A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
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.
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
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.
Violence & Scariness
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.
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No swearing, but there is near constant use of the "N" word as a synonym for the Africans.
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Products & Purchases
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.
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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).
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.
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.