Heart of Darkness

This lesson plan calls for analysis of the ending of Conrad's novel and asks students to write an alternate ending for the book. This lesson includes a vocabulary list, extension activities, and an assessment rubric.

Standards & Objectives

Academic standards
CLE 3005.3.1
Write in a variety of modes for different purposes and audiences.
CLE 3005.8.1
Demonstrate knowledge of significant works of British literature from the Anglo-Saxon period to the present and make relevant comparisons.
CLE 3005.8.2
Understand the characteristics of various literary genres (e.g., poetry, novel, biography, short story, essay, drama).
CLE 3005.8.3
Recognize the conventions of various literary genres and understand how they articulate the writers vision.
CLE 3005.8.4
Analyze works of British literature for what is suggested about the historical period in which they were written.
CLE 3005.8.5
Know and use appropriate literary terms to derive meaning and comprehension from various literary genres.
Alignment of this item to academic standards is based on recommendations from content creators, resource curators, and visitors to this website. It is the responsibility of each educator to verify that the materials are appropriate for your content area, aligned to current academic standards, and will be beneficial to your specific students.
Learning objectives: 

Students will understand the following:

  • Critics have debated some of Conrad's choices in Heart of Darkness.
  • Students will understand how the novel reflects the world as Conrad saw it.
Essential and guiding questions: 
  • Some critics believe that in Heart of Darkness Conrad illustrates how "the darkness of the landscape can lead to the darkness of social corruption." What does this statement mean? How can one's environment affect one's actions, feelings, and morals? Is this statement believable or not? Have you ever experienced a change in yourself that resulted from a change in your environment? What kind of change was it?
  • Heart of Darkness seems to blur the line between the so-called "advanced" society of Europe and the "primitive" society of Africa. What makes one culture "civilized" and another "savage" in the eyes of the world? Are these distinctions valid? Do you think that the culture you live in is "advanced" or "civilized"? Why?
  • In Heart of Darkness , Kurtz is depicted as an upstanding European who has been transformed by his time in the jungle—away from his home, away from familiar people and food, and away from any community moral support that might have helped prevent him from becoming such a tyrant. There was nothing and no one, in essence, to keep him on the straight and narrow. Have you ever found yourself in a similar situation? Was there ever a time in which you felt alone, in a strange environment, or different from everyone else around you? How did that experience affect you or change you? Did you find yourself pulled toward base, cruel instincts as Kurtz was? What did you do to cope with those feelings?
  • Kurtz's dying words are a cryptic whisper: "The horror, the horror." What "horror" could Kurtz have been talking about? Is there more than one possibility? Why do you think Conrad made this scene so ambiguous?
  • Some readers claim that Heart of Darkness is strictly a political novella. Others, however, say it's really a story about the human condition. Can a work of fiction be interpreted in different ways? Should readers consider the author's intent when analyzing a story?
  • Heart of Darkness can sometimes seem to readers like an incredibly dark, depressing story that paints civilizations in a very negative light. Did it seem this way to you, or did the story contain any positive moments? If so, what were they? Why did they seem positive?

Lesson Variations

Blooms taxonomy level: 
Extension suggestions: 

Giving Voice to Africans

  • Some readers of Heart of Darkness have argued that the story is racist because Conrad's African characters rarely speak and have little or no individual identities. Invite your students to discuss this criticism of the novel and to revise the novel to counter the critical attack. Ask each student to imagine that he or she is one of the African characters from the novel and now has an opportunity to write a journal entry describing experiences in the novel from his or her perspective. Advise students that their journal entries should not be retellings of scenes from the novel; rather, students should create scenes that logically might have occurred during the course of the novel but that Conrad chose not to depict. Be sure to encourage students to communicate the feelings of the characters they are pretending to be. When they are finished, ask a few volunteers to share their work with the class.

Colonial Conditions

  • King Leopold II's ownership of the Congo is certainly not the only example of colonialism. Even the United States began as a group of 13 colonies. Ask your students to use the library and Internet to learn about other instances of colonization in the world. Students' research should include the conditions under which natives lived when rulers from other lands controlled them. Then ask students to write imaginary dramatic scenes that could have taken place in the colonies they researched. The natives' actions and speeches should reflect the colonial conditions of the colonies.

Helpful Hints

For this lesson, you will need:

  • Reference materials about colonization throughout the world