Heart of Darkness Summary – Part 1
Heart of Darkness is the tale of Charlie Marlow’s journey into the heart of the African Congo, where he encounters the extraordinary Mr. Kurtz. It is an expedition that has a tremendous impact on Marlow. This short novel is divided into three sections. The first section recounts Marlow’s appointment as a steamboat operator for a company that procures ivory in the Congo, his journey to the company’s Outer Station near the coast, and his travel up the Congo River to the Central Station. The second section describes Marlow’s continued journey up river to Kurtz’s Inner Station and his initial encounter with Kurtz. In the final section Marlow has a private conversation with Kurtz, Kurtz is forcibly removed from his station and dies, and Marlow and the rest of the company men return to civilization. With the exception of the opening pages and a few minor passages throughout the novel, the story is told from Marlow’s perspective.
Section one opens with the Nellie, a small ship, dropping anchor in the Thames River, near Gravesend, England (east of London). It’s a peaceful sunset, and the ship is waiting for the change of tide in order to set off to sea.
Five men-including an unnamed narrator, the company’s director, a lawyer, an accountant, and Charlie Marlow-are gathered on the Nellie’s deck. The narrator remarks that the men have already forged a strong bond from previous adventures at sea, and more than once he mentions a sense of “brooding gloom” on the horizon. The setting prompts the narrator to consider all of the great world travelers and adventurers whose journeys issued forth from the Thames. As the group relaxes and watches the sunset, Marlow draws them into a tale of his adventures traveling up the Congo River.
Marlow opens his tale by asking the men to reflect on what it must have been like for the Romans who traveled to England so many years ago. They must have, he suggests, been stunned by the near savagery of their surroundings. He notes that a primary difference between themselves and the Romans was that they are colonists, whereas the Romans were conquerors. And conquerors, he claims, have no more objective than to take as much as they can get, by whatever means necessary. Marlow remarks that conquest is, in general, a repulsive thing, though there can be some redeeming qualities to it.
Marlow’s adventure begins in London, where he has recently returned from several years sailing in the East. While recuperating in London, he becomes restless and longs to travel somewhere he has never been. As he strolls about the city, he happens upon a map in a shop window depicting a place he has longed to visit, a region of the world that was still largely unknown to Europeans: the Congo. Though he is normally an ocean-going sailor, he longs to travel the Congo, a freshwater river, deep into the heart of this little-known land. When his attempts to secure a position on a boat with a company that trades on in the Congo go unfulfilled, he enlists the help of his aunt. Through her influential friends, Marlow secures a post as captain of a riverboat steamer, replacing a captain who had recently been killed by natives.
Marlow remarks that the man he is replacing, Captain Fresleven, had been killed during an argument with a native chief involving two hens. Fresleven beat the elderly chief, and the chief’s son killed him with a spear. Following Fresleven’s death, the native people fled deeper into the jungle, and the remaining men aboard Fresleven’s vessel departed, out of fear. Marlow blames Fresleven’s action on the captain’s extended stay in the wild. He also notes that he later sought out Fresleven’s body and found it nearly hidden in the tall grasses near an abandoned village.
Marlow next tells of his visit to the company office in France, where an ominous feeling overcomes him. Several young men also come into the office, and Marlow reflects on how many of them must leave the place, never to return again. He visits the company doctor, who performs an abbreviated physical exam and asks to measure his cranium, apparently for research purposes. When Marlow asks if the doctor measures the men’s heads again when they return, the doctor comments that he never sees any of them again. And, he continues, even if there were changes to be measured, those changes would be internal rather than external. The doctor cautions Marlow that when he is in the Congo he must do all that he can to remain calm.
Before departing, Marlow visits his aunt to thank her. He is somewhat shocked when she discusses “weaning those ignorant millions from their horrid ways.” He suggests to her that the company’s main goal is to make money, as opposed to some civilizing mission.
Marlow departs France aboard a steamer, which calls at many ports along the way. As the ship travels along the coast, Marlow observes a certain grimness in his surroundings. Scattered along the shore are small trading settlements and custom houses, which seem to be rudely constructed. Farther down the coast he spots a boat manned by natives, and later he sees a French warship indiscriminately shelling the jungle. Marlow notes that the French must be in some war with the natives, but he is unaware of it and considers the shelling to be a futile act. The steamer passes letters to the men aboard the warship, and Marlow states that he has heard the men aboard the ship are dying of fever. As they proceed further, Marlow depicts a general sense of death and decay in the landscape.
The steamer travels thirty days before reaching the mouth of the Congo, where Marlow transfers to a smaller ship. The captain of this second ship, a Swede, invites Marlow unto the bridge and the two converse. Marlow wonders aloud what becomes of the men who travel up river, and the captain notes that a man he recently took up country hanged himself. When Marlow asks why, the captain replies that it must have either been the sun or the country itself.
