The Russian trader’s description of Kurtz through the Russian trader’s departure from the Inner Station.
The Russian trader begs Marlow to take Kurtz away quickly. He recounts for Marlow his initial meeting with Kurtz, telling him that Kurtz and the trader spent a night camped in the forest together, during which Kurtz discoursed on a broad range of topics. The trader again asserts that listening to Kurtz has greatly enlarged his mind. His connection to Kurtz, however, has gone through periods of rise and decline. He nursed Kurtz through two illnesses but sometimes would not see him for long periods of time, during which Kurtz was out raiding the countryside for ivory with a native tribe he had gotten to follow him. Although Kurtz has behaved erratically and once even threatened to shoot the trader over a small stash of ivory, the trader nevertheless insists that Kurtz cannot be judged as one would judge a normal man. He has tried to get Kurtz to return to civilization several times. The Russian tells Marlow that Kurtz is extremely ill now. As he listens to the trader, Marlow idly looks through his binoculars and sees that what he had originally taken for ornamental balls on the tops of fence posts in the station compound are actually severed heads turned to face the station house. He is repelled but not particularly surprised. The Russian apologetically explains that these are the heads of rebels, an explanation that makes Marlow laugh out loud. The Russian makes a point of telling Marlow that he has had no medicine or supplies with which to treat Kurtz; he also asserts that Kurtz has been shamefully abandoned by the Company.
At that moment, the pilgrims emerge from the station-house with Kurtz on an improvised stretcher, and a group of natives rushes out of the forest with a piercing cry. Kurtz speaks to the natives, and the natives withdraw and allow the party to pass. The manager and the pilgrims lay Kurtz in one of the ship’s cabins and give him his mail, which they have brought from the Central Station. Someone has written to Kurtz about Marlow, and Kurtz tells him that he is “glad” to see him. The manager enters the cabin to speak with Kurtz, and Marlow withdraws to the steamer’s deck. From here he sees two natives standing near the river with impressive headdresses and spears, and a beautiful native woman draped in ornaments pacing gracefully along the shore. She stops and stares out at the steamer for a while and then moves away into the forest. Marlow notes that she must be wearing several elephant tusks’ worth of ornaments. The Russian implies that she is Kurtz’s mistress, and states that she has caused him trouble through her influence over Kurtz. He adds that he would have tried to shoot her if she had tried to come aboard. The trader’s comments are interrupted by the sound of Kurtz yelling at the manager inside the cabin. Kurtz accuses the men of coming for the ivory rather than helping him, and he threatens the manager for interfering with his plans.
The manager comes out and takes Marlow aside, telling him that they have done everything possible for Kurtz, but that his unsound methods have closed the district off to the Company for the time being. He says he plans on reporting Kurtz’s “complete want of judgment” to the Company’s directors. Thoroughly disgusted by the manager’s hypocritical condemnation of Kurtz, Marlow tells the manager that he thinks Kurtz is a “remarkable man.” With this statement, Marlow permanently alienates himself from the manager and the rest of the Company functionaries. Like Kurtz, Marlow is now classified among the “unsound.” As the manager walks off, the Russian approaches again, to confide in Marlow that Kurtz ordered the attack on the steamer, hoping that the manager would assume he was dead and turn back. After the Russian asks Marlow to protect Kurtz’s reputation, Marlow tells the Russian that the manager has spoken of having the Russian hanged. The trader is not surprised and, after hitting Marlow up for tobacco, gun cartridges, and shoes, leaves in a canoe with some native paddlers.
Until this point, Marlow’s narrative has featured prominently mysterious signs and symbols, which Marlow has struggled to interpret. Now he confronts the reality of the Inner Station, and witnesses that symbols possess a disturbing power to define “reality” and influence people. The natives perceive Kurtz as a mythical deity and think that the guns carried by his followers are lightning bolts, symbols of power rather than actual weapons. Marlow and the Russian trader are aware of the guns’ power to kill, however, and they react nervously at Kurtz’s show of force. Kurtz himself acts as a symbol for all of the other characters, not only the natives. To the Russian trader, he is a source of knowledge about everything from economics to love. To Marlow, Kurtz offers “a choice of nightmares,” something distinct from the hypocritical evils of the manager. To the manager and the pilgrims, he is a scapegoat, someone they can punish for failing to uphold the “civilized” ideals of colonialism, thereby making themselves seem less reprehensible. The long-awaited appearance of the man himself demonstrates just how empty these formulations are, however. He is little more than a skeleton, and even his name proves not to be an adequate description of him (Kurtz means “short” in German, but Kurtz is tall). Thus, both words and symbols are shown to have little basis in reality.
Kurtz’s African mistress provides another example of the power of symbols and the dubious value of words. The woman is never given the title “mistress,” although it seems clear that she and Kurtz have a sexual relationship. To acknowledge through the use of the term that a white man and a black woman could be lovers seems to be more than the manager and the Russian trader are willing to do. Despite their desire to discredit Kurtz, the transgression implied by Kurtz’s relationship is not something they want to discuss. To Marlow, the woman is above all an aesthetic and economic object. She is “superb” and “magnificent,” dripping with the trappings of wealth. As we have seen in earlier sections of Marlow’s narrative, he believes that women represent the ideals of civilization: it is on their behalf that men undertake economic enterprises, and it is their beauty that comes to symbolize nations and ways of life. Thus, Kurtz’s African mistress plays a role strikingly like that of Kurtz’s fiancée: like his fiancée, Kurtz’s mistress is lavished with material goods, both to keep her in her place and to display his success and wealth.
Marlow and the Russian trader offer alternate perspectives throughout this section. The Russian is naive to the point of idiocy, yet he has much in common with Marlow. Both have come to Africa in search of something experiential, and both end up aligning themselves with Kurtz against other Europeans. The Russian, who seems to exist upon “glamour” and youth, is drawn to the systematic qualities of Kurtz’s thought. Although Kurtz behaves irrationally toward him, for the trader, the great man’s philosophical mind offers a bulwark against the even greater irrationality of Africa. For Marlow, on the other hand, Kurtz represents the choice of outright perversion over hypocritical justifications of cruelty. Marlow and the Russian are disturbingly similar to one another, as the transfer of responsibility for Kurtz’s “reputation” from the Russian to Marlow suggests. The manager’s implicit condemnation of Marlow as “unsound” is correct, if for the wrong reasons: by choosing Kurtz, Marlow has, in fact, like the cheerfully idiotic Russian, merely chosen one kind of nightmare over another.