged it to the guard into his breast, in that single act redeeming himself in the esteem of his people and winning an eternal place in The Hall of Chiefs.”

A Serious Subject

In his adventure stories and romantic fiction, ERB hardly ever portrayed suicide as a truly tragic event, and he certainly never considered in depth its underlying motives and emotions. However, suicide was also an important element in those few forays ERB made into realism, and in most cases, Burroughs did take a more serious, decidedly less romantic look at the subject. For example, as already noted in the case of Joan de Tany in “The Outlaw of Torn,” Burroughs dealt only in general terms to the “wild, impossible hopes, and vain, torturing regrets” that led to her suicide. Contrast that with the more detailed thought process of the drug-addicted Shannon Burke in “The Girl From Hollywood.”

There crept into mind a thought that had found its way there more than once during the past two years — she thought of self-destruction. She put it away from her; but in the depth of her soul she knew that never before had it taken so strong a hold upon her. Her mother, her only tie was gone, and no one would care. She had looked into heaven and found that it was not for her. She had no future except to return to the hideous existence of the Hollywood bungalow and lonely boarding house, and to the hated Crumb.”

It is a short paragraph, but still there is a touch of real pathos in the conflicting emotions of Shannon’s suicidal thoughts. This time ERB was using suicide not as a dramatic event, but rather as part of a serious character study. He headed Shannon down the road to self-destruction, and then he brought her back slowly to life through the emotional support of the Pennington family.

The Coward’s Way Out

When ERB wrote about suicide as a serious subject, the most important point he made was that no matter what the circumstances, suicide was essentially a cowardly act. It was an admission of weakness, and it placed a heavy burden on those left behind. In “The Oakdale Affair,” Abigail Prim thought she had killed a man. In a panic, she considered suicide rather than face the disgrace and suffering a trial would bring to her well-known father. Bridge, Abigail’s companion of the road, tried to convince her that she should replace her despair with courage.

“If you take your own life it will be a tacit admission of guilt and will only serve to double the burden of sorrow and ignominy which your father is bound to feel when this thing becomes public, as it certainly must if a murder has been done. The only way you can atone for your error is to go back and face the consequences with him — do not throw it all upon him; that would be cowardly.”

Another Burroughs character who received a lecture on the cowardliness of suicide was Ogden Secor in “The Girl From Farris’s.” Once a respected businessman, Ogden experienced a long fall into despair after a beating by burglars resulted in some mental injuries. After his business went bankrupt and his fiancé deserted him, Ogden sank into alcoholism. Seeking a new start, he moved to Idaho, but things got even worse there. He became the town drunk and even found himself in jail accused of murder. While working on a chain gang, the sight of a nearby river brought the idea of suicide to Ogden’s mind. At that moment, Jean Lathrop, with whom Ogden had fallen in love, came to his rescue with the following declaration.

“It is not the man who falls who receives the censure of his fellows; it’s the man who falls and won’t get up — who lies wallowing in the filth of his degradation. The world admires the man who can come back — it hates a quitter. You have told me that you love me. You have asked me to love you. Do you expect me to love a quitter? You are thinking this minute of adding the final ignominy to your down-fall; you are thinking this minute, Ogden Secor, of taking your own life. If I could love a quitter, do you think that I could love a — coward?”

Once again Burroughs confirmed his belief that suicide was the act of a coward, and that love could bring a person back from the brink of self-destruction. Ogden Secor did indeed fight his way back to respectability, and he and June married at story’s end.

Hero Suicide

Although none of Burroughs’ fictional heroes committed suicide, some of them actually thought about it, and one took action — actually inaction — to make it happen. More on him in a moment. First, though, let’s consider Tanar of Pellucidar. When he was imprisoned in a musty, small cell in Korsar, he shared his dark thoughts with the reader. “Death! Could he not hasten it? But how? Six paces was the length of his prison cell. Could he not dash at full speed from one end to the other, crushing his brains out by the impact?” It was an interesting question, but he escaped in a different way, allowing him to keep his brains in his head.

