Heart of Darkness Discussion Guide

Joseph Conrad's classic novel of social criticism, Heart of Darkness, focuses on the colonization of Congo by the country of Belgium and takes a harsh look at barbarity, civilization, colonization, and the colonizers. This book will provide limitless discussion for your English and Social Studies courses for high school students.
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Updated on: September 30, 2009
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About Joseph Conrad

One of the world's great writers of fiction, Joseph Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857 in Berdichev, near Kiev, in what was then Russian Poland (now Ukraine). In 1861, Conrad's family was forced to move to northern Russia when his father, a Polish patriot, was exiled for his activism against Russian rule. His mother and father both died of tuberculosis, in 1865 and 1869, respectively. In the care of his maternal uncle, Conrad was sent to school in Krakow and then Switzerland. Wanting to go to sea, he left in 1874 for Marseilles, where he joined the French merchant service.

In 1878, Conrad joined the British merchant navy; he sailed on many ships over the next sixteen years, starting as a deckhand and working his way up to captain. It was during this period that Conrad mastered the English language. Taking him all over the globe – Africa, Australia, India, Singapore, South America – his voyages provided subject matter for his writing and helped him gain insight into what drives human behavior. Conrad published his first novel, Almayer's Folly, in 1895. Among Conrad's most acclaimed works are Lord Jim (1900), Heart of Darkness (1902), Nostromo (1904), The Secret Agent (1907), and Under Western Eyes (1911). Conrad maintained that his stories were not about life on the sea, but that human problems "stand out with a particular force and colouring" on board a ship. His writing is particularly concerned with whether individuals can act virtuously amid forces of chaos, destruction, and hypocrisy. Conrad's characters struggle with evil – in themselves and in others – but are rarely victorious.

Conrad's other major works include The Nigger of the Narcissus (1897), Youth (1902), Typhoon (1903), and Victory (1915).

Discussion Questions

  1. Why does Conrad have one of Marlow's listeners relate the story, rather than make Marlow the narrator of the novel who speaks directly to the reader?

  2. Why does the narrator note Marlow's resemblance to a Buddha, at the beginning as well as the end of Marlow's story?

  3. Why does Marlow want to travel up the Congo River?

  4. What is Marlow's attitude toward the African people he encounters on his trip up the Congo? In describing them, why does Marlow say that "what thrilled you was just the thought of their humanity--like yours--the thought of your remote kinship with this wild and passionate uproar" (p. 63)?

  5. What does Marlow mean when he says that "there is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies" (p. 49)?

  6. Why does Marlow consider it lucky that "the inner truth is hidden" (p. 60)?

  7. What does Kurtz mean when, as he's dying, he cries out, "The horror! The horror!" (p. 112)?

  8. What is the significance of the report Kurtz has written for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs? Why does Marlow tear off the postscriptum, which reads "Exterminate all the brutes!" (p. 84), before giving the report to the man from the Company?

  9. Why does Marlow think that Kurtz was remarkable?

  10. Why does Marlow tell the Intended that Kurtz's last words were her name?

  11. What does Marlow mean when he says that Kurtz "was very little more than a voice" (p. 80)?

  12. What does the narrator mean when he says of Marlow's narrative that it "seemed to shape itself without human lips in the heavy night-air of the river" (p. 50)?

For Further Reflection

  1. Is it possible to distinguish between civilized and uncivilized societies?

  2. Is complete self-knowledge desirable? Is it possible?

Related Titles

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart (1958)
This moving story realistically depicts Nigeria's Igbo tribe as its way of life is changed by the encroachment of European colonizers. The internal struggles and eventual downfall of the main character, Okonkwo, are accented by the inevitable loss of tribal culture.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground (1864)
The narrator of this dark – and darkly comic – novella comes to see all explanations for human behavior as self-imposed limitations on our freedom.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
Nick Carraway, the narrator of this classic novel, tells the story of Jay Gatsby, a man of vast ambition who embodies both the allure and the emptiness of the American dream.

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851)
In this multifaceted masterpiece, Ishmael turns his story of Ahab's maniacal pursuit of a legendary white whale into the occasion for an exploration of the most profound metaphysical questions.

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