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1999 Ap Lit Essay Samples

Heart of Darkness gives the reader the impression that they are fighting their way through a forest when reading, the language is so dense and complex. Joseph Conrad intended this difficulty, as he wanted to give the reader the feeling of traveling through the Congolese forest just like Marlow. It’s important to understand more about Conrad and the time this book was written to be able to write well-informed Free Response Essay for your AP English Literature Exam.

Conrad was born in 1857 in Ukraine. As a young man, he dreamed of traveling to the Congo and eventually became a sailor and took command of a Belgian steamship and traveled to the Congo in 1890. The trip to the Congo took a severe toll on his health, and he went to England to recover.

Heart of Darkness is what’s known as a frame tale, where the story is told to us, not through the eyes of a first person narrator, but framed by a second source. Marlow’s tale is told to us by an unknown narrator, who listens to Marlow’s story on the deck of the Nellie. This frame narrator’s views of imperialism and the Company are changed after hearing Marlow’s tale of Kurtz and his voyage into the heart of the Congo. Conrad uses the character Marlow in several of his other works, including Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, and Nostromo.

This novella perfectly encapsulates the precipice upon which Conrad stood, between Victorian values and modernism. Heart of Darkness exemplifies the change in Conrad’s generation, and the effects imperialism had in the homeland and on those who they colonized. The book was well received during its time, but not recognized for its criticism of imperialism. Because the novella is set on board a Belgian ship and colony, it was easier for the British people to look away from the picture of themselves Conrad was painting. This context will help you create a well-rounded essay for the Free Response Question and enhance your score on the AP English Literature Exam.

Heart of Darkness Ap English Lit Essay Themes

Imperialism and Colonialism

The most important and complex themes in Heart of Darkness and run through the core of the novella. Marlow arrives in the Congo observing European colonialism in the traditional way: as a force to spread good to a savage land. What he sees instead is colonialism as a means of exploitation, both of the people and the land. The Europeans take what they want from the Congo and leave nothing but death and destruction. The language describing the imperialist actions perpetrated by the Company men is intentionally ambiguous; Company men describe their work as “trade”. Kurtz is more direct, and describes his actions of taking ivory from the natives as“extermination”. Conrad argues that the uncivilized Africans are less corrupt than their European counterparts. By analyzing the adverse effects colonization and imperialism has on the hearts and mind of the Company men and Kurtz, Conrad illustrates that colonialism only brings about man’s regression. The savagery affects the white colonizers and the Africans they are colonizing, though Conrad does portray the Africans as being more honest about their true nature. At the heart of the novella, Conrad is telling the audience that any system that allows one man to hold power over another must be a force for corruption; this is the core of imperialism.


A key theme in Heart of Darkness. Conrad’s view of evil is ambiguous and confusing. There is no good and evil; there is simply the choice between the lesser of two evils. Marlow is asked to choose between the vicious hypocrisy of the colonial men or the anarchy and malice of Kurtz. As Heart of Darkness progresses, it becomes clear that it is pointless to try and use traditional social mores to make judgments on these characters actions. In a world that’s gone insane, can there be insanity? Through his travel deeper into the jungle, Marlow encounters absurd situations, whose stakes range from the mundane to life and death. Each situation is given the same level of importance, showing that this world’s core moral fiber is hypocritical and confusing.


A controversial and important theme in this work. Conrad makes the argument that Africans are truthful and the Europeans are dishonest, due to the corrupting influence of colonialism on those who perpetrate it. Europeans are portrayed as the oppressors and the Africans as the oppressed. This does not mean that Conrad’s book is without racial prejudice. The Africans in this book are not treated as individuals, but as chattel. Marlow even refers to the African men who helm his boat as machinery. The struggle of these Africans becomes nothing more than a background for Marlow to play out his personal philosophical debate. The dehumanization Africans suffer at the hands of Conrad’s narrative is much more sinister than the open violence and hypocrisy of European colonialism. In attempting to define the faults of colonialism, Heart of Darkness oppresses the nonwhites it professes to defend.

