Despite it being a relatively short book of less than 100 pages, Heart of Darkness, Conrad's classic blend of adventure and psychological conflict, contains a great deal of learning material. The key to understanding how to teach this novella is to emphasize its progressions that are not surface-level. Although the story details a sea voyage and unfolds a cool mystery, it also —and most importantly —conveys the depravity of human existence and explores the differences that exist in humanity. These juxtapositions, including good and evil, black and white, and rationality and irrationality, embody the core of Conrad's point and inspire engaging class discussions or essay topics.

In teaching Heart of Darkness, it is also important to provide historical context for the time period in which the novel is set: the Age of Imperialism, specifically the Scramble for Africa (1880-1900), during which Africa had been viciously divided and placed under the rule of various imperial powers. A lesson about Heart of Darkness must stress how the details of the story —the barbaric treatment of the native inhabitants, the Company's greed, the truth about Kurtz —reflect Conrad's anger toward the imperialistic movement. Moreover, these details reflect a vicious side to humanity that is applicable to other historical events and even current events.

Content Warning

Heart of Darkness contains some harsh language.

Summary

Heart of Darkness follows one man's journey into the heart of Africa along the Congo River. The novella's plot is actually a story that Marlow, the main character, is telling three men about his voyage as an agent for the Company, a Belgian ivory trading firm. He tells them about wanting to meet the ivory trader Kurtz, who is reputed to be a man of great abilities. Along his journey, Marlow witnesses brutality and the poor treatment of the native inhabitants who have been forced into the Company's service and finally discovers the truth about Kurtz.

Objectives for Teaching Heart of Darkness

  • Recall the literal events of the story and of Marlow's journey and explore how that physical journey mirrors his spiritual one.
  • Identify the story's major symbols and provide a symbolic interpretation of Marlow's journey.
  • Elucidate themes present in the novella: the dualistic nature of humanity, confronting one's dark side, and a destructive "enlightenment."
  • Discuss the ways in which the novel is ambiguous.
  • Provide details as to how the book reflects the author's outrage at the barbarous nature of imperialism.
  • Offer examples that illustrate the universality of the themes of the novella.

Key Elements and Techniques

  • Allegory
  • Frame Narrative
  • Imagery
  • Irony
  • Metaphor
  • Personification
  • Sarcasm
  • Symbolism

Themes and Motifs

  • Good vs. Evil — The novella conveys a person's to be good and do good while continuously faced with situations in which no goodness exists.
  • Identity — Conrad's story demonstrates how a significant journey can compromise one's self-perception.
  • Power —  Heart of Darkness contains themes of power struggle and dominance, specifically involving racial differences.

Related Works

Theme of Good vs. Evil

 

Theme of Identity

 

Theme of Power

Key Facts

  • Length: 80 pages
  • Lexile Measure: 1320
  • Publication Date: 1899
  • Recommended Grade Band: 11 – 12

Awards

  • Ranked by Modern Library as one of the one hundred best English novels of the twentieth century

Movies

The movie Apocalypse Now (1979), directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is loosely based on the novella, adapting and updating it to take place during the Vietnam War rather than during the Era of Imperialism. There is also a 1993 television adaptation, aired by TNT in 1993.

Your students will love:

  • That Conrad set the pace. Heart of Darkness was one of the first literary works to criticize Europe's imperailism
  • The depiction of both the actual and the psychological journey of Marlow.

Students may have problems with:

  • Deciphering the text, as English was Conrad's third language.
  • The confusing structure of the frame narrative.

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