When Marlow arrives at the company’s Outer Station, he notes a kind of decay and chaos in the station. The settlement seems in disarray. A railroad is being built and a line of native “criminals,” chained together and wearing iron neck collars, passes him. Another native, in uniform and carrying a gun, guards the chain gang. In the men Marlow sees a kind of folly. He stumbles upon a large group of native workers taking refuge under some trees; they are spent men, nearly wasted from their brutal work and the harsh conditions. The first European man Marlow encounters is the Station’s accountant. He is impeccably dressed, and Marlow marvels over this fact. Marlow sees a stream of natives ferrying goods into the interior and others returning to the station with loads of ivory.
Marlow lives in a hut at the station for ten days before proceeding further into the interior. He spends a good deal of time in the accountant’s poorly constructed office where he first learns of Mr. Kurtz, a man in charge of a trading post deep in the interior of the jungle. The accountant characterizes Kurtz as a remarkable man, noting that he brings in more ivory than all of the other agents combined. The accountant asks Marlow to tell Kurtz that everything is going well at the Outer Station, noting that he believes Kurtz is a man who is marked for great things within the company.
The following day Marlow joins a large caravan for a two-hundred-mile trek into the interior. They pass a number of abandoned villages and several dead natives. Another white man, overweight and out of shape, also travels with them. When Marlow inquires why he is in the interior, he responds that he is there for the only rational purpose: to make money. The man falls ill and must be carried in a hammock by the natives. One day the porters abandoned their duty, dropping and injuring the man.
On the fifteenth day of the trek, they pass close to the river and arrive at the Central Station, which is bordered by forest and brush and surrounded by a makeshift fence. Several white men with wooden staffs come out to view the arriving party, but only one takes particular interest in Marlow. When the man discovers that Marlow is the new steamboat captain, he informs him that the boat has sunk in the river and that Marlow must meet the station’s manager as soon as possible. Marlow is shocked by this revelation, and, as he tells the tale to the men aboard the Nellie, reflects that he should have suspected something unnatural about the wreck. The next day Marlow sets about reclaiming the boat from the river.
When Marlow first meets Central Station Manager, he sees the manager as a rather ordinary looking man, though he has a rather unique expression, an expression that Marlow says created a sort of “uneasiness.” Marlow comments that the manager did not appear to be particularly efficient or organized; however, he had been at the post for nine years. This fact alone gave him a sort of power. The Manager is very concerned that the boat be repaired so that he can reestablish contact with his most productive agent upriver: Mr. Kurtz.
As Marlow works to repair the boat, he struggles to makes sense of the station’s activities. Inside the station, the men seem to wander about aimlessly, while beyond the station the wilderness stands, silently waiting for the men to withdraw.
One evening a hut catches fire and the men watch it burn to the ground. A native is blamed for the fire, beaten, and later retreats into the wilderness. Marlow overhears a conversation between the station manager and a man others call the manager’s spy. In the conversation Marlow overhears Kurtz’s name mentioned and something about Kurtz taking “advantage” of the accident. When the Manager leaves, Marlow strikes up a conversation with the spy and returns to the man’s quarters. Marlow notes that he possesses some rather ornate furniture and actually has his own candle, an item normally reserved for the station manager alone. Supposedly, the man is in charge of making bricks, but Marlow notes that no bricks were to be found anywhere in the station, for the area lacked a critical ingredient for making bricks. The brickmaker tells Marlow that he is simply waiting for something to arrive, passing the time as the station manager’s secretary. Indeed, all of the men at the station seemed to be waiting for something.
Marlow speaks of a certain mistrust and scheming by the men of the station, though it never amounts to much. The only true wish of the men seems to be getting appointed to a station where ivory is coming in so that they might earn a profit. Marlow isn’t sure why the brickmaker invites him to his hut to talk, but he feels the man is attempting to get some information from him. He repeatedly questions Marlow and becomes angry when he can’t get the information he is seeking. As Marlow is about to leave the brickmaker’s hut, he notices a painting of a woman; she is blindfolded and carrying a torch. When Marlow inquires, he is told that Kurtz made the painting over a year before, as he was attending to some business at the station. Marlow then asks the man to tell him about Kurtz.
The brickmaker speaks of Kurtz in a rather reverent manner, as a great but complex man, and he insists that Kurtz is destined to go far in the company. The brickmaker asserts that Marlow already knows how far Kurtz will go because the same people recommended both of them for their positions. Marlow surmises that the brickmaker must have access to the company’s internal correspondence, and realizes that the brickmaker must believe that Marlow has connections in high places. Marlow laughs to himself, knowing that he has no real connections within the company, but he decides to play along and teases the brickmaker that when Kurtz becomes general manager the brickmaker will no longer be able to read the company’s private letters.
