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Marlow’s journey back down the river through his falling ill.
The current speeds the steamer’s progress back toward civilization. The manager, certain that Kurtz will soon be dead, is pleased to have things in hand; he condescendingly ignores Marlow, who is now clearly of the “unsound” but harmless party. The pilgrims are disdainful, and Marlow, for the most part, is left alone with Kurtz. As he had done with the Russian trader, Kurtz takes advantage of his captive audience to hold forth on a variety of subjects. Marlow is alternately impressed and disappointed. Kurtz’s philosophical musings are interspersed with grandiose and childish plans for fame and fortune.
The brown current ran swiftly out of the heart of darkness, bearing us down towards the sea with twice the speed of our upward progress; and Kurtz’s life was running swiftly, too. . . .
The steamer breaks down, and repairs take some time. Marlow is slowly becoming ill, and the work is hard on him. Kurtz seems troubled, probably because the delay has made him realize that he probably will not make it back to Europe alive. Worried that the manager will gain control of his “legacy,” Kurtz gives Marlow a bundle of papers for safekeeping. Kurtz’s ramblings become more abstract and more rhetorical as his condition worsens. Marlow believes he is reciting portions of articles he has written for the newspapers: Kurtz thinks it his “duty” to disseminate his ideas. Finally, one night, Kurtz admits to Marlow that he is “waiting for death.” As Marlow approaches, Kurtz seems to be receiving some profound knowledge or vision, and the look on his face forces Marlow to stop and stare. Kurtz cries out—“The horror! The horror!”—and Marlow flees, not wanting to watch the man die. He joins the manager in the dining hall, which is suddenly overrun by flies. A moment later, a servant comes in to tell them, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead.”
The pilgrims bury Kurtz the next day. Marlow succumbs to illness and nearly dies himself. He suffers greatly, but the worst thing about his near-death experience is his realization that in the end he would have “nothing to say.” Kurtz, he realizes, was remarkable because he “had something to say. He said it.” Marlow remembers little about the time of his illness. Once he has recovered sufficiently, he leaves Africa and returns to Brussels.
Both Kurtz and Marlow experience a brief interlude during which they float between life and death, although their final fates differ. For Kurtz, the imminence of death ironically causes him to seek to return to the world from which he had “kicked himself loose.” Suddenly, his legacy and his ideas seem very important to him, and he turns to Marlow to preserve them. Kurtz’s final ambitions—to be famous and feted by kings, to have his words read by millions—suggest a desire to change the world. This is a change from his previous formulations, which posited a choice between acquiescence to existing norms or total isolation from society. However, these final schemes of Kurtz’s (which Marlow describes as “childish”) reflect Kurtz’s desire for self-aggrandizement rather than any progressive social program. Kurtz dies. His last words are paradoxically full of meaning yet totally empty. It is possible to read them as an acknowledgment of Kurtz’s own misguided life and despicable acts, as a description of his inner darkness; certainly, to do so is not inappropriate. However, it is important to note both their eloquence and their vagueness. True to form, Kurtz dies in a spasm of eloquence. His last words are poetic and profound, delivered in his remarkable voice. However, they are so nonspecific that they defy interpretation. The best one can do is to guess at their meaning.
I was within a hair’s-breadth of the last opportunity for pronouncement, and I found with humiliation that probably I would have nothing to say.
Does this mean that Marlow is wrong, that Kurtz has “nothing,” not “something to say”? Kurtz’s last words could refer to the terrible nothingness at the heart of his soul and his ideas, the ultimate failure of his “destiny.” In a way this is true: Kurtz’s agony seems to be a response to a generalized lack of substance. In his dying words as in his life, though, Kurtz creates an enigma, an object for contemplation, which certainly is something. His legacy, in fact, would seem to be Marlow, who, like the Russian trader, seems to have had his mind “enlarged” by Kurtz. Marlow, though, finds that he himself has “nothing” to say, and thus Kurtz’s life and his dying words oscillate between absolute emptiness and an overabundance of meaning. The “horror” is either nothing or everything, but it is not simply “something.”
The actual moment of Kurtz’s death is narrated indirectly. First, Kurtz’s words—“The horror! The horror!”—anticipate and mark its beginning. Then flies, the symbol of slow, mundane decay and disintegration (as opposed to catastrophic or dramatic destruction), swarm throughout the ship, as if to mark the actual moment. Finally, the servant arrives to bring the moment to its close with his surly, unpoetic words. The roughness of “Mistah Kurtz—he dead” contrasts with Kurtz’s self-generated epitaph, again bringing a blunt reality (death) into conflict with a subjective state (horror). It is interesting to consider why T. S. Eliot might have chosen the servant’s line as the epigraph to his poem “The Hollow Men.” The impenetrability of the brief moment of Kurtz’s death and his reduction to something “buried in a muddy hole” indicate the final impossibility of describing either Kurtz or his ideas.