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Literature Study GuidesHeart Of DarknessPart 3 Return To Brussels Summary

Heart of Darkness | Study Guide

Joseph Conrad

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Part 3: Return To Brussels

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

Heart of Darkness | Part 3 (Return to Brussels) | Summary



Marlow muses on the meaning of life and how a person might summarize his life when he is at death's door. He returns to Brussels and takes with him Kurtz's report, Kurtz's letters, and the photograph Kurtz asks him to protect. He wryly reflects that it is his destiny to "show my loyalty to Kurtz" and then scoffs at the "droll" idea of destiny. Marlow says he has been near death and calls wrestling with death "the most unexciting contest you can imagine."

The Central Station manager asks for these papers, but Marlow refuses to hand them over. Eventually a man from the Company entreats Marlow to hand over Kurtz's report, and after some discussion Marlow gives it up. The man sniffs and hands it back; he has no interest in it as it has nothing to do with commerce.

Kurtz's cousin finds Marlow and asks questions about Kurtz's death. He says that Kurtz had been a great musician. The cousin says that Kurtz had been a universal genius; Marlow agrees. Ultimately a journalist appears. He apparently worked with Kurtz at a paper and held him in high regard. He believes Kurtz should have gone into politics, saying, "He would have been a splendid leader of an extreme party." Marlow gives the journalist Kurtz's report for publication. All Marlow has left of Kurtz now are a few letters and the photograph.


Marlow returns to the sepulchral city of Brussels, Belgium, and, like a soldier returning from a war, is unhappy with what he finds. It all appears so petty: he reflects that the city's people leading their busy lives "could not possibly know the things I knew." In his reflections on destiny, Marlow calls life a "mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose." He concludes that humans may not reach any understanding of their own lives until death.

Marlow remains loyal to Kurtz, not because of his pledge to do so but because Kurtz was honest enough in the end to judge himself. He expresses his "humiliation" that, when faced with death, he had nothing to say, no final pronouncement on his life to give. Kurtz was a "remarkable man" because he did have "something to say" at the point of death. Kurtz's last words "had the appalling face of a glimpsed truth."

Despite his awareness of how depraved Kurtz became, Marlow protects him. The report that he reluctantly hands over to the Company official has had the postscript saying "Exterminate the brutes!" torn off. In removing it, Marlow obscures Kurtz's brutal disregard for human life. Of course, the Company shows just such disregard, but its members prefer to hide the truth of their actions behind the cloak of the moralizing mission. Still, it is this sanitized version of the report that Marlow gives to the journalist. All that remains is Kurtz's soaring rhetoric about the ideals of bringing Western civilization to Africans.

Kurtz's cousin and the journalist show an awed respect for the man. While Marlow shares their view that he had impressive talents, his respect, unlike theirs, is not based on those abilities but rather on his belief that Kurtz saw so clearly the meaning of his life at the end of it. Given readers' positive feelings for Marlow, his defense of Kurtz might be troublesome. It needs to be seen in light of Marlow's gloomy view of life as having a "futile purpose."

The journalist's view that Kurtz would have been a great success if he had entered politics can be seen as a condemnation of European politics. That a man who lost his moral bearings could be successful is frightening. The dark significance of this judgment is reinforced by the journalist's comment that Kurtz "could get himself to believe anything."

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