Heart of Darkness

Book review by
Regan McMahon, Common Sense Media
Heart of Darkness Book Poster Image
Tense journey to find ivory trader gone rogue in Congo.

Parents say

age 13+
Based on 2 reviews

Kids say

age 15+
Based on 3 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Readers learn about the Belgian colonization of Africa in the 19th century, the plundering of Congo for ivory, colonial racism, and the subjugation of indigenous people. They also learn a little about 19th century river steamers and weaponry. 

Positive Messages

European conquest is exposed as exploitation of land and people for profit as a Belgian trading company dominates the ivory trade in the Congo. Conrad was one of the first to portray a more critical view of imperialism (in fact, he is credited with the first negative use of the word) than the commonly held, propaganda-fueled version of it as a glorious pursuit that brings civilization to the savage population. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Marlow, the leader of the expedition to collect ivory as well as the rogue company agent Kurtz, sees the humanity of the native Africans in a way the white agents of the trading company that hired him do not. He feels a kinship with them as he examines the darkness inside himself. He respects his African steersman and feels sad when he is hurt. He is also loyal to Kurtz because, as flawed as he is, Kurtz was once a man of vision and courage.


African laborers are worked to death, given very little food, and severely punished if they do not obey. Kurtz's station is surrounded by severed African heads on poles. Men are seen crumpled in heaps, exhausted from overwork and malnourishment, and one weak and starving worker dies in front of Marlow. A cannon fires from the riverboat in the jungle, and tribesmen hidden in the forest shoot arrows at Marlow's steamship, on which a man is killed. White men on the riverboat shoot guns into the forest in defense. 


No swearing, but there is near constant use of the "N" word as a synonym for the Africans.


Kurtz's insatiable quest for ivory accounts for the destruction of the local forests and their inhabitants, and eventually his personal destruction. The Kurtz character can be seen as a stand-in for European imperialism. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Some casual drinking among the Europeans.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Conrad's 1899 novella is an intense, suspenseful journey into the disturbed psyches of a rogue European ivory trader in the Congo and the British ship captain who pursues him, recounting the horrors he saw on his quest. Conrad exposes the racist, greedy nature of imperialism, and his story has led to many adaptations, including the 1979 Frances Ford Coppola film, Apocalypse Now, which substitutes Vietnam for Congo, yet retains the name of Kurtz for its elusive central character (played by Marlon Brando). 

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byCrotonParent April 5, 2014

The novel is a thought-provoking work for juniors and seniors in high school or older readers

My 11th grade students found this very challenging but also rewarding in the big ideas that it presents. Some of them even re-read it because while a short nov... Continue reading
Adult Written byNastasia December 13, 2011
Teen, 13 years old Written byConker22 September 12, 2020

Heart of Darkness not too dark anymore

Heart of Darkness sure does have some minor violent scenes and people drink and smoke.The N word is used a few times which is because back then it was okay so... Continue reading
Teen, 16 years old Written byAnnie S. April 12, 2018

Powerful Novel

This book had a lot of powerful meanings and themes that will leave readers shocked and question their entire existence. However, the persecution of the African... Continue reading

What's the story?

Charles Marlow, an experienced British seaman, takes a casual trip down the Thames River in London and recounts for his fellow passengers an earlier journey he made to the Congo, charged by his employer, a Belgian trading company, to collect ivory as well as a European ivory trader named Kurtz, who has gone rogue. As Marlow slowly travels up river on a steamer toward Kurtz's remote outpost, he sees increasing evidence of the Europeans' brutal treatment of the local African tribesmen, worked and starved to death as they plunder their own lands serving the white man's insatiable quest for ivory. Before he reaches Kurtz, Marlow encounters other agents living on the edge, inured to the suffering of the Africans, while Marlow sees their humanity and questions his own darkness within. He is drawn to the charismatic voice of Kurtz, which he comes to know through stories told by others about him, and ultimately has a personal encounter with him following incidents of violence and psychological terror.

Is it any good?

The writing is dense and layered with symbolism and other literary devices, there is some challenging vocabulary, and there are complex themes best for mature teens. Conrad's classic novella maintains an impressive sense of dread while at the same time offering a searing critique of imperialism at a time when the expansion of the British Empire and the exploitation of Africa by European powers was glorified as bringing "light" to uncivilized populations. Kurtz's greedy pursuit of ivory, which consumes him and overrides and extinguishes any conscience or morality he once had, is a metaphor for the foreign policy of Conrad's day and remains relevant today.

Often required reading in high school, HEART OF DARKNESS is a powerful work of early modern fiction, full of psychological reflection and interior monologues by Marlow, who is trying to make sense of what he is seeing. (Conrad himself made a life-changing trip to the Congo with a Belgian company in 1890, serving as captain of a Congo River steamer, an experience that informs this novella.) Students may be pleased that it is only about 90 pages long, but it is not an easy read. Readers will find they must take it slow to grasp the nuances of Conrad's commentary and understand the historical context of imperial conquest, where racist domination of indigenous people was officially sanctioned by conquering countries. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the treatment of the Africans by the Europeans. Why was it easy for them to treat the local inhabitants as if they were less than human?

  • There are several layers of darkness in this book. Can you name three different kinds?

  • Joseph Conrad wrote several books that kids read in school. Have you read Lord Jim or any of his other books? If so, how does Heart of Darkness compare?

  • Why do you think this book is considered a classic and assigned as required reading in high school?

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