Tarzan is the son of a British lord and lady who were marooned on the Atlantic coast of Africa by mutineers. When Tarzan was an infant, his mother died, and his father was killed by Kerchak, leader of the ape tribe by whom Tarzan was adopted. Soon after his parents' death, Tarzan became a feral child, and his tribe of apes are known as the Mangani, Great Apes of a species unknown to science. Kala is his ape mother. Burroughs added stories occurring during Tarzan's adolescence in his sixth Tarzan book, Jungle Tales of Tarzan. Tarzan is his ape name (meaning "White-Skin"); his English name is John Clayton, Viscount Greystoke (according to Burroughs in Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle; Earl of Greystoke in later, less canonical sources, notably the 1984 movie Greystoke). In fact, Burroughs's narrator in Tarzan of the Apes describes both Clayton and Greystoke as fictitious names – implying that, within the fictional world that Tarzan inhabits, he may have a different real name.
As an eighteen-year-old young adult, Tarzan meets a young American woman, Jane Porter. She, her father, and others of their party are marooned on the same coastal jungle area where Tarzan's biological parents were twenty years earlier. When Jane returns to the United States, Tarzan leaves the jungle in search of her, his one true love. In The Return of Tarzan, Tarzan and Jane marry. In later books he lives with her for a time in England. They have one son, Jack, who takes the ape name Korak ("the Killer"). Tarzan is contemptuous of what he sees as the hypocrisy of civilization, and he and Jane return to Africa, making their home on an extensive estate that becomes a base for Tarzan's later adventures.
As revealed in Tarzan's Quest, Tarzan, Jane, Tarzan's monkey friend Nkima, and their allies gained some of the Kavuru's pills that grant immortality to its consumer.