Despite it being a relatively short book of fewer than 100 pages, Heart of Darkness, Joseph 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 message and will 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.

Discover more about teaching Heart of Darkness below.

Summary of Heart of Darkness

Key Facts

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.

Content Warning: Heart of Darkness contains some harsh language.

What Your Students Will Love About Heart of Darkness

  • The depiction of both the actual and the psychological journey of Marlow
  • Conrad’s criticism of Europe's imperialism

Potential Student Struggles With Heart of Darkness

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

Learning Objectives for 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.

Literary Elements in Heart of Darkness

  • Allegory
  • Frame Narrative
  • Imagery
  • Irony
  • Metaphor
  • Personification
  • Sarcasm
  • Symbolism
  • And more!

Major Themes in Heart of Darkness

Good vs. Evil — The novella conveys a person's ability to be good and do good while continuously faced with situations in which no goodness exists.

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Identity — Conrad's story demonstrates how a significant journey can compromise one's self-perception.

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PowerHeart of Darkness explores the dangers of power struggles and dominance, specifically involving racial differences.

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Other Resources for Heart of Darkness

Order Heart of Darkness Resources from Prestwick House

Resource Format
Heart of Darkness Paperback Student Edition
Heart of Darkness Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Heart of Darkness AP Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Heart of Darkness Activity Pack Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Heart of Darkness Response Journal Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Heart of Darkness Multiple Critical Perspectives Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Heart of Darkness Complete Teacher's Kit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set