The pair head out into the night, where the dark figures of the natives continue to pour water onto the smoldering embers of the burned-down hut. Marlow hears the moans of the beaten native, somewhere off in the darkness. Another station worker appears in the dark and expresses no pity for the beaten man, asserting that his suffering will serve as an example for the others. When the man notices the brickmaker, he abruptly redirects his comments and excuses himself. Marlow then walks to the river’s edge, and the brickmaker tries to reassure Marlow that he has nothing against Kurtz-since the brickmaker knows that Marlow will encounter Kurtz before he does.
Marlow concludes that the brickmaker had planned on being the station’s assistant manager, but Kurtz’s arrival had disrupted these plans, as well as the plans of the current manager. As the brickmaker jabbers on about himself, Marlow contemplates man’s place in an environment as vast and inhospitable as the Congo. He also reflects on how he felt uncomfortable knowing that the brickmaker believed he was more influential than he really was. Yet he feels an odd compulsion to maintain the falsehood on the chance that it might help Kurtz.
The brickmaker continues to comment about the genius of Kurtz, and how it was difficult for anyone to work under these conditions. Marlow notes how his work with the steamboat is delayed by the lack of rivets to attach an iron patch. There were plenty of rivets to be found at the station downriver, but he couldn’t manage to get any sent to him at the Central Station. Marlow tries to convince the brickmaker that getting rivets to fix the boat is something that Kurtz would want. The brickmaker shifts the conversation’s focus, asking Marlow, who has been working night and day and even sleeping on the boat, if he is ever bothered by the hippopotamus that frequents the area. The brickmaker remarks that the men of the station have tried to shoot the animal many times, but it seems to lead a charmed life. This, of course, is not true of men who lived in the wild.
When Marlow returns to his boat, the station foreman, a boilermaker, is aboard. Though the other administrators at the station have ignored the foreman, because of his somewhat crude manners, Marlow has struck up a relationship with him. Marlow informs the foreman that they will be getting some rivets soon, and he is ecstatic. However, instead of the rivets arriving, a caravan of Europeans and natives arrives, calling themselves the Eldorado Exploring Expedition. They are a group bent on extracting treasure from the wilderness and led by the station manager’s uncle. After a time, Marlow begins to forget about the rivets, though he still thinks of Kurtz, wondering whether this man of lofty ideals will actually rise within the company.
Part 1 Analysis
The men aboard the Nellie when Marlow begins his tale might be thought of as members of England’s “commercial” interests. Since Marlow elects to tell them his tale, it stands to reason that they are the ones who most need to hear its message. It is significant that Marlow begins his tale as darkness falls, for it is a tale of physiological darkness.
Marlow’s opening comment about the Romans being conquerors, whereas the English were colonists, foreshadows one of the main lessons Marlow learns as he travels into the heart of the Congo. For Marlow sees, firsthand, how the English take as much as they can by whatever means necessary. The death of Marlow’s predecessor, Captain Fresleven, who dies as the result of a squabble with a native chief over two hens, hints at the odd mixture of savage action and senseless waste Marlow encounters as he ventures into the Congo. It also suggests how normally sane men can be driven to perform questionable actions.
The fact that Fresleven’s bones were almost completely reclaimed by the jungle suggests that the wilderness has a tremendous power to obliterate the presence of man.
The company doctor never again sees the young men he certifies as healthy enough to venture into the Congo; this speaks volumes about the way men who travel into the wilderness tend to be consumed by the land. And the doctor’s comment that any change the men undergo would be internal suggests a transformation that takes place in men who travel into the jungle.
The scene with the French warship aimlessly shelling the jungle is a metaphor for the futility of “civilized” action in the wilderness. European culture is foreign to the Congo; it has no place there. The group of “wasted” natives Marlow sees upon his arrival at the Outer Station represents the human toll that must be extracted for civilized “progress.” In other words, human life is mere grist for the profit machine operated by the Europeans. Finally, much could be made of Kurtz’s painting of the blindfolded woman carrying the torch, which Marlow sees in the brickmaker’s hut. This woman could be a symbol for the blindness of justice, or she could represent the blind eye Europe must turn in order to extract profit from the region.
Heart of Darkness Summary – Part 2
Section II opens with Marlow reclining on the deck of his steamboat one evening. He hears several voices approaching and recognizes them as the Station Manager and the Manager’s uncle, leader of the Eldorado Exploring Expedition. Marlow overhears the Manager comments that he was ordered to send Kurtz to the Inner Station. The uncle replies that Kurtz had requested to be sent to the Inner Station to prove what he could accomplish. Marlow can’t understand all they say, but the pair agree that Kurtz must have tremendous influence within the company. The manager suggests that Kurtz is a problem for him. It seems Kurtz even had the impudence to send back his assistant, with a note telling the Manger not to send any others. The uncle asks if Kurtz is alone in the wilderness, and when the Manager replies that he is, the uncle states that “the climate may do away with” him. However, the Manager notes, Kurtz is sending plenty of ivory.
