One lazy day, Marlow is napping out on deck when he hears the manager and his uncle talking about something faintly interesting. Make that extremely interesting: Kurtz. So Marlow eavesdrops.
The manager and his uncle are unhappy with Kurtz. He’s too influential with the powers that be. They think he’s stealing ivory. They oh-so-nicely hope the climate will kill him.
Apparently, Kurtz once came down the river to send the ivory to the Company but then decided to turn back. No one knows why.
All the Europeans, and we the readers, think this is odd and confusing. Marlow, however, who has developed something of an obsession with this guy he's never met, thinks it is admirable.
The men keep jabbering until the uncle tells the manager not to worry, but instead to trust "this," which we assume involves a gesture to the surroundings since "this" means the scary African wilderness.
Marlow is so scared by "this" that he jumps out of his hiding place, which in turn scares the living bejeebus out of manager and uncle. To cover up their screams of fright, they pretend to ignore him and go back up to the station.
Soon afterward, the Eldorado Exploring Expedition leaves. Marlow learns later that all their donkeys die. This implies that the men died too. It also means they were killed by [gesture to surroundings] "this."
It takes two months of going upriver through the scary forest to reach Kurtz’s station. The trip is seriously scary. So much so that Marlow describes it as traveling back to the beginning of time, before the dawn of mankind. There are huge forests, aggressive animals, and an unnerving stillness in the air. Marlow feels tiny next to this immense wilderness. So small that he compares his steamboat to a beetle.
One of the listeners interrupts Marlow’s narratives. (This proves that they haven’t all fallen asleep, in case you were still wondering about that.) Everyone is entranced by Marlow’s story.
Back to the tale. They have cannibals on board. Yeah, people who eat one another. Except they don’t eat one another now, out of respect for their employers. Instead they eat rotten hippo meat.
By now, Marlow really has become obsessed with Kurtz. He considers his journey into the interior purely a trip to visit Kurtz.
The journey becomes so trippy that Marlow feels as if he’s in a dream. Again. He’s cut off from all understanding of the world around him and feels like he has no memories.
In fact, he finds himself identifying with the native Africans hiding out in the bush. He recognizes a "remote kinship." The only reason he doesn’t go ashore "for a howl and a dance" is because he’s a busy man. (Pay close attention to this passage in your book – it's extremely important.)
Marlow tells us all about the cannibal fireman on board. He is the kind of fireman that starts fires (in the boiler), not the kind that puts them out. The fireman has been told that if the water in the boiler ever disappears, the evil spirit inside will take revenge. That’s how they make him work.
Fifty miles before they arrive at the Inner Station, they run across a pile of firewood and a warning message: "Approach cautiously," which might be translated as "RUN AWAY NOW." But Marlow and Co. steam onward.
They find an abandoned hut with a book inside. It’s entitled "An Inquiry into some Points of Seamanship" and is full of sailor shop-talk. Even though Marlow doesn’t understand it, it comforts him. It gives him a touchstone to reality.
At sundown of the second day, they decide to stop and rest. The night is eerily still. At dawn, a thick fog falls and prevents everyone from seeing anything. The men anchor.
Naturally, trouble ensues. They hear a very loud and sad-sounding shouting somewhere in the mist. They’re freaked out.
The cannibals, however, are calm and alert. In fact, one wants to find whoever is shouting and eat them.
Marlow wonders why the cannibals, being cannibals and all, haven’t tried to eat one of the white pilgrims yet. We wonder, too. We’re also very nervous about this whole situation.
It takes two hours for the fog to lift. When it does, they continue.
As they’re crossing, they’re attacked. The cannibals anticipate this and dive for the deck a split second before the arrows fall.
The cannibal helmsman is the most freaked out. He abandons his position steering the boat, grabs a big gun, and shoots into the bush. A disgruntled Marlow is forced to do some energetic emergency steering.
In the meantime, the helmsman gets himself killed. By a spear. In the chest. He falls and a pool of blood oozes around Marlow’s shoes. Marlow, horrified, watches the man die at his feet.
Marlow blows the steam-whistle to scare off the attackers. It works (better than the gun, at least).
He ponders the dead helmsman and thinks that Kurtz must be dead too. The thought is profoundly depressing to him. He can’t get over how much he wanted to hear Kurtz speak. This is interesting. He didn’t want to meet Kurtz or shake his hand. Just wanted to hear his voice. We find out that Marlow is obsessed with voices. (So much so that we feel obligated to dog-ear all the pages in our text that have to do with voices. You also might want to take note of them in your book…)
At this point, Marlow breaks the narrative again, saying his listeners cannot possibly understand without being there. There’s also a lot of confusing mention of matters in his story that we haven’t gotten to yet – that he will, in fact, get to see Kurtz, that Kurtz is, in fact, little more than a voice, that there’s something to do with a girl and the phrase "My Intended." Either Marlow is a bad story teller or this is an intentional authorial use of "prolepsis," or giving away pieces of the ending before it’s time to do so. We’ll let you decide.
Marlow now skips ahead in his story and tells us about a report Kurtz wrote for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. It says that white men must approach the native Africans as though the white men are "supernatural beings" so that "we can exert a power for good practically unbounded." In other words, he says, make the Africans think of us as gods and they’ll do whatever we say.
Marlow is struck by the expressive power of the words. Kurtz, whatever his faults, is an incredible writer. But Kurtz sort of lost it at the end, and scrawled a handwritten "p.s." that said "Exterminate all the brutes!"
Back to Marlow’s story. Marlow throws the helmsman’s corpse overboard so that cannibals will not fight over his body.
They arrive at the Inner Station. There, they meet a boyish man (Kurtz’s disciple) dressed like a harlequin – his clothes are all colorful with different patches. He doesn’t get a name, either , so we just call him the harlequin.
He insists that the Africans who attacked Marlow and Co. didn’t mean any harm. (OK, so the poison arrows were what, a welcome ritual?) Marlow is struck by his rapid babbling. The harlequin justifies this by saying that one doesn’t talk with Kurtz; one only listens to him. So he’s making up for lost babbling by talking a million miles an hour with Marlow.
Marlow lets him smoke his pipe so that the tobacco calms him down. Good call. Only then do we learn about the man's history. The harlequin is a son of a Russian arch-priest who went looking for adventure on the Belgian ships. He’s been in the interior for two years, which is about three years longer than a normal person can handle.
Marlow discovers that the little abandoned hut was the harlequin’s. So Marlow returns the sailor’s book. He discovers that the "cipher" language he couldn’t read before is Russian.
At this point, the harlequin confesses why the native Africans attacked. The truth is shocking: they don’t want Kurtz to leave.