While lying on the deck of his steamboat one evening, Marlow overhears a conversation between the Manager and his uncle, leader of the Expedition group that has arrived. Snatches of talk indicate that the two are conferring about Kurtz. The Manager says he was "forced to send him there." They say his influence is frightful, and they add that he is alone, having sent away all his assistants. The word "ivory" is also overheard. The two men are wondering how all this ivory has arrived and why Kurtz did not return to the main station as he should have. Marlow believes that this circumstance allows him to see Kurtz for the first time. The Manager and his uncle say that either Kurtz or his assistant must be hanged as an example, so that they can get rid of unfair competition. Realizing that Marlow is nearby, they stop talking.
Over the next few days, the Expedition goes into the wilderness and loses all of their donkeys. As they arrive at the bank below Kurtz's station, Marlow is excited at the prospect of meeting him soon. To Marlow, traveling up the river is like going to the beginning of the world. He sees no joy in the sunshine, however. The past comes back to haunt him on this river.
There is a stillness that does not resemble peace. It is alive and watching Marlow. He is concerned about scraping the bottom of his steamship on the river floor, which is disgraceful for seamen. Twenty "cannibals" are his crew. The Manager and some pilgrims are also on board. Sailing by stations, they hear the word "ivory" resonating everywhere. The massive trees make Marlow feel very small. The earth appears "unearthly." The men are monstrous and not inhuman. This scares Marlow greatly. He believes the mind of man is capable of anything.
They creep on towards Kurtz. The ship comes across a deserted dwelling. Marlow finds a well-kept book about seamanship. It has notes in a language he cannot understand. Back on the boat, he pushes ahead.
Eight miles from Kurtz's station, the Manager decides they will stay put for the evening. No sounds are heard. As the sun rises, "complaining clamor" with "savage discord" fills the air. Everyone fears an attack. One of the black crew members says that the attackers should be handed over to them and eaten. Marlow wonders why he and the other white crew members have not been eaten, for the cannibals could easily overpower them. The Manager insincerely worries that something might have happened to Kurtz. Marlow does not believe there will be an attack because the jungle and fog seem impenetrable. No one believes him. Some men go to investigate the shore. A pattering sound is audible: flying arrows! The helmsman on the ship panics and does not steer properly. The crew fires rifles into the bushes.
A black man is shot and lies at Marlow's feet. He tries to talk but dies before he can get any words out. Marlow supposes that Kurtz has perished in this attack. He is exceedingly upset, for talking to the mythical man has become his major point of interest. In a fit of distress, Marlow throws his shoes overboard. He tells the listeners on the Thames ship that the privilege of talking to Kurtz was waiting for him. Marlow relates that Kurtz mentioned a girl and noted that his shanty was busting with ivory. Kurtz now has taken the position of "devil of the land." Originally he was well-educated, but he has become entirely native to Africa, participating in rituals and rites. Kurtz is anything but common.
Back in the battle, the helmsman is killed. Marlow throws the body overboard. After a simple funeral, the steamer continues moving. Miraculously they see Kurtz's station, which they had assumed to be lost. They see the figure of a man whom Marlow identifies as a harlequin type. This man says that Kurtz is present, and he assures them that they need not fear the natives, who are simple people. He speaks with Marlow, introducing himself as a Russian. The book Marlow holds is actually his, and he is grateful to have it returned. The Russian says the ship was attacked because the natives do not want Kurtz to leave with the crew, for he has broadened everyone's mind there.
Even in this chaotic jungle, there exists a twisted sense of morality. As the Manager and his uncle discuss Kurtz, they are willing to do anything that will get him or his assistant the Russian hanged, so that the trading field might be leveled to their advantage. They can consider this plan because "anything can be done in this country." They both still retain a sense of law, but the most base components of their personalities control their intentions. For them, the civilized law of the European continent has been discarded in favor of vigilante justice.