The uncle enquires how the ivory arrives at the station, and the Manager comments that it is canoed down river by a group of natives led by a “half-caste” clerk employed by Kurtz. Kurtz had initially set out with the group, but had turned around mid-way and headed back into the wilderness with a single canoe and four natives. The Manager and his uncle marvel at the thought of such an act. Marlow notes that they never refer to Kurtz by his name, only as “that man,” and his interest in Kurtz deepens as he hears this story. The Manager refers to Kurtz’s clerk as “that scoundrel” and tells his uncle the clerk informed him that Kurtz was ill. As the pair move up and down the river’s edge, Marlow hears only bits and pieces of their conversation, understanding that Kurtz has now been isolated for some nine months, with no real news about him arriving, only a few strange rumors.
Marlow can’t put all of the pieces together, but he hears something about “unfair competition.” The Manager suggests that either Kurtz or “the scoundrel” will have to be hanged as an example. The uncle agrees, noting that such actions are possible out here, and stressing that the Manager has nothing to fear from anyone in the wilderness; only those in Europe pose a real threat. The pair again wander out of hearing, and when they return the Manager is asserting that the delays in ivory procurement have not been his fault. The Manager then recounts how Kurtz caused him trouble the last time that he was at the station, with Kurtz espousing a belief that all stations “‘should be like a beacon on the road toward better things, a center of trade of course, but also for humanising, improving, instructing.'” The Manager’s uncle stresses that his ability to stay healthy will work to his advantage; he points to the wilderness and reaffirms that it will take care of the problem. Upon this revelation, Marlow inadvertently jumps to his feet, revealing his presence. The Manager and his uncle are surprised by Marlow’s presence and return to the village.
Several days later the Eldorado Exploring Expedition departs into the wilderness. Later Marlow learns that all of the expedition’s donkeys died; he wonders about the others in the group but learns nothing. By now his boat is repaired and he departs up river to Kurtz’s station.
Marlow notes that traveling up the river to Kurtz’s station was like traveling back in time. The Manager and several other station workers are onboard. Marlow remarks that the landscape seemed primordial. Though his surroundings were silent and still, it did not seem peaceful. A certainly sense of doom hung about, though Marlow was able to keep these feelings at bay by attending to the numerous duties required to safely pilot the boat. Several times the boat scrapes bottom, but with the help of several natives they enlisted on the way, “cannibals” Marlow calls them, they manage to free the craft. They stop at several small stations, where white men stumble out of their huts with a surprised and happy look upon their faces.
Marlow remarks that the massive trees lining the river and the dense forest growth made him feel very small and lost. But still, they “penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness.” Sometimes at night they heard drums beating in the distance. Occasionally, they would pass a native village, and the inhabitants would rush fourth stamping and shouting in a manner that Marlow couldn’t understand.
Marlow comments on the untamed nature of the landscape. Although the English thought of it as a conquered area, it was still wild and feral-as were its inhabitants. As Marlow considers the inhabitants of the wilderness, he recognizes a certain humanity in them, but also admits that they remind him there is wildness within all men. Marlow notes that he employs a native to run the boat’s steam engine, and when he looks at the man he sees “a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat walking on his hind legs.”
About fifty miles below Kurtz’s Inner Station, they unexpectedly come upon a small hut. When they land, they discover a pile of wood and a strange note saying that the wood was meant for them and that they should come as quickly as possible but that they should approach the Inner Station cautiously. The hut’s tenant is missing, but Marlow surmises that he was a white man. Marlow finds a book on seamanship and discovers that there are mysterious notes, written in “cipher,” throughout the text. He takes the book. The Manager concludes that the owner of the hut must be the “intruder” he had guessed was working with Kurtz.
About eight miles below Kurtz’s station, Marlow and the Manager agree to stop the boat for the evening, setting anchor in the middle of the stream. In the morning, the boat is caught in a dense fog. The fog lifts temporarily, but as Marlow prepares to steam up river it returns. He orders the anchor to be lowered once more, and a loud cry followed by a series of shrieks is heard from the jungle. The company men become spooked, and several of them rush for their rifles, wondering if they will be attacked. Marlow notes a distinct difference in the reactions of his English counterparts and the natives with them. Whereas the Englishmen are bewildered by noise, the natives react in a more curious manner. Indeed, one of the natives tells Marlow that they should catch the strangers so that they might eat them. Marlow isn’t fazed by the comment, noting that the men must have been extremely hungry, for their supply of meat-a rotting mass of hippopotamus meat-had been dumped over the side. Marlow addresses the fact that the natives were paid, in metal wire, each week, with the hope that they will trade for food with other natives along the way. Yet there was little opportunity for them to do so. Marlow marvels over the stupidity of the company’s plan and wonders why the natives, who outnumber the company men, don’t simply eat them. He attributes it to a great “restraint” grounded in something he can’t quite grasp.
