Heart of Darkness eNotes Lesson Plan

Joseph Conrad

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Heart of Darkness eNotes Lesson Plan

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Excerpt From this Document

First serialized in London’s Blackwood’s Magazine in 1899 and then published in book form three years later, Heart of Darkness has been called the best short novel written in English—a bridge between nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature and a forerunner of modern literary methods, as well as Joseph Conrad’s most critically acclaimed work. A lifelong interest in Africa finally propelled the thirty-two-year-old Conrad, originally from Poland, to the continent in 1889 where he became captain of a river steamboat, like the book’s protagonist, Charlie Marlow. A seasoned sailor and traveler who had spent the previous ten years as part of the British merchant marines, Conrad witnessed atrocities in the Belgian Congo during his six-month stay that would remain with him for the rest of his days; they lie at the very heart of his unrelenting novel.

During the 1890s, the novel’s timeframe, ivory was in great demand in Europe. Belgian traders, under the rule of King Leopold II, committed many horrifying crimes against native Africans in their zeal to extract as much profit as possible from the territory. While the events portrayed in the book unfold in the nineteenth century, Conrad turns a more modern and ferociously skeptical eye on the conceits of European colonialists and their paltry justifications for acts of moral depravity in the name of profit. The book’s title, then, refers not only to a voyage into the heart of the Belgian Congo, but also to the journey into man’s dark, uncharted soul.

Conrad portrays the Congo as a mysterious and forbidding land of wild, impenetrable forests, bisected by a serpentine and treacherous river. The narrative’s pervasive atmosphere produces an eerie and potentially maddening effect on the story’s foreign opportunists, as it certainly does on the chilling character of Kurtz, the deranged and depraved ivory trader Marlow brings out of the jungle. Heady, intense, and unremitting from the start, Heart of Darkness pulls readers into this strange and sinister world and holds them there, as if in a trance, until the very end.

Conrad frames his novel as a story within a story, introduced by an unnamed narrator who prepares readers for the tale Charlie Marlow will tell. The narrator observes, “to him [Marlow] the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze. . . .“ Indeed, this is as good a description of the novel itself as it is of the way Marlow then recounts his stunning personal experience. Charlie Marlow’s specific story is unique to Heart of Darkness, of course, but Conrad’s novel has been called a reinterpretation of the German legend of Faust, a man who trades his soul to the devil for earthly success and pleasures. Heart of Darkness itself has been reinterpreted, most famously in Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematic tour de force.

While many of the geopolitical realities have changed since the novel was first published, much of what Conrad explores remains relevant and profoundly significant: the ephemerality of man and his endeavors, the ambiguous nature of truth and morality, the interconnectedness of humans with each other and their environment, the nature of work, the corrupting nature of power, the perils of the arrogant belief in the superiority of one culture over another, and the capacity for both good and evil that lies within the human heart. In its artistic rendering of these universal themes, Heart of Darkness endures as a literary masterpiece. 

About this Document

eNotes lesson plans have been written, tested, and approved by working classroom teachers. The main components of each plan are the following:

  • An in-depth introductory lecture
  • Discussion questions
  • Vocabulary lists
  • Chapter-by-chapter study questions
  • A multiple-choice test
  • Essay questions

Each plan is divided into a teacher and a student edition. The teacher edition provides complete answer keys.