The revealing of these men’s predatory nature points to the theme of inchoate savagery. Conrad suggests that there are integral connections among mind, body, and nature, which underlies the issue here: the lines between the civilized and the savage are blurred. The two men propose a very savage solution to a seemingly civilized problem of economic competition.
The Congo has a metamorphic effect on the Europeans, at least in mind and perhaps also in body. Marlow sees the evil uncle "extend his short flipper of an arm for a gesture ... that seemed to beckon with a dishonouring flourish before the sunlit face of the land a treacherous appeal to the lurking death, to the hidden evil, to the profound darkness of its heart." This is one of the few instances in which a white man is animalized in this novella. The land is a living entity, one which has the potential to create evil, or to merge man back into nature.
The proprieties observed by the Manager are all completely fake. Marlows takes this as an illustration of his hollowness. One of Marlow's more personally distressing thoughts is his realization that the "monstrous" tendencies of the black "cannibals" are not inhuman tendencies, after all; the white men possess them in a different form. The African land serves to equalize persons in that what often matters most are wit and determination (although firearms and safety in numbers are important, too).
While traveling, Marlow becomes somewhat delusional. River travel brings back the past—enlarging and distorting it until it becomes an uncontrollable paranoia that he is being watched. The telling of the tale takes on the tone of an epic quest that is larger than life. There is pregnant silence and a failing of the senses. Marlow appears to be traveling deeply into his own mind. His fanatic interest in the proper working of things is evident when he states that scraping a ship on the river bottom is "sinful." The religious language, which in another context might be humorous, demonstrates Marlow’s mounting panic. This paranoia in turn diminishes his sense of reality, leaving him searching for a sense of truth and stability—making him even less reliable and even more distinct from Conrad’s own perspective. Marlow’s transformation in part helps to explain his obsession with Kurtz. Behind the myth of this mysterious figure there is a real, substantial person. Kurtz is the bogeyman of the area and, most logically, the one on whom it is easy for Marlow to fixate.
The inferiority of the natives is a constant theme. About the fireman on his ship, Marlow remarks "he was there below me ... to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches." The lower physical position of the body corresponds to a mental and social state. The narrator participates in believing what he describes is the inherent inferiority of the blacks. In all possible aspects they appear subservient to the white men, and even seeing them wear pants amounts to no more than a warped joke. The one time that a native actually speaks is when the ship approaches the brush, right before the attack, and all he has to say is that any prisoners should be given to the crew as a meal. The narrator cannot understand why the white men were not eaten. He cannot credit the blacks with intelligence beyond instinct. During the battle, one native is shot, with Marlow and the Manager watching: "I declare it looked as though he would presently put to us some question in an understandable language, but he died without uttering a sound." For him there is no comprehension of the blacks he encounters. They are always evaluated and silenced, it seems, before they can speak. Nevertheless, Marlow does feel a real kinship to his "savage" crew, which places him above other whites in the narrative. Even here, though, he has shortcomings—his appreciation of the helmsman after he has died, for instance, seems more machine-like than humane.
The figure of Kurtz grows more enigmatic in this chapter, and we return to the theme of voices and communication. Communication fails when Marlow cannot decipher the book and when the note has an incomplete warning. Marlow's obsession with Kurtz has reached its height. Talking to him has become the entire reason for Marlow's passage through this jungle. The fact that authoritative, unpleasant figures, such as the Manager, dislike Kurtz makes the reader more receptive to him. Notice that Marlow and Kurtz are the only two characters in the entire story who are named. Everyone else is titled, detached, and therefore dehumanized. This is an effective means of drawing a relationship or some kind of comparison between the two characters before they even meet. As soon as Marlow believes that Kurtz is dead, his presence begins to dominate him more vividly—Marlow hears his voice, sees him in action. Kurtz is even stronger than death. The reason Kurtz affects Marlow so deeply is that he has turned his back on his roots and essentially become native. This demonstrates that there is much more to Marlow's personality than what appears. He is not the average European. The reader understands that we will a more accurate portrait of Marlow by examining his interactions with Kurtz.