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Free Study Guide for Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad-BookNotes/Summary
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CHAPTER 3

Summary (continued)

Shortly after Kurtz's death, Marlow himself becomes extremely ill and struggles against death. When he awakes from his illness, he is again in Brussels, the home of the ivory company. He again refers to Brussels as the "sepulchral city," (tomb-like city) and retains his disdain for the people there who "hurry through the streets to filch a little money from each other." While Marlow conducts the business of finishing up his ties to the company and dealing with Kurtz's affairs, he continues to have a fever. His aunt tries to nurse him back to health, but Marlow knows that it is his "spirit" that needs nursing. He cannot shake the story of Kurtz from his soul. His fever and his pain from this African adventure have him feeling off balance and unable to suppress his sense of alienation from others.

Three people come to Marlow to seek Kurtz's papers that were entrusted to him for safekeeping. A spectacled officer first approaches him from the ivory company who then threatens Marlow when he refuses to turn over the papers. Marlow tries to give the man Kurtz's report on "The Suppression of Savage Customs," with the postscript (which read, "Exterminate the Brutes!") torn off, but the man does accept it. The second man, saying he is Kurtz's cousin, tells Marlow that Kurtz has been a great musician.

He gives the cousin a few family letters, which satisfies him. Marlow's third visitor is a journalist who wishes to know what has happened to Kurtz. This man tells Marlow that Kurtz was a great politician because he "electrified large meetings." Marlow gives Kurtz's report to this man for publication. Marlow then remarks to his listeners that he still does not know what Kurtz's true profession has been, for he was a painter, a musician, a journalist, and a "universal genius."


Marlow's last task is to visit Kurtz's Intended, whose photograph and letters he carries. As Marlow stands at her door at dusk, he has the sense of death, her street reminding him of "a well-kept alley in a cemetery." He feels the presence of Kurtz, remembers his large mouth that seemed to devour the world, envisions the crowd of his savage admirers, and hears the echo of Kurtz's last words, " The horror." The Intended is dressed all in black, outwardly bearing her grief and still mourning Kurtz's death after a year. Marlow finds the woman "guileless, profound, confident, and trustful." She wants Marlow to tell her something of Kurtz's actions in Africa. Marlow finds himself reluctantly praising Kurtz. In her mournful account of her loss of Kurtz, the Intended puts her arms out and in doing so, reminds Marlow of Kurtz's African lover. Marlow feels a mixture of anger and pity for her.

Then Marlow reveals to her unintentionally that he was with Kurtz to the very end and that he heard Kurtz's last words. She asks him to repeat the words. Marlow hears the words "The horror! The horror!", echoing in his ears and almost asks her if she does too. But Marlow lies and tells her that Kurtz's last words were his speaking her name. Marlow, totally appalled by his lie, listens to the Intended as she cries in relief and proclaims that she always knew those would be his dying words. Marlow quickly defends himself by telling his listeners that he could not have told her the truth, for it would have been "too dark altogether," because women cannot bear to hear the truth. At the end, Marlow reveals himself to be a divided soul, much like Kurtz, filled with both good and evil. The lie in itself is evil, but the work that it does is good.

Marlow has finished his story. The frame narrator on board the Nellie describes Marlow sitting alone, away from the other men "in the pose of a meditating Buddha." The Director says, "We have lost the first of the ebb," an obvious reference to the tide in the Thames, but it is also a reference to the fact that the listeners long ago lost interest in hearing Marlow's tale. The frame narrator then looks up to see a sky appropriately filled with black clouds and a calm river which "seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness," a clear reference to the title of the book, a title that has multiple meanings. The heart of darkness refers to the dark continent of Africa, which was at the center of the map in the company office. It is the dark heart of imperialism that has brutally invaded Africa and stolen its treasures; it is the dark reality of Kurtz, who professes pure thoughts and acts violently. It is man's inhumanity to his fellow man.

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