Heart of Darkness – Teaching tips for Conrad’s story of discovery

Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (Blue Series, Level 5) takes us on several types of discovery. A psychological discovery of human nature that resembles a maze in a jungle, a philosophical discovery of the notion of civilization, and a historical discovery of colonization. It also raises important and challenging issues of racism, madness, exploitation and the environment.

The story of Marlow and Kurtz is told in a frame narrative, an exciting literary device for your students to discover and revisit in works like  Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Level: CEF B1; Cambridge PET; Trinity 5, 6
Age: 13 +
Themes: Adventure, Horror

These discussion starters will help you reflect on the story:

1 Use these words to introduce the main topic. Write AFRICA, CONGO, JUNGLE on the board, and ask your students to start a free association game. When you have collected about ten words, reflect on them. Ask your students what people thought of these places a hundred years ago.

2 Ask them if they know anything about COLONIZATION. They can do a short research project about colonization in the first half of the 20th century.

3 Another point you can introduce before reading the story is IVORY TRADE. Talk about the history of this, and ask them what they think about it. Ask them if they can think of illegal activities that are similar to ivory trade in the age of colonization. Think about animals like the black rhino, the Siberian tiger and the thousands of sharks that are killed every year.

4 Talk about how we define CIVILIZATION. Ask your students to describe the civilized world, and then ask them to talk about wilderness. Do they think that our vision of civilization can be forced upon other cultures? What examples of this can they think of from the past and present?

5 Ethical trade and Fairtrade. Ask your students what they know about the exploitation of workers today. How have work conditions and regulations changed in the last century?

If you’d like to research Ethical commerce and Fairtrade, use our special worksheet which you can download here:

While you are reading the story, try some of the following ideas:

1 This reader offers many engaging discussion questions that you will find in colourful discussion boxes. Read aloud sessions would work very well with this book. You can choose a narrator for every ten minutes of reading. Sit in a circle and pretend to be on a ship. Stop at the discussion boxes to reflect on the story.

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The illustrations will help your students becoming immersed in the atmosphere of Africa and the strangeness and cruelty of the events. Read our blog post about using illustrations for more ideas.

3 Binary oppositions. As you are reading the text, collect words that define Marlow and Kurtz. Which two worlds do they represent in the story? Find opposites and fill in a word line with words that come between the binary opposites.

4 The After Reading activities in the reader offer more than comprehension and vocabulary practice. You will find questions to help you interpret the story.

Sample pages from the read - After Reading, Plot and Theme

Sample pages from the read – After Reading, Plot and Theme

5 Discuss the ending of the story and ask your students how they would have ended it. What do they think about the ‘white lie’ Marlow tells at the end of the story? Have they ever told a white lie? Is it ever acceptable to do this and if so, when?

Start to read this book in class and spend enough time on class discussion as that will be the heart of the story. If you are reading this book with young adults or adults, you can also watch one of the most famous interpretations of the novella, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).

You can also download a sheet to learn more about Conrad’s life:

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