Some time later, as Marlow rests on his steamship, he overhears the General Manager talking with his Uncle about Kurtz. They are annoyed that Kurtz has so much influence in the Company and sends back so much ivory. The General Manager also mentions a trader who lives near Kurtz and is apparently stealing Company profits. The uncle advises the General Manager to take advantage of the fact that there's no authority around and just hang the trader.
The Uncle's advice that the General Manager just hang the trader since there are no authorities around is the ultimate sign that civilization is hollow. The Uncle is saying that acting in a civilized way isn't a deeply held conviction or inherent human characteristic, but rather just an act designed to avoid punishment.
They next discuss the rumors that Kurtz is sick. Kurtz was supposed to return to the Central Station along with his latest batch of ivory, but apparently came halfway down the river and then turned back. The General Manager angrily mentions Kurtz's conviction that the stations should be focused as much on humanizing and civilizing the savages as on trade. The General Manager's uncle replies that the General Manager should trust the jungle, implying that tropical disease will eventually kill Kurtz.
The General Manager here exposes his own disregard, and Kurtz's support, for any of the moral reasons for colonization, such as civilizing the natives given by Europeans. (Of course, the condescending idea that the natives needed to be civilized by Europeans at all would be considered racist today).
A few days later the General Manager's uncle and his Eldorado Expedition head into the jungle. Marlow later heard that all their donkeys died, but never heard what happened to the "less valuable animals"—the men.
After three months of work, Marlow finishes repairing the ship. He immediately sets off upriver with the General Manager, a few pilgrims, and thirty cannibals as crew. Marlow prefers the cannibals, who don't actually eat each other and of whom he says, "They were men I could work with."
Marlow prefers the cannibals for the same reason he prefers the donkeys: they're primitive and simple, so they aren't hollow. (Though the depiction of the cannibals as simple is racist and condescending.)
The trip is long and difficult. Marlow describes the jungle as a "thing monstrous and free" and the natives as beings "who howled and leapt and made horrid faces." Yet Marlow feels some connection to the "terrible frankness" of the natives, knowing that he has some of that primitiveness in his own heart. He is thankful that his work keeping the ship afloat occupies his attention most of the time, and hides the "inner truth."
Still, Marlow tells the other men on the Nellie, he often has a sense of the "mysterious stillness" watching him at his "monkey tricks, just as it watches you fellows performing on your respective tight-ropes for—what is it? half a crown a tumble?" One of the men on the Nellie warns Marlow to "try to be civil." Marlow responds, "I beg your pardon. I forgot the heartache that makes up the rest of the price." Then he continues with his story.
By saying the distinguished men on the Nellie perform "monkey tricks," Marlow is saying that primitivism also exists in the heart of civilization. When the man tells Marlow to be "civil," Heart of Darkness makes the point that civilization prefers the mask of proper behavior to the truth. This self-deception is what makes civilization hollow.
Fifty miles from Kurtz's headquarters at Inner Station, the ship comes upon a hut with a stack of firewood outside. They stop to collect the firewood, and discover a note that says "Wood for you. Hurry up. Approach cautiously." It is signed illegibly, but with a name too long to be "Kurtz." The General Manager concludes the hut must belong to the trader he wants to hang. Inside the hut, Marlow discovers a technical book on sailing that seems to have code written on it. He is astonished, and calls the book "unmistakably real."
The book is "real" to Marlow in a way that nothing else is because to produce what he takes to be the code must have taken great and concentrated effort. It must have taken work. Everything else is absurd to the point of meaninglessness: "Hurry up. Approach cautiously." Those commands are mutually exclusive.
Eight miles from the Inner Station, the General Manager orders Marlow to anchor the ship in the middle of the river for the night. Marlow wants to continue on to meet Kurtz, but knows that stopping is the safer thing to do.
Marlow's desire to continue shows his obsession with finding Kurtz. Like other seekers in other quests, Marlow believes that Kurtz will have (or be) some sort of answer.
The morning reveals a thick white blinding fog enveloping the ship. A roar of screaming natives breaks the silence, then cuts off. Frightened pilgrims hold their rifles at the ready, but can't see anything. The cannibals want to catch and eat the men on the riverbank. Marlow realizes the cannibals must be incredibly hungry, and marvels at their restraint in not turning on the white men on the ship. The General Manager authorizes Marlow to take all risks in going upstream, knowing full well that Marlow will refuse to take any. After two hours, the fog lifts and the steamship continue upstream.
The white fog surrounding and blinding the steamship while natives scream outside is a marvelous symbol. The white fog hides from view the dark jungle and black natives screaming outside, just as the "whited sepulcher" of civilization blinds itself from the primitive darkness at its own heart.
A little over a mile from Inner Station, a tiny island in the middle of the river forces Marlow to choose the western or eastern fork of the river. He chooses the western, which turns out to be quite narrow. Just as Marlow spots snags ahead that could rip the bottom out of the boat, arrows shoot toward the steamship from the jungle. Marlow orders his helmsman, a tribesman from the coast, to steer straight.
