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.
The manager and his uncle are unhappy with Kurtz, because he's too influential with Company heads and 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.
Everyone thinks this is odd—everyone, that is, except Marlow. Marlow has developed something of an obsession with this guy he's never met and thinks it's 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 scares the living bezonkers 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 died, which implies that the men died too.
It also means they were killed by [gesture to surroundings] "this."
After two months of traveling upriver, they 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: huge forests, aggressive animals, an unnerving stillness, etc. etc.
One of the listeners interrupts Marlow's narrative.
This proves that they haven't all fallen asleep, in case you were still wondering about that—in fact, they're all super into the story.
Back to the tale: there are 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, the obsession has reached stalker-level. Marlow's journey to visit the interior is now 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.
Maybe lay off the drugs? Just a thought.
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.
Get out your highlighters, Shmoop: this is important.
Marlow tells us all about the cannibal fireman on board.
Oh—he's the kind of fireman who starts fires (in the boiler), not the kind who puts them out.
The fireman has been told that if the water in the boiler ever disappears, the evil spirit inside will take revenge.
Well, it's probably more effective motivation than a paycheck.
Fifty miles before arriving at the Inner Station, they run across a pile of firewood and a warning message: "Approach cautiously," which is typical British restraint for "RUN AWAY NOW."
But Marlow and Co. steam onward.
They find an abandoned hut with a book inside: "An Inquiry into some Points of Seamanship," full of sailor shop-talk. Marlow finds this a comforting touch of reality.
At dawn on the third day, after an eerily still night, a thick fog keeps them from going anywhere.
Naturally, trouble ensues: there's loud and sad-sounding shouting somewhere in the mist.
The Westerners freak out, but the cannibals stay pretty chill. In fact, one wants to find and eat the shouter. Yum!
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.
Two hours later, the fog lifts and they continue.
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 for some reason decides that Kurtz must be dead too. Bummer—he really wanted to hear Kurtz speak.
Hmm. 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 obsessed that—just a tip—we decided to mark all that places in the book where he talks about voices.)
At this point, Marlow breaks the narrative again, saying his listeners can't 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 storyteller or this is an intentional authorial use of "prolepsis," or giving away pieces of the ending before it's time to do so.
Hmm. Wonder which one it is?
Now Marlow 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 they "can exert a power for good practically unbounded." In other words, he says, make the Africans think we're gods and they'll do whatever we say.
Okay, seems like a sound plan.
Apparently Kurtz is a powerful writer—right up to the end, where he sort of loses it and scrawls a handwritten "p.s." that says "Exterminate all the brutes!"
Back to Marlow's story.
Marlow throws the helmsman's corpse overboard so cannibals won't fight over his body.
When they finally arrive at Inner Station, 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. (The poison arrows were what, a welcome ritual?)
He's also kind of a quick talker. The harlequin justifies this by saying that you don't talk to Kurtz; you only listen to him. So he's making up for lost babbling.
Marlow lets him smoke a pipe to calm down. Uh, good call?
Only then do we learn about the man's history: he's 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 and flips back to the sailor's book. It seems the "cipher" language he couldn't read before is Russian.
At this point, the harlequin confesses why the native Africans attacked: they don't want Kurtz to leave.