Though the fog hasn’t lifted, the Manager presses Marlow to move on. Marlow, however, refuses, arguing that it would be folly to proceed under such conditions. The Manager asks Marlow if he thinks they will be attacked, and Marlow replies that he doesn’t believe so, noting that the natives in the wilderness were equally hampered by the fog. He also remarks that there was something grief-like, not confrontational, in their cries. It seems as though the natives in the woods are trying to protect themselves and to simply drive them away.
When the fog eventually lifts, they proceed up stream until they are stopped by a series of sand banks splitting the river into shallow channels, about a mile below Kurtz’s station. Here the boat falls under attack by a barrage of small arrows. As Marlow struggles to right the boat, he looks into the dense growth along the bank and sees numerous natives hidden among the trees. One of the men asks Marlow if he can turn the boat around and at the same time several men begin firing indiscriminately into the bush. During a second exchange of fire, the native manning the helm grabs a rifle from the pilot house and fires ashore. A moment later he is struck by a spear. Marlow repeatedly blows the boat’s whistle, and the attackers flee; however, the helmsman has been fatally wounded. Marlow and another company man watch as the helmsman dies, a pool of blood collecting at Marlow’s feet. With the helmsman’s death, Marlow wonders if Kurtz too might not be dead. The thought disturbs Marlow, who realizes that he has been longing to speak with Kurtz. More specifically, he has been longing to “hear” what Kurtz has to say. This longing evokes the same sort of emotion within him that seemed to be expressed in the cries heard from the fog earlier. In an act of desperation, Marlow throws both of his blood-stained shoes into the river.
At this point, Marlow stops telling his tale for a moment, and admits to the men aboard the Nellie that his yearning to meet Kurtz was somehow absurd, but he accepted it nonetheless. He also mentions a girl, a woman Kurtz spoke of as his “Intended.”
Marlow resumes his tale by noting the considerable store of ivory they found at the Inner Station, enough to completely cover the steamer’s deck. The Manager refers to the ivory as “fossil” grade, meaning that it had been dug up, yet Marlow still sees it as worth a considerable amount. Marlow notes that Kurtz had the habit of referring to everything in the area as belonging to him: “my ivory, my station, my river.” Marlow attributes this sense of possession or ownership to Kurtz having lived completely alone in the wilderness.
Marlow then discusses Kurtz’s history. Born of a half-English mother and a half-French father, he was partially educated in England. Marlow remarks that “All Europe had contributed to the making of Kurtz” and notes that a particular organization, the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs, had commissioned Kurtz to write a report on the area. Kurtz did so, and Marlow claims to have read the report. Marlow believes that Kurtz was somehow transformed in the inner wilderness and notes that certain rituals were performed by the natives, not just for him, but to him.
Marlow again comments that he has read Kurtz’s report, and he tells the men of the Nellie that the report opens with the assumption that whites must appear to the natives as supernatural beings. The report speaks of a sort of divine benevolence that Europeans can bring to the Congo. However, scrawled at the end of the report is a comment, evidently written much later than the original report, stating: “Exterminate all the brutes.”
Marlow recounts how the steamboat finally arrives at Kurtz’s Inner Station. He notes that there was no fence surrounding the station, but surmises that there must have been one at one time, since near the main building there was a series of poles, topped by carved wooden balls. As the boat nears the shore, they spot a white man standing on the shore. The Manager shouts out that they have been attacked, and the man tells them not to worry. The man reminds Marlow of a harlequin, for his clothes have been repaired with many colorful patches. While the Manager and the other company men set out for the main building, Marlow remains on the boat and speaks to the Harlequin. Marlow expresses concern over the natives, and the Harlequin stresses that “they are a simple people.” When Marlow enquires if the Harlequin ever speaks with Kurtz, the Harlequin remarks: “‘You don’t talk with that man-you listen to him.'” Marlow learns that it was the Harlequin’s hut they had passed earlier, and he was the one who had stocked the wood for them; he also learns that the marginal notes in the book he found weren’t in cipher but in Russian. Marlow discovers why the villagers had attacked the boat: they don’t want anyone to take Kurtz away. The section ends with the Harlequin offering a very peculiar line about Kurtz: “‘I tell you,’ he cried, ‘this man has enlarged my mind.'”
Part 2 Analysis
The opening conversation between the Manager and his uncle reveals that the business of procuring ivory is extremely complicated: there are well-planned strategies, alliances, behind-the-scenes deals, complex moves, and plenty of outside influences. Kurtz is a problem for company men like the Manager because he defies the normal chain of command and because he seems to have significant influences within the upper administration.
