Marlow travels up the Congo River on behalf of a Belgian trading company. Once he is far upriver he encounters the mysterious Kurtz, a man who has set himself up as a god amongst the native peoples.
Below are some reading passages that we have hand picked to supplement this book. Be sure to read the passage summaries and our suggestions for instructional use.
In "Manifest Destiny," Mike Kubic discusses how in the 19th and early 20th centuries American settlers believed it was their destiny to conquer new regions of the continent—whatever the cost.
Introduce this text after students have read through to page 5, Chapter I, after the narrator has meditated on Britain’s past as conquerors and Marlow shares his views on the nature of conquest — as well as discussing Britain as once being a place of darkness. Have students use this text to compare and contrast two different historical instances of colonialism, and have them discuss the ways that the colonizers justified their actions. Why do you think they relied on these justifications? Is Marlow convinced by the idea that colonialists are bringing the “light of civilization” to a place of darkness? How does Marlow’s view differ from the narrator’s?
Sheldon Allan “Shel” Silverstein (1930-1999) was an American poet, cartoonist, and author of children’s books. “Where the Sidewalk Ends” is one of Silverstein's most famous poems, in which the sidewalk represents the path from childhood to adulthood.
Introduce this famous poem after students have read through to page 7, of Chapter I, when Marlow talks about how he loved maps as a child, in order to analyze Marlow as a central character and his motivations for wanting to travel to Africa. How has Marlow’s early fascination for maps inspired him? Compare and contrast the imagery in Silverstein’s poem with the references to a young Marlow. What role does imagery and the imagination play in the mind of a young Marlow? How is darkness and the use of dark imagery portrayed in both the poem and the novel?
In this famous poem, William Butler Yeats paints a terrifying, apocalyptic scene in order to describe the atmosphere of Europe following World War I.
Introduce this text after students have completed Chapter I, after Marlow’s early experiences in Africa, in order to identify and analyze some of the early themes and motifs within the novel through a cross text analysis. In “The Second Coming” Yeats paints a post-apocalyptic world, using mythical and religious imagery to describe anarchy. How does Marlow describe what he has witnessed in Africa? Compare and contrast the references and images that Marlow uses with the speaker in Yeats’ poem. How do sights such as carcasses and decaying machinery help paint a picture of the environment that Marlow is in? Compare and contrast the sketch of the blindfolded woman that Marlow encounters with the Sphinx in Yeats’ poem. What do these two images represent?
In “The Niger Expedition of 1841,” Mike Kubic discusses Britain's attempt to eradicate slavery by forming treaties with African chieftains along the Niger River.
Introduce this text after students have read up to page 45, halfway through Chapter II, when Marlow’s experience in Africa has grown more difficult as a result of delays, repairs to his boat, and the penetration into a more dangerous part of the river. Have students use Kubic’s article in order to generate a cross-text analysis of the challenges that colonial expeditions presented. What are some of the difficulties Marlow experiences on his journey? What aspects are similar or different to the experience that those on the Niger Expedition of 1841 faced?
In Emily Dickinson's "Because I could not stop for Death," the speaker meets Death, personified as a carriage driver. This poem is a classic example of Dickinson's poetry - short, choppy sentences, packed with meaning and metaphor.
Introduce this text after students have read up to page 71, towards the very end of Chapter 3, after Marlow has spent some time with Kurtz and witnessed both the best and worst of him before Kurtz dies. Ask students to use Dickinson’s poem to creatively interpret and analyze Kurtz’ character. In what ways is Kurtz a character that is “larger than life?” Does the character exist in the same way he does in Marlow’s mind? Does Kurtz face death in the same way the speaker does in Dickinson’s poem?
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was an American poet who spent most of her life in seclusion. This poem was written in 1862, but was published posthumously (or after Dickinson’s death) in 1953. In this poem, the speaker discusses "the Dark," something unknown and ever-present.
Introduce this text after students have completed the book, in order to analyze the novel’s recurrent theme of darkness and light through a cross-text analysis. Marlow describes Kurtz as being an “impenetrable darkness” (64) and by the end of the novel the river the men are on seems to lead into the “heart of an immense” darkness (72). How do both Conrad and Dickinson use darkness and the dark as an image and a symbol? How can the speaker’s views in Dickinson’s poem — that the dark is something we grow accustomed to when there is no light — be applied to Marlow’s story?
“West African Society at the Point of European Impact” describes the great cultural achievements of West Africa in the centuries before the Atlantic slave trade.
Introduce this informational text after students have completed the novel, in order to generate a discussion on authorial perspective. Now that students have read Heart of Darkness, ask them to consider the portrayal of the native peoples in the novel with how Africans are described in the article. What are the contrasts between the portrayal of Africans in the novel with those described in the article? Does Marlow give a rounded view of the natives in the novel? If so, how? If not, what reasons would you give for why you don’t think he has?
In “The Danger of a Single Story,” Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the importance of not allowing one story to construct your understanding of the world.
Introduce this text after students have completed Heart Of Darkness, in order to generate a discussion on narrative, counter-narrative, and the stereotypes associated with Africans and African culture. Does the depiction of Africans in Heart of Darkness illuminate the concerns Adichie raises? Does a work like Heart of Darkness require counter-narratives to be produced? Discuss whether you believe Heart of Darkness is a reflection of the attitudes and thoughts of people in the West at the time of its publication?