Civilization versus Savagery

The critical struggle within Heart of Darkness. Conrad argues that man creates civilizations to achieve a higher plane, by creating laws and moral codes. London, which serves as a symbol of enlightenment, was at one time in Conrad’s words: “one of the darkest places of the earth”. Once it has been civilized, man’s natural instincts toward savagery are repressed by the chains of civilization, but they never disappear. Conrad argues that, while in a civilized society like London a man can easily maintain his civility, removed from that society he can quickly descend back into his natural state of savagery. When Marlow meets Kurtz, he sees his opposite, a man who is removed from civilized society and devolved into his most primitive and savage form. Marlow represents the restraints of civilization, and he sees what he could become in Kurtz. Conrad’s core argument is that every man has a heart of darkness, that civilization is superficial, and that when removed physically from the civilized world men will give into that darkness.


Plays a dual role in the Heart of Darkness. The Congo is responsible for the mental and physical disintegration of the Company colonists. Madness serves, ironically, to give the reader some sympathy with Kurtz. Marlow is told from the beginning of the book that Kurtz is mad. When we put Kurtz in the context of the Company’s madness, his madness becomes harder to pin down. Madness also demonstrates the need for social mores on man. Though Conrad depicted mores as superficial constructs, removed from society, we see the Europeans slip into madness. Society is a necessary construct to maintain the individual’s security and the group’s unity.

How to use Heart of Darkness for the 2012 AP English Literature Free Response Questions

In this Free Response Question you are asked to take the surroundings of the character and describe how it plays into their psychological and moral development. These surrounding do not have to be restricted to the physical. In Heart of Darkness, the physical location along with the absence of civilization make this novella an ideal choice for this AP English Literature Free Response Question.

“And, after all, our surroundings influence our lives and characters as much as fate, destiny or any supernatural agency.” Pauline Hopkins, Contending Forces

Choose a novel or play in which cultural, physical, or geographical surroundings shape psychological or moral traits in a character. Then write a well-organized essay in which you analyze how surroundings affect this character and illuminate the meaning of the work as a whole.

The Congo appears almost as another character in Heart of Darkness; it exerts so much influence over the mental, moral and physical well-being of its characters. Joseph Conrad uses the physical location of the novella to move not only his characters but to represent his most important theme: the effects of colonialism. Conrad argues in Darkness that men built civilized societies like London to repress their savage nature. London now serves in the novella as a beacon of enlightenment. When these Europeans are removed from civilization and enter into the jungle of the Congo, we see them deteriorate mentally, morally and physically and we witness their reversion to their original savage nature.

We see this deterioration in the Company men and Kurtz. The Company men describe their actions in the Congo as “trade,” but what Marlow sees is the slaughter of natives and plunder of the natural resources. The claim that these colonizers are here to bring the “good” of civilization to the natives rings hollow when Marlow faces their utter hypocrisy. Kurtz, on the other hand, is entirely open about his means of colonization. He is frank with Marlow that he is exterminating natives to obtain ivory. Kurtz is not covering up his savagery; he has embraced and reverted to man’s most primitive form. In both cases it is the lack of civilization and the geographic location that is the driving force in the madness that we see rampant in this novella. Heart of Darkness at its core is about colonization and the colonizers; the Congo is key to moving the story forward and bringing this theme to light.

How to use Heart of Darkness for the 2010 AP English Literature Free Response Questions

In this Free Response Question you will be asked to describe the experience of exile and its effects on character. You are asked to not only look at the negative, but the positive impacts this experience has on the character. Said’s quote perfectly captures that journey, and Marlow’s complex journey is a fantastic choice for this Free Response Question.

Palestinian American literary theorist and cultural critic Edward Said has written that “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted”. Yet Said has also said that exile can become “a potent, even enriching” experience.