When Kurtz refuses to travel to the Central Station to deliver his latest shipment of ivory-instead returning to the Inner Station virtually alone-the men of the Central Station are astounded. This reaction reveals several things. On one level it demonstrates that, unlike the other company men, Kurtz doesn’t fear the environment; instead, he embraces it. In addition, with the action he literally turns his back on civilization. This, of course, is the first indication that something profound has changed within him.
Kurtz’s comment to the Manager that the stations should be beacons of light and culture asserts that Kurtz has a very different idea of why Europeans should be in the region and how they should operate there. His ideas, of course, are not widely accepted among the company men.
The journey upriver to Kurtz’s Inner Station symbolizes a traveling backwards in time. The deeper into the Interior they travel, the further from civilization they move. The landscape seems untamed, wild and feral, and the inhabitants seem savage, almost pre-human. When Marlow states that he is shocked that he recognizes a certain humanity in the natives, he is admitting that they remind him of a wildness which resides within all men. In essence, we are all only a step or two away from savagery.
When Marlow says that Kurtz referred to everything in the area as belonging to him, he is suggesting that Kurtz has assumed personal ownership over the region. In essence, he is the master of the land and its inhabitants. Even though Kurtz was once the picture of European culture, he has firmly rejected the society that produced him. He is no longer fettered by the conventions of civilized society.
Obviously, Kurtz’s comment at the end of his report to the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs offers evidence that Kurtz has undergone a serious transformation. And as the company doctor told Marlow in the previous section, it is an internal rather than external change.
Heart of Darkness Summary – Part 3
Section III opens with the Harlequin urging Marlow to take Kurtz away from the station. The Harlequin recounts how he traveled deep into the wilderness and eventually encountered Kurtz. He again speaks of how Kurtz has opened his mind and made him “see things.” Marlow envies the Harlequin’s strength to push so deeply into the wilderness, but he doesn’t envy his blind devotion to Kurtz. The Harlequin mentions that he nursed Kurtz through two illnesses. He also tells how Kurtz would often disappear into the jungle for days and that he often returned with ivory. When Marlow inquires how this was possible, since Kurtz had nothing to trade with, the Harlequin informs him that Kurtz took the ivory forcibly. Kurtz enlisted the aide of a local tribe, a group that he lived with and which actually worshiped him. The Harlequin mentions that once Kurtz wanted to kill him for a small stock of ivory he had acquired, noting that Kurtz could do such things this far from civilization. The Harlequin mentions how Kurtz hated living in the wilderness, but somehow he couldn’t pull himself away from it. Kurtz would often go off to live in the jungle for weeks or months. When Marlow declares that Kurtz must be mad, the Harlequin protests, suggesting that Marlow’s opinion would be different if he actually heard Kurtz speak. While the pair talk, Marlow scans the horizon with his binoculars. As he focuses on the main house, he notices that the poles he had originally thought were fence posts topped with wooden ornaments are actually poles topped with human heads.
At this point Marlow pauses his story to tell the men aboard the Nellie that the company claimed that Kurtz’s methods had ruined the collection of ivory in the region. He also suggests that the heads were evidence that the wilderness had somehow changed Kurtz, that it had uncovered certain hidden aspects of his character.
The Harlequin mentions that he didn’t dare take the heads down; they were the heads of “rebels,” in essence those opposed to Kurtz. He also tells how the natives would crawl before Kurtz. The Harlequin breaks down as he tells Marlow how he has done his best to keep Kurtz alive, and how he believes Kurtz has been abandoned by the company.
As evening approaches, a throng of natives and the other members of the company suddenly emerge from the forest with Kurtz carried in on a makeshift stretcher. The Harlequin comments that Kurtz has only to say the word and they will all be killed. Marlow cannot hear Kurtz speak, but he notes Kurtz’s ghost-like, wasted appearance: thin arms, exposed ribs, and gaunt face. Kurtz yells something, and the natives retreat into the forest.
Kurtz is taken to a small cabin aboard the steamer. Marlow senses that Kurtz recognizes him, believing someone from the company must have been writing about him to Kurtz. Marlow steps out of the cabin while the Manager has a private conversation with Kurtz, and in the distance, along the river bank, he sees several native warriors and a native woman.
Marlow describes the woman as very ornately dressed. She looks fierce and wild, though almost regal. She approaches the steamer, and when she reaches the boat, she faces them, throws her arms skyward, and then retreats into the jungle. The Harlequin fears the woman and suggests that he would have shot her if she had tried to board the boat; he also notes that he has spent the past few days trying to keep her away from the station house.
