We learn of the harlequin’s history with Kurtz; Kurtz keeps him around so he has someone to listen to him. But for the most part, Kurtz wanders alone among the Africans.
In his expeditions, Kurtz raids various villages for ivory. He even gets the native Africans – who adore him – to help raid the neighbors for things like ivory.
Kurtz is so obsessive about ivory that he even threatened to shoot the harlequin one day unless he handed over his own personal supply of ivory. The harlequin, being a clever (or possibly cowardly) man, gave it up.
We discover that the harlequin nursed Kurtz through two bouts of sickness and is rather proud of himself for doing so.
At this point, Marlow’s eyes are wandering over Kurtz’s compound. He makes a gruesome discovery. The "knobs" on the ends of the stakes he noticed from a distance are not ornamental. They’re skulls of dead Africans.
To Marlow, these skulls show that Kurtz "lacked restraint," a fault that Marlow seems to despise. In fact, he despises it so much that he’ll make reference to this "lack of restraint" at least two more times before the end of the book. So keep an eye out.
Marlow begins to reflect that Kurtz, whose reputation is larger than life, has violent, ruthless, "savage" qualities – and a "hollow core" – that even Kurtz himself may not realize consciously until the end of his life. In this light, Kurtz is an obsessed, lustful, maniacal imperialist who would stop at nothing for ivory and other treasures he found in the African land. Horrific cruelties against humanity were par for the course in his quest for material gain.
The harlequin sees Marlow’s disgust and tries to justify Kurtz’s actions by saying those skulls "were the heads of rebels." Marlow’s response is to inwardly scoff at the use of the word "rebel."
Suddenly, a party of native Africans arrives carrying Kurtz on a stretcher. At last, we get to see the man.
Marlow describes Kurtz as grotesquely thin and ghostly, like Death personified. Marlow calls him "that atrocious phantom." The man is obviously sick. The only substantial thing about him is his voice.
"Kurtz" means "short" in German, Marlow notes, but Kurtz isn’t remotely short. In fact, he’s rather tall.
Kurtz has heard of Marlow through some letters. He’s glad Marlow has come.
Before they engage in conversation, the manager appears. Marlow leaves the two alone in the tent to chat.
In the meantime, a group of native Africans has gathered outside. For the first time, we see a woman. Now, it could be that Marlow hasn’t seen a woman in several months, but he describes her as wild and gorgeous, a warrior woman, with brass trappings to boot. She looks at Marlow and his pilgrims on the steamer with incredible sadness. She never speaks, but gestures at the sky and then disappears into the wood.
The harlequin is unnerved by her. He wants to shoot her because he feels she’s too close to Kurtz. It’s implied that she is Kurtz’s lover. The plot thickens.
The manager and Kurtz argue. The manager loses. After leaving Kurtz, he confers with Marlow. The manager, obviously jealous of Kurtz, calls his method of collecting ivory "unsound." He wants to remove Kurtz from the interior (because he’s a threat).
Marlow, realizing how ridiculous the manager is, takes Kurtz’s side, saying he is Kurtz’s friend. He alienates the manager for good.
At this point, the harlequin gets spooked by the manager’s threats of hanging and decides to peace out. Before he does, he reveals that Kurtz ordered the earlier attack on Marlow’s steamer. Which, we think, is the third explanation we’ve heard for the poison arrows, so we really don't trust this guy now.
Despite the mistrust, Marlow very helpfully provides him with a few spare items (shoes, cartridges, etc.) before the harlequin leaves. Marlow again remarks on the remarkability of the man. (Pun intended.)
Hours later, Marlow wakes up around midnight and goes to check on Kurtz who, in a dramatic and suspenseful moment, is not there.
Marlow becomes really scared.
Instead of raising the alarm, Marlow goes after Kurtz himself. After all, he figures, the sick man is probably crawling through the jungle and can’t have gone that far.
Marlow’s confidence is validated; he does indeed find Kurtz.
Kurtz tells Marlow to hide himself. He is very bitter about his fight with the manager. He had dreams of greatness. Now they’ve been all smashed to pieces.
Marlow is drawn in by the hypnotic spell of night while he ignores Kurtz. He watches some native Africans dancing and confuses the drums with his own heartbeat.
Finally, after threatening to kill Kurtz if he calls out to the Africans, Marlow takes the man in his arms like a child and brings him back out of the jungle.
The next day, they all leave aboard the steamer. A group of Africans gathers on the shore.
Suddenly the warrior woman breaks through and shouts to the departing steamer. This riles up the native Africans and the pilgrims. The pilgrims want to shoot. They almost do except Marlow prevents disaster by blowing the steam-whistle and scaring everyone away. Everyone except the woman who, unlike the men, is unperturbed by the whistle.
Kurtz seems to understand what is going on, but does not tell.
Kurtz is on the edge of death. He has mood swings and raves incomprehensibly.
The pilgrims have turned against Marlow because he sides with Kurtz.
The steamboat breaks down and they have to lay up for a few days to fix it. During this time, Kurtz loses his sight, saying that he lies in the dark when he is actually in sunlight.
In his dying moments, Marlow sees a change comes over Kurtz’s face, a mask of despair. His last words are the most famous of the book: "The horror! The horror!" Marlow may have been referring to this moment in an earlier passage in the book, when Marlow says "Whether [Kurtz] knew of this deficiency [lacking restraint in gratification of his lusts] I can't say. I think the knowledge came to him at last – only at the very last."
When news hits that Kurtz has died, everyone rushes to see the dead body. Marlow, on the other hand, seems to have no desire to stop eating dinner. This almost causes his men to mutiny against him. But they don’t.
The next day, the men bury Kurtz. Marlow becomes ill himself, but survives and makes it back to Europe safely.
Back in England, Marlow finds that he cannot identify with normal folk anymore. They are petty and extremely irritating.
Marlow tries to figure out what to do with Kurtz’s papers, which the late Kurtz entrusted to him. The Company is jonesing to see those papers, thinking that they may say something along the lines of "all of the ivory on the entire world is buried at X" followed by a map with a large red X. Marlow refuses to give them the papers, saying they are personal and none of their business. He holds firm his stance, even when the Company threatens legal action.
A man visits Marlow, claiming to be Kurtz’s cousin. He leaves with some worthless private letters. We’re suspicious.
Marlow decides to return the rest of the papers to Kurtz’s "Intended," which is nineteenth century British for a fiancée.
When he calls upon her, we discover she is a beautiful woman with a distinctive golden hair. Despite the fact that she is wearing all black, Marlow associates her with light as opposed to Kurtz’s darkness.
Her adoration for Kurtz is obvious and exaggerated. She claims no man could know Kurtz or hear him speak without then loving him.
It becomes increasingly apparent that she has no idea who Kurtz really was.
This woman (who, by the way, is also nameless), begs for Marlow to repeat Kurtz’s last words to her.
Marlow deliberately lies. (At this point you might consider flipping to Chapter One and finding that bit about lying.) Anyway, his lie is that Kurtz’s last words were her name.
She gobbles it up, claiming she "knew it."
Marlow justifies his lie by claiming "it would have been too dark" to tell her the truth.
Aboard the Nellie, Marlow wraps things up. He’s done. The Director remarks that the tide has come and this stirs our unnamed narrator who was telling us about Marlow who was telling us about Kurtz. He looks off at the horizon and seems to see the "heart of an immense darkness." On that note, we end.