I'm required to study Heart of Darkness, but I really can't because its language is very difficult. Can anyone help me to do so?

6 Answers | Add Yours

lohengrin's profile pic

lohengrin | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

Posted on

Greetings.  You have been assigned a book in which the author will challenge your comprehension, your vocabulary, and your ability to follow the logic of extended sentences.  In a sense, you are about to undertake a literary journey that parallels the journey of the protagonist in the story.  This is one of the many ingenious elements of Heart of Darkness that makes it such a rewarding read.  Are you prepared for the challenge?

One way to meet the challenge is to watch the film Apocalypse Now (provided that you are permitted to do so, given the film's rating).  You will find that Apocalypse Now documents a journey of a U.S. Officer as he travels deeper and deeper into dense enemy territory.  Your mission:  find and remove the rogue U.S. officer, Col. Kurtz.

Exciting, yes?  Once you pick up the meandering rhythms of Apocalypse Now, and its ultimate destination, you will be better prepared to confront the rhythms and challenges of Heart of Darkness.  Have a dictionary and thesaurus handy, but do not rely on them too much.  Your instincts should guide you through your travels.

Good luck on your journey.

lorrainecaplan's profile pic

Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

Many students do find Heart of Darkness to be difficult to understand. It was written in a different time, and the language reflects that time.  But it is a wonderful novella, and well worth the struggle.  One way to start might be to read the enotes study guide, and I have provided you with a link for that. That might help you get situated.

One thing you will want to remember as you read is that this is a story within a story.  As the book opens, the protagonist is about to tell his story to a group of men, and you need to notice where the story within the story begins and when the protagonist is back with the men to whom he is telling the story.  This is called a "frame" story because the first story is a frame around the second story.

Second, you will want to read with a dictionary at your side.  I find that many students struggle because they don't know the words the author uses.  If you cannot understand a word through its context, then it is up to you to find out what the word means.

Third, you might be unfamiliar with the setting of the book, the time and place in which this story takes place. Learning something about colonial Africa, its history,politics, and geography will help you to understand the story.  The author has many points to make about how Africans were treated by the countries that colonized their continent.

Finally, as you read a section, stop for a moment and write down what the section was about, in your own modern English. If you express the ideas and actions of the story in your words, then you are pushing yourself toward a better understanding.

This is an important story and one that should be part of your learning, so keep up the struggle!

Good luck to you. 

jmj616's profile pic

jmj616 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Associate Educator

Posted on

I have nothing to add to the very good advice given by the previous answerers.  I only want to say that I was a literature major in college, have taught literature on the high-school and college level, have read serious literature in three languages, have read more books than I care to admit...and I really had a hard time with Heart of Darkness, which I just read a few months ago. 

You don't have to read more than a few sentences to see that Conrad was a great author; his language and his themes are great and unique.  Still, half the time I don't know what the hell he's talking about.

Go slowly, use some of the resources that have been recommended, and don't feel bad if Conrad remains somewhat of a mystery to you.  If you can extract from Conrad a few beautiful phrases, a few profound questions, you have gotten something that you won't find elsewhere.

jseligmann's profile pic

jseligmann | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Associate Educator

Posted on

First of all, you don't say how old you are. What grade are you in? Are you in high school, college or junior college? I ask this because "Heart of Darkness" is not really appropriate reading for someone, let's say, sixteen or younger. The language of this short novel is knotty; the plot unfolds slowly, like a boat going down a river; and the ideas and insights expressed are rather deep, dark, and adult in nature.

That said, the best way to tackle the task of reading this book, or any other book, is to read it word for word. Go to the links below. They will take you to the enotes text version of the story with every difficult word underlined and defined for you. That should be a great help.

And get this: there is a modern movie version of the story. It is not exactly the same story; it is not set on a river in Africa in the 1800s and the names of most of the people are not the same. But the overall development of the story and the philosophical points being made are all there. The movie is called "Apocalypse Now," and maybe you could see it before you take on the novel. It will serve as an excellent guide down a very murky and dangerous river.

readerofbooks's profile pic

readerofbooks | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I can understand your frustration. It is not an easy book to read. Here are a few suggestions. If you need to read the book right away and write something on it, then be disciplined and read it with a study guide. I have linked two such study guides that enotes has. They are quite good. Also, let me encourage you by saying that even if you do not understand something right away, it sometimes pays to read on, because comprehension may come later on. Second, start reading more for your future. The only way a person grows as a reader is to read more. There are no shortcuts here.

kplhardison's profile pic

Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted on

It seems there are at least three problems with the language of The Heart of Darkness. The first is the use of specialized "jargon" that not everyone can know. The second is the elegance of the vocabulary. The third is the cadence of the sentences.

The first problem, specialized "jargon," can be helped by specialized dictionaries. For instance, in the first pages, the reader encounters nautical jargon (words particular to a specific hobby, trade, profession, etc.) that sailors understand but the rest us may not. In this case a Nautical Dictionary, like the one I've linked to, will ease some of the difficulty.

The second problem of elegant vocabulary will be helped by a dictionary, as was stated earlier, but it will also be helped if you read slowly and look for the functional parts of the sentence. Borrow from journalists and look for the "who" or "what" that is being talked about (e.g., the "what" in "The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled..." is the "old river"). Then look for the "did what" of the sentence (e.g., "rested unruffled" is what the old river did; it's the "did what"). Then look for any more information, like "to whom" or "where" or "when" or "how" or "why." This will help you keep up with the meaning of the sentences. Even write some of the answers to the "who what where" questions out if it helps.

The third problem of cadence is a little harder to lick. The cadence is "the rhythmic flow of a sequence of sounds" (Dictionary.com). This is how Joseph Conrad heard the story in his mind and he chose his words and sentence lengths to put that same sound in your mind based on the vowels and consonants and syllabic rhythms within the words. It so happens, that Conrad chose a droning darkening cadence that reflects not only the slow melodic movement of water on seas and rivers but also the heart of darkness.

How to remedy it? You might try reading out loud. You might try walking around while you read. You might try tapping out a rhythm while you read. You also might try breaking up the monotony with some Garfield comics after a handful of pages to freshen up your mind again.

We’ve answered 318,919 questions. We can answer yours, too.

Ask a question