The following are some questions that will help students better understand Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness.
After finishing the novel and making sure everyone has understood the basic plot points of the novel, I like to spend a lot of time having the students answer discussion questions that deal with some of the broader issues in the book. This work lends itself to a lively in-class discussion because everyone seems to have opinions about what is meant by the title, or whether or not Conrad wrote a racist novel. The following are some of the questions I use.
I give the students time either in class or as homework to answer these questions in writing. We then spend time in class discussion letting the students express their different opinions. The one thing I require is that they are able to back up their ideas with evidence from the text.
- This story is called a frame narrative (a frame narrative is a story within a story). Why would Conrad choose this structure? What are its benefits to a writer?
- Even though it is Marlow’s voice we hear throughout the book, he is not the narrator of the novel. Why not make Marlow the narrator? What is the effect of this choice?
- How are women characterized in the book? (Most students tend to find Conrad’s portrayal of the women as being negative. I ask them to explore the other side of the argument and see if they can come up with positive aspects to the characterization of Kurtz’s African mistress, the knitting women, or Kurtz’s mistress.)
- Often, Marlow seems to admire Kurtz? What is admirable about Kurtz’s character?
- Besides Marlow and Kurtz, other characters are not given personal names. What is the point of identifying people only by their occupation or where they are from?
- What is Kurtz referring to when he says “The horror! The horror!"?
- The report Kurtz has written ends with the words "Exterminate all the brutes!" Marlow tears off that sentence before giving the report to the Company. Why does he do that?
- Why does Marlow choose to lie to Kurtz’s Intended about her fiancé’s final words, especially given his earlier declaration that he "can't bear a lie"? Does he really do the Intended a favor by hiding the truth from her?
- How has Marlow changed over the course of the novel?
The novelist Chinua Achebe criticized the book in his 1975 lecture "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness." Do you agree or disagree that the book is racist? Why?
- Does the book have a hero? If so, who is it and why? (For this question, if no one brings up the idea of Kurtz as a hero, I ask them to defend this idea.)
- Discuss the ways the title of the book relates to the narrative.