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Heart of Darkness
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
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).
- Parents say
- Kids say
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?
For kids who love history
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