Select a novel, play, or epic in which a character experiences such a rift and becomes cut off from “home,” whether that home is the character’s birthplace, family, homeland, or other special place. Then write an essay in which you analyze how the character’s experience with exile is both alienating and enriching, and how this experience illuminates the meaning of the work as a whole.

In Heart of Darkness, all of our characters have left their homeland and are traveling. Marlow, Kurtz and the Company men are all deep in the jungle of the Congo, removed not only from their physical homes but from the protections of civilized society. These colonizers are all profoundly changed by this exile from the constraints of civilization. For Kurtz and the Company men, exile leads to a descent into madness, physical illness, and savagery. We see them commit horrendous acts of murder and degradation. For Marlow, the experience of exile is no less profound, though the changes run below the surface, on a philosophical and moral level.

Said says that “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience” and this is something you could almost hear Marlow telling the narrator. Marlow’s journey was terrible to experience, perhaps not as terrible as Kurtz, but still terrifying. His journey may represent the journey Joseph Conrad himself took to the Congo in 1890 on a Belgian steamship. What these men can learn from their journey’s of exile, if they are fortunate enough to leave whole of body and mind, is a better understanding of themselves and the colonial construct they’ve participated in.

Conrad sets up a narrative in which Marlow’s homeland represents enlightenment and civilization and the Congo savagery. When any civilized man is removed from his home and placed into the unconfined African jungle, he reverts to his darkest self. Though Conrad believes civilized society is empty and hollow, he does acknowledge the necessity to restrain the darkness that rests in all men’s hearts. Kurtz’s last words “The horror! The horror!” reflect what he’s seen within himself in the Congo: the horror of man’s wrath over another unchecked by society.

With this guide and an in-depth knowledge of Heart of Darkness, you can have great success on the AP English Literature Exam. There are many resources out there to help you practice for the AP English Literature Exam, such as How to Study for the AP English Literature Exam. For an in-depth breakdown into Free Response questions, you should check out The Ultimate Guide to 2016 AP English Literature FRQs. You can take practice online exams at Albert’s AP English Literature Free Response Questions page.

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When you’re studying for your AP Literature Exam, you’re going to want to use practice tests and questions to hone your skills. But where can you find AP literature practice tests? And are all practice exams equally useful for you? 

The real exam has 55 multiple-choice questions and three free-response questions, but there are practice tests with every conceivable number and combination of question types. 

In this article, you’ll learn where to find every official College Board AP English Literature and Composition practice exam, free unofficial tests, and paid practice test resources. You’ll also find out which tests are high-quality and how you can best use different practice exams to fulfill your studying needs.


Official Free AP Literature Practice Tests

The gold standard of AP English Literature practice tests and AP English Literature practice exam questions are College Board released materials. That’s because the College Board administers the AP exams, so their practice questions are most like the actual AP questions you’ll see on the test. There are three different kinds of resources offered by the College Board: complete released exams from past years, released free-response questions from past years, and sample questions from the “AP Course And Exam Description.”


Official Released College Board Exams

There are two official released College Board Exams. However, neither is quite complete--while they each have the standard 55 multiple-choice questions, both are missing parts of the 3-question free-response section. You can still use these as complete exams if you supplement with released free-response questions from past years.


1987 AP English Literature and Composition Exam

For reasons that are not totally clear, this exam excludes the third essay question, the poetry analysis. If you want to take this as “complete” exam practice, use a free-response poetry analysis prompt from the bank of free response questions linked to below. 


1999 AP English Literature and Composition Exam

This test excludes the poetry and prose analysis questions of the free-response section and only has the student choice question. So, to take it as a complete exam, you’d need to supplement it with questions 1 and 2 from the released free-response questions below. You can actually get question 2 for the 1999 test from the official free-response questions bank, but the excerpt for question 1 can’t be reprinted, so you’ll need to supplement with another poetry analysis question.


Or supplement with this tree-poem.


