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Symbolism in Heart of Darkness Lesson Plan

By Shelia Odak

This article presents an activity to help teach students about the rich symbolism found in Joseph Conrad's novel The Heart of Darkness.

It is always useful to remind the students of the definition of a literary symbol, no matter how many time you have done it in the past.

  • Discuss that a symbol in literature means that an object, person, place, color, and stands for an abstract idea such as happiness, death, luck, good, or evil.
  • Have them come up with common examples of symbolism. For instance, the four leaf clover stands for luck. See if the class can come up with other examples.

Activity-- List the Symbols in the Novel

Have each student take out a sheet of paper and list as many potential symbols from the novella, The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad as they can think of. After 10-15 minutes, have the students offer some examples and put these on one side of the board. Then, ask the students what they think each symbol represents. List these on the other side of the board. Encourage the students to come up with multiple meanings for each symbol.

Thinking Deeper About the Text

Some examples of symbols and their possible meanings include:

Darkness/Light: As is expected, darkness stands for ideas such as evil, madness, and depravity. Marlow travels into the dark, uncharted parts of the world and discovers that evil lives there in the form of the Europeans who should, in theory, bring enlightenment. However, in their pursuit of ivory (something that is physically light), the white man has embraced the darkest parts of his nature.

Women: Both Marlow and Kurtz see women as symbolizing decency and purity. Women represent the potential for goodness in all humans, which is important to both men after having seen the heart of darkness and evil.

Kurtz’s Painting: The image in the painting resembles the figure of justice, but there seems to be very little justice in Africa. This image could also be another representation of Kurtz’s idealized vision of women who must be kept ignorant of the darkness that he sees in the world.

The Accountant: The Company’s accountant is the physical manifestation of the ethics of the company. What is important to the accountant is that he defies his surroundings. His physical appearance is elegant and pristine in an environment that is filthy and chaotic. He goes on with his work no matter what is happening around him, including people dying.

The Knitting Women: The two women Marlow encounters when he arrives at the offices of the Company represent the mythological Fates who spin, measure, and cut the thread of life. It is in the offices of the Company that Marlow’s life is being measured out as he begins his journey into the heart of Africa.

The Eldorado Expedition: Give the students the hint that Eldorado is a legendary city that was supposed to hold untold riches. The place was never found, but many people died searching for it. This idea fits well with what is going on in the novel, and corresponds to the expedition that disappears into the heart of Africa.

Ivory: Ivory is the physical symbol of the greed and runaway ambition of the Europeans. They are willing to do anything, include sacrifice their own humanity, in pursuit of this treasure.

Congo River: The river resembles a snake, and the snake symbolizes the idea of temptation and evil. The river leads Marlow and the other Europeans into the heart of the continent where the temptations prove to be too much for many of them.

The “Whited Sepulchre”: When Marlow says this, he is probably referring to the city of Brussels, which was the headquarters of the Company. The phrase comes from the Book of Matthew in the Bible, where it says the whited sepulchres are objects “which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness.” This corresponds to idea that imperialism, and those who practice it, may seem good on the outside, but the death and destruction imperialism causes is a reflection of its true character.

Fog: Fog makes things hard to see and understand in the surrounding environment. As Marlow tries to navigate the physical fog in Africa, he must also deal with a mental fog that changes some people when they arrive there.

This lesson on symbolism from the story will get your students thinking about symbolism in other written works as well as their own.