Marlow is astonished at the Russian's words. He is gathering a clearer picture of Kurtz. The Russian says that he has gone so far that he does not know if he will ever get back. Apparently he has been alone with Kurtz for many months. His sense of adventure is pure, and glamour urges him onward. The Russian remembers the first night he spoke to Kurtz: he forgot to sleep, he was so captivated. Kurtz made him "see things." He has nursed this great man through illnesses and has accompanied him on explorations to villages. Kurtz has raided the country by securing the cooperation of the nearby tribe, whose members all adore him. He loses himself in ivory hunts for weeks at a time. The Russian disagrees that Kurtz is mad. Even when this bright-eyed adventurer was dismissed by his mentor, he refused to go. Kurtz went down the river alone to make another ivory raid. His illness acted up, so the Russian joined him in order to take care of him.
Presently, Kurtz lies in a hut surrounded by heads on stakes. Marlow is not very shocked at the sight. He takes this as an indication that Kurtz lacks restraint in the gratification of his lusts, a condition for which the wilderness is culpable. Marlow assumes that Kurtz was hollow inside and needed something to fill that lack. The Russian is perturbed by Marlow's attitude of skepticism. He also has heard enough about the ceremonies surrounding this revered man.
Suddenly a group of men appear around the house. They convene around the stretcher that holds the dying Kurtz. He tells the natives to leave. The pilgrims carry him to another cabin and give him his correspondence. In a raspy voice he says he is glad to meet Marlow. The Manager comes in to talk privately with Kurtz. Waiting on the boat with the Russian, Marlow sees the "apparition" of a gorgeous woman. She glitters with gold and paint, and she looks savage. She steps to the edge of the shore and eyes the steamer. She gestures violently toward the sky, turns, and disappears into the thicket. The harlequin man fears her.
The Manager emerges. Taking Marlow aside, he says they have done all they can for Kurtz. He adds that Kurtz did more harm than good for the Company. His actions were too "vigorous" for the moment. Marlow does not agree that Kurtz's method was unsound. To him, Kurtz is a remarkable man—even somehow a friend. Marlow warns the Russian to escape before he can be hanged; he states that he will keep Kurtz's reputation safe. It was Kurtz who ordered the attack on the steamer because he did not want to be taken away—Kurtz thus thought to fake his death.
While Marlow dozes, drumbeats and incantations fill the air. He looks into the cabin that holds Kurtz and discovers that he is missing. Marlow sees his trail and goes after him. The two men face one another. Kurtz pleads that he has plans. Marlow replies that his fame in Europe is assured; he realizes that this man's soul has gone mad. He is able to bring Kurtz back to the cabin. The ship departs the next day amongst a crowd of natives. Kurtz is brought into the pilot-house of the ship. The "tide of brown" runs swiftly out of the "heart of darkness." That is, the life of Kurtz is ebbing. Marlow is in disfavor, lumped into the same category as Kurtz. The Manager is now content. Marlow listens endlessly to Kurtz's bedside talk. He accepts a packet of papers and a photograph that his friend gives him, in order to keep them out of the Manager's hands. A few evenings later, Kurtz dies, with one phrase on his lips: "The horror! The horror!"
Marlow returns to Europe but is plagued by the memory of his friend. He is disrespectful to everyone he encounters. The Manager demands the papers that Kurtz entrusted to Marlow. Marlow relinquishes the technical papers but not the private letters or the photograph. All that remains of Kurtz is his memory and the photo of his "Intended." Kurtz is very much a living figure to Marlow. He visits the woman in the picture, who embraces and welcomes him. She has silently mourned for the past year, and she needs to profess her love and how she knew Kurtz better than anyone. Marlow perceives that the room darkens when she says this. She speaks of Kurtz's amazing ability to draw people in through his incredibly eloquent speech. The woman says she will be unhappy for life. Marlow states that they can always remember him. She expresses a desperate need to keep his memory alive, as well as guilt that she was not with him when he died. When the woman asks Marlow what Kurtz's final words were, he lies and says that Kurtz spoke her name. The woman weeps in triumph.