Official Free-Response Questions

There may not be very many complete released exams, but there are tons of available free-response questions from previous administrations of the test. These are great practice, not just for practicing complete essays, but for practicing writing thesis statements, outlines, and so on. What’s also great about these is that most of them come with sample response and scoring guidelines, so you’ll be able to see exactly what makes a high-quality AP essay by College Board standards. Be aware, though, that some of the prose and poetry excerpts can’t be reprinted due to copyright concerns.

Below is one link for more up-to-date free response questions and another for older versions. However, there doesn’t appear to be a significant substantive difference between the old and new prompts.

AP English Lit Free Response Questions 2003-2017

AP English Lit Free Response 1999-2003


Sample Questions From the Course and Exam Description

The AP English Literature Course and Exam Description has practice multiple-choice questions and practice free-response questions. They don’t add up to a complete test--there are only 46 multiple-choice questions and a whopping six free response (enough for two tests!)--but they are great for simple practice.


Your Teacher

Your AP teacher may have access to copies of old AP exams that you can use for practice. She probably can’t let you take them out of the classroom, but she may be allowed to loan them to you in a supervised setting. This is because teachers can purchase resources directly from the College Board that students can’t. Asking your teacher may not bear fruit, but it’s worth a try.


Why are you asking me for AP lit practice tests? I'm your econ teacher!


Free Unofficial AP Literature Practice Tests

In addition to the free College Board resources, there are also several places online where you can get free, unofficial practice tests. Be aware that, because these resources aren’t College-Board created or approved, they are of variable quality.  For each of these resources I’ll describe what’s offered and how it compares to official College Board tests.


Barron’s Books Free Practice Test

Barron’s, those distinguished makers of review books, also offer a complete free practice test with multiple choice and free response. They provide the author and name of the work, but not the date. All of these free resources probably credit the authors for copyright reasons, but you won’t have this information on the actual exam.

You can take the test timed or in “practice” mode. While answers are provided for the multiple-choice questions, no scoring guidelines are provided for the free-response prompts.

This isn’t an official resource, but the questions are of a high quality and are a good option when you’ve run out of official material. If you combined the multiple-choice questions with some official released free-response questions (with scoring guidelines and sample essays) you could get a pretty good approximation of a complete practice test.


McGraw-Hill AP Diagnostic Quiz

McGraw-Hill, textbook and review book publisher, offers a 25-question multiple-choice diagnostic quiz for the AP English Literature exam. You may actually be able to get more than 25 questions out of this, because each time you open a new test window, you get 25 randomly ordered and selected questions from a question pool.

The passages open in another window, which is a little annoying. However, the questions are fairly difficult and pretty well-written AP imitations, so the annoyance is worth it. You’ll get the author and title of the works excerpted.


Varsity Tutors AP Literature Practice Tests

This site has practice multiple-choice quizzes divided by concept--things like “interpreting the passage,” “claims and argument,” and “interpreting excerpts.” The questions aren’t worded exactly the same way as AP test questions, but they are still okay for testing your passage-interpretation skills. Basically, the questions test for similar skills, but don’t necessarily mimic AP test questions in style.

Also, the site provides the date, title, and author of each work, which is not something you’ll receive on the AP exam.You can make a free account at the site to track your scores, but it’s not necessary to be able to take the tests.


Kittens not included with free practice tests, unfortunately.


Learnerator AP English Literature Quizzes

Learnerator offers multiple-choice quizzes divided into prose, poetry, and drama categories. You are given the title, date, and author of the work--which you will not receive on the real AP exam. Like the Varsity Tutors quizzes, Learnerator offers questions that test similar skills as the AP exam, but the questions are worded differently.


High School Test Prep Tests

This site offers three short multiple-choice practice tests. You’re given the title and author of the work. The questions for these tests are fairly surface-level, so I would only use these if you are working on your reading comprehension skills.


Practice Quiz AP English Literature

This site offers a 20-question multiple-choice quiz on two passages--one poetry, and one prose. The passages are extremely basic, however, so again, I would only use this resource if you are working on your reading comprehension skills.


