Wish List: “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad

I regret that I haven’t had the chance to teach Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a labyrinthine text rich in political, historical and social meaning. During a graduate seminar, I co-planned and delivered a unit on Conrad’s novella – but I don’t need to tell you that a graduate seminar and high school classroom have a few differences.

Here is a rough outline of a process that would need to take place over a few weeks, and not a few days. This basic outline would need to change according to my students’ needs:

Teaching tool: Heart of Darkness (Norton Critical Edition, 2005)

  1. I have a unit on postcolonial theory that I would teach first so that students are familiar with this concept.
  2. Closely read and analyze the novella. Students generate text-based questions (as well as larger questions) that we attempt to answer in class. We’d keep a running list of questions on a board, and try to make connections to postcolonial theory.
  3. Students read and discuss a series of excerpts from letters and articles by figures like Henry Morton Stanley, Roger Casement and King Leopold in order to enhance their understanding of the novella’s context.
  4. We could then pair segments of the novel side-by-side with letters and articles to compare and contrast.
  5. Students then raise – and discuss – a host of new questions about the implications of Conrad’s vision of Africa; about representations of Congolese natives and European middlemen; and ultimately about the logic of empire that is revealed through Heart of Darkness.

If you’ve taught this novella, I’d love to hear your ideas: How did it go? How did you make this text accessible for your students?

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