A couple of other Burroughs heroes considered suicide. Tan Hadron, rather than being barbecued alive by his captor in “A Fighting Man of Mars,” planned to leap from a window in his tower cell to his death on the ground below. In “The Eternal Lover,” the mighty caveman Nu was ready to run himself through with his own spear when he felt rejected by Victoria Custer. Of course, Burroughs helped both Tan Hadron and Nu deal with their problems in other ways.

Surely, though, Tarzan, the greatest of all Burroughs heroes never contemplated committing suicide. Actually, before accepting that conclusion, we have to consider one incident in the ape-man’s life that left him harboring thoughts very closely related to suicide. In happened in “The Return of Tarzan” near the end of his two-month’s stay in Paris. It involved Tarzan’s state of mind leading up to and during a duel with Count de Coude. The count insisted on an accounting after catching Tarzan kissing his wife in her boudoir. In a fit of animal passion, Tarzan nearly killed the count on the spot, but by the next day Tarzan had turned surprisingly calm and passive.

First, given a choice of weapons, Tarzan chose pistols, despite D’Arnot’s counsel that he would have a better chance of surviving the duel with swords. The night before the duel, Tarzan slept peacefully because he had already resolved to die the next morning. On the field, Monsieur Tarzan held his own pistol at his side, allowing his opponent to pump two bullets into him. Not fatally wounded, Tarzan explained his reason for defending himself. “I hoped to die,” he told De Coude. “I am disappointed that monsieur is not so wonderful a marksman as I had been led to believe.” Now, is hoping to die and actually putting oneself in a position to be killed by another person the same as contemplating and trying to commit suicide? Technically, probably not, but as a practical matter, it is very nearly the same thing. Perhaps these thoughts can be dismissed as the aberrant emotional reaction of a confused young man victimized by initial contact with civilization, but the fact remains that at one point in his life, Tarzan “hoped to die,” which is the thought, whatever the cause, that is at the heart of the suicide act. 

Mass Suicide

Burroughs described several cases of mass suicide in which undetermined numbers of people died. The biggest such mass suicide happened in “The Moon Maid,” when the people of Laythe, Nah-ee-lah’s city on the Moon, leaped in mass into a crater rather than submit to Orthis’ conquering army. “The multitude fought one with another for a place upon the wall from which they might cast themselves to death,” Burroughs noted. Another mass suicide, on a smaller scale, occurred on the island of Sumatra in “Tarzan and ‘The Foreign Legion’.” On two occasions, Burroughs described groups of Japanese soldiers blowing themselves up with their own grenades when pressed by Tarzan’s diverse group of fighters. 


Edgar Rice Burroughs certainly made wide use of the suicide theme. In one way or another, to varying degrees, he included it in over 60 stories, roughly three-fourths of his total output. Most often he used it as a romantic element, seldom exploring the more serious side of self-destruction. That should come as no big revelation, however, as ERB wrote to entertain his readers, not to counsel them. 

Even with all the Burroughs characters who contemplated or committed suicide and all the references to the topic scattered throughout his fiction, my favorite passage on the subject is an out-right rejection of the act. The words were spoken by Tanar of Pellucidar, and I like to think they represented Edgar Rice Burroughs’ own philosophy about suicide.

“I know what is here in this life, and I do not know what is there in the other. I shall cling to this, and you must cling to it until some other hand than ours takes it from us.

— The End —

From Our ERB Online Bibliography
A Collector's Hypertexted and Annotated Storehouse of Encyclopedic Resources
Tarzan and the City of Gold
Tarzan the Magnificent
The Moon Maid
The Beasts of Tarzan
Tarzan the Terrible
The Chessmen of Mars
Llana of Gathol
Back to the Stone Age
The Return of Tarzan
The Efficiency Expert
Beyond 30
The Lad and the Lion
Tarzan Triumphant
The Warlord of Mars
The Outlaw of Torn
A Princess of Mars
The Girl From Hollywood
The Oakdale Affair
The Girl From Farris’s
Tanar of Pellucidar
A Fighting Man of Mars
The Eternal Lover
Tarzan and ‘The Foreign Legion

Guide to the Alan Hanson Appearances in ERBzine

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