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Literature Study GuidesHeart Of DarknessPart 3 Return Downriver And Kurtzs Death Summary

Heart of Darkness | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Part 3: Return Downriver

Kristen Over, Associate Professor at Northeastern Illinois University, provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Part 3: Return Downriver of Joseph Conrad's book Heart of Darkness.

Heart of Darkness | Part 3 (Return Downriver and Kurtz's Death) | Summary



At noon the next day, Marlow pilots the steamer away from the station while more than a thousand native people watch the crew go. Out of the crowd comes the beautiful native woman, mournfully watching as Kurtz is taken away. The crowd is hostile and threatening; the pilgrims look ready to shoot at the Africans. Marlow sounds the whistle on the boat several times. The crowd, bothered by the sound, the origin of which is mysterious to them, scatters; the tense situation ends.

When the steamboat breaks down, Kurtz loses confidence that he will see Europe again, and he entrusts his papers and a photograph to Marlow to keep them away from the manager. It appears that Kurtz has been writing for unnamed newspapers back in Europe and still wishes to publish his ideas to spread them further. "It's a duty," he says.

One evening Marlow comes in from endlessly repairing the old steamer and notices a change in Kurtz's features. On his face is a mixture of pride, power, terror, and despair. He cries out, "The horror! The horror!" Marlow goes into the mess hall, where the manager sits with his "peculiar smile" that seals the "unexpressed depths of his meanness." A moment later the manager's "boy" comes in and says, "Mistah Kurtz—he dead." Marlow continues eating, feeling no need to see him again. He calls Kurtz a "remarkable man who had pronounced a judgment upon the adventures of his soul on this earth." The next day the pilgrims bury Kurtz's body.


Seriously ill as he is and as depraved as he has become, Kurtz still entertains his high-minded ideals, yet a part of him recognizes the depths of depravity to which he has fallen.

Marlow is fascinated by the shifting emotions expressed on Kurtz's face just before he dies. "It is as though a veil had been rent," he says. This is a reference to the moment of Jesus's death in the Gospel of Matthew 27:51, which reads, "And behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom: and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent." Marlow compares Jesus, killed in a clash of opposing ideas, to Kurtz, who is overcome by the oppositions in his own nature, the power of the jungle, and the darkness that dwells within his soul.

Kurtz's final words, "The horror! The horror!" are a cry of existential despair. With these words he recognizes his own fall into evil, the barbarity of imperialism, and the depravity of human nature. This pronouncement seems to be what Marlow has in mind when he speaks of the "judgment" that Kurtz delivered "upon the adventures of his soul." That judgment brings Kurtz back to the last, inevitable darkness: death.

The passage in which Marlow describes Kurtz's expression before he utters his last words bring in the symbol of ivory. Marlow refers to Kurtz's "ivory face." Ivory, the product the Company values, is once again associated with evil and depravity, with Kurtz's "horror."

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