In the cabin, Marlow hears Kurtz lashing out at the Manager, proclaiming that he isn’t as sick as the Manager might suppose. Kurtz asserts that he doesn’t need to be saved, that it is he who has saved them. He exclaims that the Manager doesn’t really care about his wellbeing, that he’s only interested in the ivory. Kurtz then stresses that he hasn’t finished his work in the region yet, accuses the manager of interfering with his plans, and vows to return to his Inner Station. When the manager exits the cabin, he pulls Marlow aside and tells him that Kurtz has harmed the company’s efforts in the region, claiming that Kurtz’s methods are “unsound.” Marlow replies that he doesn’t see any method at all, and the Manager agrees. When Marlow notes that he still respects Kurtz, he feels that he is no longer in good graces with the Manager. At this moment, Marlow senses a mental shift within himself; he feels himself repelled from the Manager and all that he represents and pulled toward the wilderness.
The Harlequin returns to converse with Marlow, telling Marlow that he believes the men from the company are out to get him. Marlow confirms his fears, informing the Harlequin that he heard the Manager and his uncle discuss hanging him. This sufficiently disturbs the Harlequin, who decides that since he can do no more for Kurtz that he should leave the camp. Before the Harlequin departs, he tells Marlow that Kurtz ordered the attack on the steamboat, believing that the men from the company would think he was dead and would abandon their mission. Kurtz, the Harlequin comments, fears that they will remove him from the station. The Harlequin laments the fact that he will never again hear Kurtz speak, once more noting how Kurtz had enlarged his mind.
Marlow awakens around midnight, remembers the Harlequin’s warning, and decides to have a look around. A fire burning near the station house illuminates one of the company agents and several native workers standing guard over the ivory. Not too far into the forest he glimpses another fire, evidently the fire of Kurtz’s followers. From the jungle Marlow can hear chanting and the beating of drums. He dozes but is awakened by frenzied yells from the forest. He looks in on Kurtz and discovers that Kurtz is no longer in the cabin. Marlow is shocked by Kurtz’s disappearance, but he refuses to “betray” him by sounding an alarm. Instead, he leaves the boat in search of Kurtz.
Marlow locates Kurtz, who is crawling along a path, and Kurtz tells him to hide himself. Marlow asks Kurtz if he knows what he is doing, and Kurtz replies that he is sure of himself. Marlow sees that that they are very near the camp of Kurtz’s disciples, and he fears that if Kurtz shouts it will mean death for him. Marlow tells Kurtz that if he doesn’t return to civilization he will be utterly “lost” in the wilderness; Kurtz ignores the comment. Marlow then threatens to harm Kurtz if he raises an alarm, but all Kurtz can do is repeat is that he had great plans for the region. Alone in the darkness, Kurtz and Marlow converse, and Marlow sees that somehow Kurtz’s isolation in the wilderness awakened a very primitive and brutal nature within him. He sees Kurtz as a man whose mind is sane but whose soul is mad, a man who has been profoundly changed by his deep introspection. As if shouldering a heavy burden, Marlow carries Kurtz back to the boat.
The next morning Marlow, Kurtz, and the rest of the company men depart the Inner Station aboard the steamer. Kurtz has been placed in the pilothouse. A massive assembly of Kurtz’s followers files out of the forest and lines the riverbank, loudly protesting as the boar pulls away. The woman Marlow saw the previous night comes to the front of the crowd and approaches the water’s edge. She raises her arms and shouts something unintelligible; the entire thong of natives repeats her words. Marlow asks Kurtz if he understands the chant, and Kurtz, with a distant, longing smile, replies that he does. Marlow notices that the company men on deck have readied their arms, so he effectively disperses the crowd of natives by repeatedly sounding the boat’s whistle. Only the woman remains standing at the water’s edge, her arms outstretched toward the boat. As the boat pulls away, the company men begin firing on the natives.
Marlow notes how the return trip was much more rapid than the journey upriver. Though he believes that Kurtz’s life is slipping away, he comments that the Manager seems satisfied by the events. Marlow feels that with Kurtz’s death, he too will be ostracized. During the trip, Kurtz speaks to Marlow about his doings and accomplishments in the wilderness; Marlow struggles to make sense of his talk. In Marlow’s mind, Kurtz’s body may be ravaged, but his spirit remains strong. The boat breaks down, and Marlow is forced to stop for repairs. He notes that the delay somehow destroys Kurtz’s confidence. One morning Kurtz gives Marlow a bundle of papers and a photograph, telling him to keep them from the Manager’s prying eyes. Marlow seems to be getting run down physically.
For a time, Marlow is kept busy attending to the ship’s repair, and when he next encounters Kurtz, one evening in the small cabin, Kurtz tells him that he is awaiting death. Marlow brushes off Kurtz’s comment but then watches as his life ebbs. Kurtz’s final words are “‘The horror! The horror!'” Marlow extinguishes the candle, exits the cabin, and joins the other men for dinner. A short time later the Manager’s personal attendant enters and announces that Kurtz is dead. While the others rush to Kurtz’s cabin, Marlow remains seated and finishes his dinner in the dim lamplight. The next day Kurtz is buried “in a muddy hole.”
