Module Twenty Seven, Activity Five

Heart of Darkness


In previous modules we have had learning activities that have focused on the arts, music and performance in relations to the overall theme or focus of the module. Art, music, performance and literature, enrich our learning experience through highlighting their place of importance in the society or culture under consideration. In addition, the arts and humanities can provide the viewer, listener and reader with important perspectives that are more accessible and relatable to them than the straight presentation of historical or geographic text, thus broadening and enhancing their understanding of the theme(s) and topic(s) under consideration. This is the reason why history and social studies teachers often assign the reading of a novel, folktale or short story that enriches our understanding of place and time that is being studied.

Joseph Conrad’s highly acclaimed novella, Heart of Darkness, was published in 1899. At the time of its publication it was considered to be a strong critique of European imperialism in general and the brutal personalized rule of Leopold in the Congo Free State in particular. However, in the last thirty years, while still respected for it literary power, Heart of Darkness has been held in more critical light. A number of more contemporary readers and critics point out that in addition to its anti-imperial tone, Conrad constructs in the novella negative representations of the Congo and its indigenous peoples and cultures; perspectives that reinforced and strengthened negative representations of Africa that were commonly held in Europe and North America at the time of the book’s publication.

The complexities, nuances and controversies of Heart of Darkness, makes this short piece of fiction a valuable text for further exploring the tragic history of the Congo in past 150 years. The accompanying learning activities have been developed to facilitate our critical reading of the Heart of Darkness, and thereby to enrich our understanding of this era of Congolese history.

Pre-reading Research Activity

Research the author of Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad. Create a timeline of the most important and relevant events of Conrad’s life as it relates to the events in the story. After completing the timeline for Joseph Conrad, complete the other side of the timeline graphic organizer below with any parallel events from the story as you read. You may complete the timeline in the space provided below:

Joseph Conrad Graphic Organizer

You can use the following websites to conduct your research on Joseph Conrad:


Also take the time to refresh your memory on the history of the Congo. Specifically, conduct some research on:

  • King Leopold II
  • Kingdoms of the Congo
  • Scramble for Africa
  • Ivory Industry

Once you have finished the left half of your chart, make predictions about Heart of Darkness, based on what you learned about Joseph Conrad in your research, and the history of the Congo in the previous activities of this module. Write your prediction down, with a rationale defending it based off your research.

Introduction to Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness is a novella, or a short novel. Before you start reading, take note of the structure of Heart of Darkness:

  • Written in train-of-thought style (what do you think this means? Try and answer this as you read).
  • Mainly consisting of one-sided dialogue
  • Narrator is two-fold: story is “written” by a crew member of the ship that is hearing Marlow’s story, but Marlow is recounting the story that makes the content of Heart of Darkness
  • Notable literary elements being used: diction, irony, imagery, symbolism, and tone

While reading, take care to consider any possible biases of the author or from the time period of the novella.

You may also wish to reference the glossary when you encounter any words you are unfamiliar with. If a word you don’t know is not in our glossary, you can look it up on your own in an online dictionary.

The following activities are to be completed while you read Heart of Darkness. Please read the directions on each activity before you begin reading (Do not begin reading the novella until you reach the instructions under “begin reading.”)

Map Activity

As you read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, pay close attention to the locations mentioned throughout the novella.

As a location is mentioned during your reading, write down the lines from the text that mention the location and properly cite the quote following MLA parenthetical documentation guidelines. Keep track of these locations, the quote from Heart of Darkness that details the location, and the proper citation for that quote in this graphic organizer:

The first location is done for you.

Locations Graphic Organizer Once you have finished reading and have completed the location log above, create a map that outlines the entire setting and timeline of the story. To do this, you will need to use an image of an accurate map that includes England and the Congo. Within this map, identify each location mentioned in Marlow’s journey to the Congo as well as their entire trail, complete with each location name, quote, and page number from above. In addition, write a brief synopsis of the events that took place in that location. To begin, you may use one of the maps below: Africa Political Africa Geographical

Make sure to also incorporate a more focused map of a region where numerous locations are mentioned in a smaller area. You may use these maps for that purpose:

London Map Congo Google Map

In writing the required details on the map of Marlow’s journey, you can be creative as to how you want to incorporate all the information. For example, you may choose to draw a line of their complete trail with dots at each location that have a reference number, and then on a separate page you will write all the required information by the location’s reference number. Or, you may choose to include the name of the location and a cited quote from the novella on the map itself, as well as the line and dots identifying the entire journey, and the synopsis of each location on a separate page.

Character Analysis Activity

For each character listed below, complete the graphic organizer. You should include at least 3 quotes that define the character’s personality, at least 5 words of your choosing to describe the character’s personality, and an image of what you think the character might look like. Be sure to include the page number for each quote you provide.