4Tests AP English Lit Test

This site offers 35 multiple-choice questions. However, there are lots of ads, the questions are poorly written and vague, the interface is clunky, and the passages are very long. Overall, I do not recommend this site.


College Board SAT Literature Materials

While they aren’t identical by any means, you can definitely use SAT Literature Subject Test practice questions to hone your skill in answering multiple-choice questions about passages. The SAT Subject Test in Literature focuses a little more on the meaning of words and phrases in context and less on making inferences and describing the author’s purpose, but they can still be a useful resource simply for reading and answering high-level, in-depth questions on prose and poetry.

You can get sample SAT Literature questions online here or in the “Getting Reading for The SAT Subject Tests” booklet released by the College Board.


The queens of AP Lit practice give you their blessing.



Paid Unofficial Practice Tests

There are also several paid resources that offer unofficial practice questions. 


Shmoop - Paid Subscription

This is a subscription service with questions for tons of different tests--SAT, ACT, AP exams.They also have videos and other review resources. I can’t really speak to the quality of the questions because the entire service is behind a paywall of a dollar a day.


Peterson’s AP Practice Tests

You can pay twenty dollars to get two English Lit practice tests from this site. However, I wasn’t able to find much information on these tests or reviews from students who had taken them.


Review Books

Most, if not all, review books contain practice tests and questions. These will vary in quality depending on the quality of the review book, so be sure to look for reviews online of any book before you buy it. In general, Barron’s and the Princeton Review are fairly reliable review book sources.


I definitely advise paying for all of these resources with whatever loose foreign change you have lying around. 


How to Use AP Literature Practice Tests

How to use a given practice test depends somewhat on the resource itself. I’ll offer some recommendations here on how to best use different resources.


Complete Official Released Tests

The best way to use a complete official practice test is to do a practice-run for the exam. So find a quiet room, bring a timer or watch so you can time sections, and get to work! This will help you get familiar with the exam experience so you’ll feel more comfortable on exam day!

Since there are two complete AP Lit practice tests, it makes sense to take one early on in your studying time, and one later. You can get a parent, tutor or teacher to grade the exams. The early test will help you figure out what you need to work on, and the later test will show you how you’ve improved! Since the AP English Literature test is more skills-heavy than content-heavy, you shouldn’t feel totally lost taking a practice test even in the middle of the school year.


Official Released Free-Response and Sample Questions

Official resources that aren’t complete tests are best for practicing individual sections of the test. The sample multiple-choice questions in the “Course and Exam Description” make for great AP English Literature multiple-choice practice--they’ll help you get familiar with the style of the questions and practice close-reading.

The wealth of released free-response questions are great resources for building your timed essay-writing skills. You can practice complete essays or develop essay outlines.


Unofficial Practice Tests and Resources

Since unofficial practice tests aren’t going to be quite as similar to the real AP exam as official College Board materials, they won’t be quite as useful for preparing for the format of the exam or its questions. However, they can be very valuable close-reading practice. And since that’s a critical skill for the exam, it’s still worth it to use unofficial resources.


Be very quiet. She's close-reading.


Key Takeaways

Practice tests and questions are a hugely important resource as you prep for the AP Lit exam. The gold standard of practice resources are those that come from the College Board, but there are many other places where you can get practice questions that will help you hone your close-reading skills for the exam. Most of the resources listed in this article are free, but a few are paid.

When you’ve assembled a stable of practice resources, you might not be quite sure how to use them. Official College Board practice tests are best for simulating the exam experience.  College Board questions are good for focused preparation for individual sections of the exam--especially the essays. Unofficial resources are best for further honing your close-reading skills.

Now that you know where to find these resources, you’ll have even more time to prep for the AP Literature exam by completing practice questions!


What's Next?

Need more study guidance for your APs? See my five-step AP prep plan. Or see our guide on when to start studying for your APs. 

If you're looking for practice tests for other AP exams, see our assembled practice tests for AP US History, AP Chemistry, AP Biology, AP World History, and AP Psychology. 


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