The conflict between conquerors and conquered masked by the beautiful ideas motivating colonialism erupts into full view, as natives and Europeans fight to kill.
The pilgrims open fire into the bush, putting out smoke that blocks Marlow's vision.
The "civilized" colonists blind themselves.
A shotgun blasts just behind Marlow: the helmsman has dropped the wheel and started shooting out the window. Marlow jumps to take the wheel and avoid the snag ahead. The helmsman falls back from the window, a spear in his side. Blood fills the pilothouse, soaking Marlow's shoes. Marlow pulls the ship's steam whistle, which terrifies the attacking natives and drives them off. A pilgrim wearing "pink pyjamas" comes with a message from the General Manager and is aghast to see the dead helmsman.
Even in the battle, the absurdity of the colonial effort is always visible: here it's in the African helmsman fighting against other Africans, and neglecting his job to do it. The disaster of colonialism is also always near the surface, as in death the ridiculous helmsman suddenly becomes a tragic figure.
Marlow realizes Kurtz is probably dead and feels an intense disappointment at the thought. Marlow then tells the pilgrim to steer and flings his bloody shoes overboard.
With Kurtz dead, Marlow's quest for truth and a civilization that isn't hollow is likely over.
Suddenly, Marlow once again cuts short his story in order to address the men who are on the Nellie in the Thames. He tells them they couldn't hope to understand his despair at thinking he would never get to meet Kurtz, since they live in civilization with "a butcher round one corner, a policeman round another."
The men on the ship live in civilization, and so are blind to the meaninglessness and hollowness at its heart. The loss of Kurtz, to them, is nothing, because they have no idea what that loss entails: the possibility of meaning and wholeness.
After a long silence, Marlow says that Kurtz wasn't dead, and launches into a series of thoughts about him. Marlow says Kurtz saw everything, including his Intended (his fiancé) as a personal possession. Marlow explains that Kurtz, in the solitude of the jungle, transformed from a man of European enlightenment to a man who presided over "unspeakable rites" and accepted sacrifices made in his honor. Marlow recalls a magnificent, if impractical, treatise that Kurtz wrote called On the Suppression of Savage Customs in which Kurtz argues that white men, as veritable gods next to the natives, have the responsibility to help them. Later, though, across this treatise calling for idealism and altruism, Kurtz scrawled "Exterminate all the brutes."
Kurtz is alive! Awesome! Right? Wrong. Had Kurtz just died, Marlow's quest would have ended, but his hope for an answer would have lived on. But Marlow makes it clear that Kurtz didn't just live, he abandoned his morals and became a monster (as shown in his scrawl across his idealistic treatise). In other words, Marlow looked to Kurtz to provide an answer, and the answer Kurtz provided is that all men have darkness in their hearts.
Marlow returns to the dead helmsman, saying that Kurtz was a remarkable man, but wasn't worth the lives they lost in trying to find him. Marlow mourns his helmsman deeply. The man had "done something, he had steered."
Marlow mourns the helmsman as a fellow worker.
Everyone on board assumes the Inner Station has been overrun and Kurtz killed. The pilgrims are happy, though, that they probably killed so many savages with their rifles. Marlow, however, is certain all the pilgrims shot too high, and killed no one.
The absurdity and incompetence of the colonial agents immediately resurfaces.
When they arrive at Inner Station, Marlow and the other men on the ship are amazed to discover it in perfect shape. They are met onshore by a white man wearing clothes covered in colorful patches. Marlow thinks the man looks like a harlequin (a clown or jester). The man knows that the steamship has been attacked, but says, "it's all right" now. As the General Manager and pilgrims go to get Kurtz, the harlequin comes on board and speaks with Marlow. The man explains that he's a twenty-five year old Russian sailor who deserted and through a series of adventures working for various colonial powers ended up wandering through the Congo alone for two years.
Some critics have argued that the Russian serves little purpose in Heart of Darkness beyond telling Marlow what happened to Kurtz. However, the Russian's multicolored and patched harlequin jacket bears a striking resemblance to the map of Africa Marlow saw in the Company's headquarters. And the fact that he's worked for various colonial powers and survived years in the jungle alone also signals a kind of connection to and comfort with colonial Africa.
When the Russian says that the hut with the stacked wood was his old house, Marlow returns the book about sailing to him. The Russian in his joy tells Marlow that the natives attacked the ship because they don't want Kurtz to leave. It's soon clear to Marlow that the Russian also has fallen under the spell of Kurtz's amazing eloquence. The Russian says about Kurtz: "This man has enlarged my mind."
Both the Russian and the Natives seem to adore and revere Kurtz. The question, of course, is why? It's not clear yet, but Kurtz's eloquence connects to the hollowness of civilization. Eloquence is a talent for speech, but one can speak about anything, whether noble or monstrous.