Marlow states that to tell the truth would have been too dark. Back on the Thames River ship, a tranquil waterway leads into the heart of darkness.
The Russian says it best: "I went a little farther ... till I had gone so far that I don't know how I'll ever get back." The Russian and Marlow are similar, both looking for epiphany and enlightenment. Kurtz is a possible source of this enlightenment, and he thus is the most powerful figure in the story, even though he does not appear until the end.
The author is setting forth a challenge: rather than directly describing Kurtz, he provides various clues that we must piece together in order to understand who Kurtz is. The first conversation that the Russian has with his mentor, about "everything" in life including love, points to a man who is sensitive and introspective. Kurtz speaks in civil and savage tongues. His eloquence is his forte because it disguises his darkness from people like the Russian. The woman back in Europe who mourns for him speaks of a generous heart, a noble mind, and greatness. The impressions of these two people, however, strongly contrast with the opinion of people such as the Manager, who says that Kurtz was unethically gathering ivory by inciting locals to violence.
Marlow must stand in for the reader's perspective. From what he sees and reports, the reader can infer that all such accounts are true. Yet Marlow does not see Kurtz as evil for his actions toward the natives because of his intentions. People such as the Manager truly care only about fulfilling an ivory quota and becoming wealthy. While Kurtz is certainly consumed with his search for ivory (his face and body are described in terms of this precious resource), Conrad does not provide any evidence that Kurtz is concerned with the material aspects of ivory: his house and existence are extremely simple, despite all of the ivory he has recovered. If money and fame were the only things important to him, he could have returned to England long ago. The Russian states that Kurtz "would lose himself among the people." The staked heads around his home demonstrate a lack of restraint "in the gratification of various lusts." They are necessary for a man with a great appetite. Apparently, the time in the African Congo has been a time of letting go for Kurtz, a time in which passions and appetites become unbridled, and in which the past no longer matters.
This is a type of traveler’s sickness. The image of Kurtz on his deathbed is of his opening his mouth wide, giving him a "voracious aspect" as if he wants to absorb and swallow everything. His need to plan and consume, however, has consumed his mind and spirit. It is a remarkable case of colonialism gone awry: "the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion." Curiosity that leads to exploration can also lead, tragically, to a loss of self. Herein lies a sociopolitical message, a caution against trying to control something that is not originally a part of you, lest it control you. Expressing oneself in a new environment can mean the loss of one’s earlier self.
Marlow does not condemn Kurtz because he pities him, sympathizing with his tortured existence. The moment when Marlow stands between Kurtz and the horned, demonic-looking man is critical. This figure symbolizes the death and darkness of Kurtz, and he only turns away from complete desolation because Marlow is there to help him back. Despite the circumstances, however, there is an undercurrent of history that makes Kurtz's death seem karmic. The devotion shown to him by the natives illustrates an almost reciprocal relationship between them. While it is most likely that they help Kurtz without understanding the material benefits behind the ivory, it is clear that Kurtz enjoys being a part of them as much as they enjoy having him there. He is definitely the least biased character in the whole book, which speaks highly for him in the eyes of a modern reader. Unfortunately, he loses himself and detaches from everything earthly. Kurtz's soul has broken forbidden boundaries because it only concentrated on itself.
Kurtz dies painfully both because his obsessive tasks were not complete and because his soul has been sold. The "horror" he pronounces on his deathbed is a judgment on how he has lived his life. We can definitely see Kurtz's demise as a possible end for Marlow if he had not left the Congo. As it was, the wilderness was already creeping and merging into his psyche, and there was a moment when he could not tell the difference between a drum beat and his own heartbeat. He appears to have escaped in time.
Marlow's lie at the end of the story is both cruel and compassionate. While the woman is comforted, she will have to continue believing in an illusion. She will never know what Kurtz became. Marlow states that the truth is "too dark" to tell. But truly, his terrible decline is in vain if no one learns of it. And is the woman so weak that she cannot really hear the truth? Telling Kurtz’s tale is the point of Marlow's telling his story aboard the Thames ship. A river can lead to civilization—but it also leads to darkness.