Apparently, Marlow falls ill, as he suggests that the company men nearly buried him too. Marlow notes how he too had come to the brink of death, but unlike Kurtz he had nothing significant to say regarding the experience. Marlow suggests that perhaps it was because Kurtz stepped over the line into death that he had something to say about it.
When Marlow comes to his senses, he is back in civilization, but he laments the fact. He looks upon the people of the city with contempt, believing them incapable of comprehending the things he learned in the wilderness. His aunt attempts to nurse him back to health, but he notes that his body wasn’t the trouble; it was his mind. Marlow retained the papers Kurtz gave him, refusing to give them to the Manager on the boat and again refusing to give them to a man who comes looking for them after his return. The man argues that the documents are the rightful property of the company and must contain important knowledge about the region Kurtz was occupying. Marlow replies that the documents don’t concern commerce at all and offers the man Kurtz’s report to the Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs instead. The man refuses to take the report. Two days later another man, claiming to be Kurtz’s cousin, appears; Marlow gives this man a few unimportant letters. Later a reporter visits Marlow, seeking information about Kurtz, and Marlow gives this man the report for publication.
Marlow remarks that all he retains of Kurtz’s possessions are a few letters and a portrait of Kurtz’s fiancee. He decides to seek out the woman so that he may completely divest himself of Kurtz. On his way to her house, he is haunted by his memories of Kurtz in the jungle.
When Marlow is received at the home of Kurtz’s fiancee, it is getting dark. He notes that the woman is dressed in black. Though it is a year after Kurtz’s death, she is still in mourning. She is not young, but seems dedicated to Kurtz’s memory. They sit together and seeing the packets of letters she asks if Marlow knew him well. Marlow replies that people get to know each other in a very short time in the wilderness. He reveals that he respected Kurtz, and she tells him that she needs to know Kurtz’s last words. She speaks of Kurtz’s greatness and the great loss the world faced with his death. She notes that for all of his greatness, nothing remains but the memories she and Marlow possess. She again implores Marlow to repeat Kurtz’s last words. To himself, Marlow asks, “‘Don’t you hear them?'”, implying that Kurtz’s words are echoing all around them. In the end, however, Marlow lies and tells her that the last word Kurtz spoke was her name. This seems to soothe her.
Marlow concludes his tale by telling the men of the Nellie that he understands his betrayal of Kurtz’s memory, but offering the truth would have been “too dark-too dark altogether.” In the last lines of the story, the narrator comments how the tide had changed; it was now flowing back into the ocean, to all corners of the earth, “into the heart of an immense darkness.”
Part 3 Analysis
Marlow’s conversation with the Harlequin illustrates just how far Kurtz has departed from his initial plans. Kurtz is performing some very brutal actions to acquire his ivory and to, perhaps, satisfy his personal needs. Though it is never directly stated, enough evidence is offered to conclude that the natives are actually worshiping Kurtz. Whereas in Europe Kurtz had been simply one man among many, deep in the interior he is a god, to be worshiped and feared. Kurtz’s wasted body is symbolic of his degraded morality. As Marlow notes, his mind is clear, but his soul is corrupt.
The native woman is one of the more interesting characters in the tale. Like the European women, she too has benefited from the quest for ivory, for she is ornamented in it. But she is the dark counterpart to Kurtz’s fiancee back in Europe, his “intended.” Whereas his fiancee sits at home patiently awaiting her suitor’s return, the native woman actively pursues Kurtz, refusing to fear the company men, even when they are firing upon the natives.
When the Manager claims that Kurtz’s methods are “unsound,” he is applying a European definition. On the surface, the company operates under traditional business principles; there is a clear hierarchy or chain of command, as well as a perceived right and wrong way to act, and the company men are expected to respect this approach. However, the Manager’s use of the term “unsound” calls into question the soundness of his own principles. It can be argued that the European method is just as unsound as Kurtz’s method, since it so negatively impacts the native population. Kurtz, of course, adopts his own methods. He works alone and wants no interference from the company. Marlow’s remark that he sees no method in Kurtz’s actions is not an affirmation of Kurtz’s insanity but rather an indication that Kurtz has divested himself of all traditional, European methods. Kurtz is no longer playing by “civilized” society’s rules. It is, of course, interesting to note that Kurtz is the most successful agent.
Kurtz’s revelation to Marlow, his recognition of “the horror” that lies at the heart of human nature, can be interpreted in many ways. Regardless of how the phrase is interpreted, it must be recognized that it represents a significant transformation of Kurtz’s philosophy. His experiences in the inner Congo have induced a very deep soul searching; he is a markedly different man when he dies-so too is Charlie Marlow.