Introductory Lecture and Objectives

Heart of Darkness eNotes Lesson Plan content

Introductory Lecture

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.

By the end of the unit the student will be able to:

1. Discuss how Marlow’s first-person narrative point of view impacts the story. Is he a trustworthy narrator? How would this story affect the reader differently if it were told instead by an omnipotent narrator?

2. Describe the key character traits of Marlow and Kurtz, and discuss motivations for their actions in the novel.

3. Identify the various literary devices the author employs, including personification, metaphor, simile, irony, and juxtaposition.

4. Gain an appreciation for Conrad’s masterful description, particularly in regard to setting. How does Conrad’s nuanced description of setting contribute to tone and mood?

5. Identify key images and symbols from the novel—the river, the sea, the forest, the drums—and discuss their significance.

6. Gain a basic understanding of the setting of the novel and the historical/cultural background of the colonization of Africa by European countries, and find examples in the text.

7. Discuss the significance of the novel’s title and how it relates to some major themes in the book—the nature of evil and morality, colonialism, racism, and cultural superiority.

8. Explain and give examples of the colonial mindset and how the novel shows the dangers of this concept.

9. Explore the themes of the corrupting nature of power, self-deception, and the perils of the arrogant belief in the superiority of one culture over another.

10. Identify these themes and cite specific examples from the story: man’s ephemerality, the ravages of colonialism and capitalism, and the ambiguous nature of truth, evil, and morality.

Instructional Focus: Teaching With an eNotes Lesson Plan

This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.

Student Study Guide

• The Study Guide is organized for a chapter-by-chapter study of the novel. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.

• Study Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading each chapter and to acquaint them generally with the chapter’s content.

• Before chapter Study Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.


(The entire section is 510 words.)

Essay and Discussion Questions

1. We view the events and characters of Heart of Darkness almost exclusively through the eyes of Charlie Marlow. What is he like? Is he a reliable narrator? How might his character, values, and experiences color the story and the way we see the other characters and interact with the story?

2. While most of the story is told to us by Marlow, we hear frequent commentary from the many unnamed characters that appear throughout the novel. Much of it is presented as hearsay or gossip or is simply overheard. Why might Conrad include this thread of unreliable information and opinion? What purpose might it serve?

3. Except for Marlow and Kurtz, Conrad identifies all the...

(The entire section is 1069 words.)

Part I


alacrity: rapidity, eagerness, readiness

alienist: doctor specializing in mental illness, psychiatrist

ascetic: austere, severe

assegais: slender javelin or spear of the Bantu-speaking people of southern Africa

athwart: diagonally, crossways

august: grand, majestic

conflagrations: fires, bushfires, blazes

contemptuously: scornfully, disdainfully

declivity: downward slope (as of ground)

drollery: humor that is oddly amusing; act of jesting

emissary: ambassador, messenger

enigma: mystery, riddle, puzzle

farcical: ridiculous, absurd

festoons: garlands, decorative chains

gesticulating: gesturing, waving


(The entire section is 3932 words.)

Part II


altruistic: philanthropic, humane, unselfish

cipher: code, symbol

despondency: sadness, misery

discomposed: disturbed, agitated

discords: dissonances, disharmonies

disinterred: exposed, unearthed, unveiled

ferocity: ferociousness, cruelty

fortitude: strength, resilience, grit

fusillade: multiple shots fired simultaneously or in rapid succession

harlequin: clown (usually portrayed in a bright costume and mask)

imbecility: stupidity, absurdity

implacable: merciless, cold-hearted

impudence: nerve, audacity, rudeness

inestimable: enormous, invaluable, immeasurable

inexorable: unstoppable, inevitable


(The entire section is 2123 words.)

Part III


abject: hopeless, wretched

absconded: left hurriedly and secretly

apparition: ghost, specter, ghoul

ascendancy: power, dominance, superiority

audacity: daring, nerve, courage

barbarous: uncivilized, harsh, cruel

circuitous: roundabout, meandering, tortuous

craven: cowardly, fearful

crestfallen: disappointed, deflated

denominate: name, designate

destitution: poverty, hardship, misery

disconsolately: miserably

evanescence: fleetingness, ephemerality

exultation: joy, delight, ecstasy

fatalism: belief that what will happen has already been decided and cannot be changed

guileless: candid, open,...

(The entire section is 1268 words.)

Multiple-Choice Test and Answer Key

1. The name of Charlie Marlow’s cruising yawl is the

A. Betsy.

B. Nellie.

C. Terror.

D. Golden Hind.

E. Erebus.

2. What does the narrator claim is “the biggest, and greatest, town on earth”?

A. Kinshasa

B. Rome

C. New York

D. Paris

E. London

3. In Part I and Part III, what religious figure is Marlow said to resemble?


(The entire section is 1225 words.)

Essay Exam Questions With Answers

1. Rivers and the jungle are both major symbols in Heart of Darkness. Use specific examples from the text to show how the author employs and develops these two symbols, and explain what they stand for.

The river, whether the Thames or the Congo, is a major symbol. Rivers have always symbolized movement, commerce, and trade, and both rivers represent them in the novel. The Congo River, however, holds darker connotations for our protagonist, Marlow. He often compares the Congo to a snake—dangerous, even deadly: “In and out of rivers, streams of death in life, whose banks were rotting into mud, whose waters, thickened into slime, invaded the contorted mangroves, that seemed to writhe at us in the...

(The entire section is 2983 words.)