Character Charts 1 Character Charts 2 Character Charts 3 Character Charts 4

Similarities Activity

Look back to the History of the Congo activity and identify which parts of what you learned are similar to various aspects of the story. For instance, do any of the people from the Congo’s colonial history resemble any of the characters from Heart of Darkness? Do any of the events that took place seem closely related to the events from the story? Think about these questions and more as you make connections between Heart of Darkness and the DRC’s history. As you reflect on that section of Exploring Africa, and as you read, keep track of the similarities.

Literary Elements

While reading find examples of the following literary elements:

Literary Elements Chart

Begin Reading

Now that you have read through the instructions, you may begin reading Heart of Darkness. Remember to fill out the above activities/charts as you go. When you are finished reading, return here for the remaining activities.

If you do not have a physical copy of Heart of Darkness, check out your local library for a copy, or read online here: :

After Reading

Now that you have finished Heart of Darkness, complete the following activities.

Quote Analysis Activity

For each quote provided, write a brief analysis. Your analysis should include what you believe the author, Joseph Conrad, intended to say by writing this; what the social implication or connotative meaning of the quote is, apart from Conrad’s intentions; and how you have come to your conclusion. To defend your analysis, you may reference parts of the learning activities in Exploring Africa, things you may have learned in your own independent research, or any other reliable source of information.

  1. “Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him,-- all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There's no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination--you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.’”
  1. “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretense but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea--something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to. . . .”
  1. “It's queer how out of touch with truth women are. They live in a world of their own, and there had never been anything like it, and never can be. It is too beautiful altogether, and if they were to set it up it would go to pieces before the first sunset. Some confounded fact we men have been living contentedly with ever since the day of creation would start up and knock the whole thing over.”
  1. “These men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from over the sea. All their meager breasts panted together, the violently dilated nostrils quivered, the eyes stared stonily uphill. They passed me within six inches, without a glance, with that complete, deathlike indifference of unhappy savages. Behind this raw matter one of the reclaimed, the product of the new forces at work, strolled despondently, carrying a rifle by its middle. He had a uniform jacket with one button off, and seeing a white man on the path, hoisted his weapon to his shoulder with alacrity. This was simple prudence, white men being so much alike at a distance that he could not tell who I might be. He was speedily reassured, and with a large, white, rascally grin, and a glance at his charge, seemed to take me into partnership in his exalted trust. After all, I also was a part of the great cause of these high and just proceedings.”
  1. “Moreover, I respected the fellow. Yes; I respected his collars, his vast cuffs, his brushed hair. His appearance was certainly that of a hairdresser's dummy; but in the great demoralization of the land he kept up his appearance. That's backbone. His starched collars and got-up shirt-fronts were achievements of character.”
  1. “You know I hate, detest, and can't bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavor of mortality in lies,-- which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world-- what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do. Temperament, I suppose. Well, I went near enough to it by letting the young fool there believe anything he liked to imagine as to my influence in Europe.”
  1. “"She put out her arms as if after a retreating figure, stretching them black and with clasped pale hands across the fading and narrow sheen of the window. Never see him! I saw him clearly enough then. I shall see this eloquent phantom as long as I live, and I shall see her too, a tragic and familiar Shade, resembling in this gesture another one, tragic also, and bedecked with powerless charms, stretching bare brown arms over the glitter of the infernal stream, the stream of darkness. She said suddenly very low, ‘He died as he lived.’”

Criticisms of Heart of Darkness Activity

Read the following critical analyses of the novella.

While you read pay attention to:

  • Where does the author place his/her thesis? What makes it a good or bad thesis statement?
  • How is the paper structured? What are some of the qualities of their transition phrases?
  • Where does the author incorporate evidence from the text? How is it incorporated? How is it discussed and analyzed? What did they do well or not so well?
  • What is your reaction to their analysis/criticism overall? What was good about it? What was bad or unclear about it?

Write your own Critical Analysis

Now that you’ve learned more about the author, Joseph Conrad, and the connections between his life and the real events from the DRC’s history to the story, Heart of Darkness, analyze what you believe Conrad is telling the reader about the Congo. Based on the author’s diction, or word choice, and characterization, or development of character personalities, and imagery of the setting of the story (the Congo), what do you think of Joseph Conrad’s depiction of the Congo? How does his diction impact your understanding of the Congo and of Africa as a whole? How does it affect your idea of who the Congolese are? Who is depicted as the “hero” of this story, and what effect does that have?

Would you argue, like many other critics, that Conrad is racist in his depiction of the Congo and its people? Or, would you argue that Conrad is being cynical and sarcastic in his depiction, thus criticizing the racism of colonization? Could it possibly be that both are true? Use your own research and evidence from Heart of Darkness to support your argument and defend your claim. Do not use personal pronouns (I, me, us, our, we) in your writing. This writing should be in essay format, and you should correctly cite your research and textual references using MLA format and a works cited page.

This is the final activity in this module. Return to the curriculum, go on to Module Twenty Eight, or choose from one of the other activities in this module.