Writing Assignment on
Joseph Conrad's “Heart of Darkness”

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Remember that, if you are aiming at all the points possible from the Writing Assignments, you need to submit a total of 5 writings, and 2 of these must be on longer pieces (each worth 10 points rather than 5). Conrad's piece is one of these longer stories.

There is a Study Guide to this story that you should consult before undertaking this writing assignment.  Use the assignment as an opportunity to practice composing a well-organized, suitably developed essay. You may want to review the general instructions on Writing Assignments. Choose one of the following topics.


Topic A. This story makes a rich use of motifs. Show how the story develops one of the following in a way that contributes to some important part of the overall theme of the story.

“Bewitchment,” “charm.”  Possible aspects to consider: Marlow's being “charmed by a snake”; the influence Kurtz works (by charismatic eloquence) upon his sponsors, upon the “harlequin,” and upon the natives in the immediate vicinity of his station (you will want to be mindful of significant differences here.); the fascination Kurtz has for Marlow (at various stages of his approach and acquaintance with Kurtz).

“Hollowness.”  Your task would be to show how Conrad's development of this motif contributes to one of the following:

“light” and/or “darkness.”  Here you would need to find a principled way of focusing your topic on something specific, since Conrad works this coupled pair of motifs in such a rich and complicated way that you can't do justice to it in the time and space you have available for the assignment.

And what are the senses of “dark” that are being conjured with in a given case: evil? ignorance? the undeclared? [more than one of these?] In each case where you see one of these implications at work, it would be essential to say something about the specific ways in which it applies. (What does the evil in question [etc.] consist in?)

Topic B. The story is constructed around series of foils.  What do you turn up if you pursue the following agenda of curiosity?

How are the “harlequin” (p. 48f.) and the manager (from the Central Station) differentiated from each other?

What do they have in common?

How do they function to highlight important defining qualities of Kurtz? How is Kurtz used, by comparison and contrast, to define Marlow?

Topic C. What is the role, in Marlow's mentality, of women, in civilized society?  Among the questions it would make sense to take up are the following:

How do Marlow's views about women's nature and role show up in the contrast between the situation in which he tells the story we eventually read and the situation in which, he tells his hearers, he completely misrepresented it?  

Is Marlow's conduct with Kurtz's “Intended” (and with his aunt) an instance of proper moral restraint? Or are we expected to see it as an instance of failure of moral restraint?

Is it an instance of moral respect for the other (the "Intended")? Or is it a symptom of limits on moral respect for that other?

Are some lies genuinely morally necessary? Are we meant (by Conrad) to see this as one?

Topic D.  Lionel Trilling and Chinua Achebe disagree radically over the merits of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" as a critique of the cultural assumptions behind European imperialism.  Defend one of these against the other, taking care to cite different evidence from the story than does the writer whose thesis you defend.


  Consult the Study Guide to this story before attempting this writing assignment.

  You may also wish to review the general instructions on writing assignments.


  Suggestions are welcome.  Please send your comments to lyman@ksu.edu .

      Contents copyright 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

  This page last updated 28 March 1999.