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CHAPTER III (continued)
More than a year after Kurtz's death, Marlow visits his Intended, the woman he was engaged to, bearing a packet of letters and a portrait of her that Kurtz had given him. As he approaches the house, he remembers again Kurtz's final stare, "embracing, condemning, loathing all the universe," and his final words. (This passage suggests that those words go far beyond a mere self-evaluation.)
In the upsetting scene that follows, it keeps getting darker and darker. Literally, of course, this is because of the sunset. But in this scene Marlow's spirits sink lower than anywhere else in the book (he has "something like despair" in his heart), and the gradually encompassing darkness parallels his deepening bewilderment. In Africa he successfully opposed the darkness; now, suddenly, his victory doesn't seem so final.
Mr. Kurtz had participated in "unspeakable rites" and had gone to
his grave with "unspeakable secrets" in Africa. But in this
quiet drawing room in Brussels, Marlow gets the panicky sensation that
he "had blundered into a place of cruel and absurd mysteries not
fit for a human being to behold." He thought he had left the darkness
in Africa, where you could blame it on the jungle, but he's about to find
out that the darkness is universal.
The Intended is as eager to break her silence as the Russian had been: "She talked as thirsty men drink," of Kurtz's goodness and his nobility and, of course, his eloquence. Her belief in Kurtz is a "great and saving illusion that shone with an unearthly glow in the darkness, in the triumphant darkness from which I could not have defended her-from which I could not even defend myself." Marlow has given his opinions previously about the "beautiful illusions" of women, but face-to-face with this awful delusion he can't be so smugly patronizing. In fact, as she goes on heaping praises on Kurtz-"It was impossible to know him and not to admire him," etc.- he begins to despair. Note that the "great and saving illusion" is what Marlow connects with the light shining against the growing darkness: "But with every word the room was growing darker, and only her forehead, smooth and white, remained illumined by the unexstinguishable light of belief and love." If this light burns from a mere illusion, is it really "unexstinguishable"? A gesture she makes, stretching her arms against the fading sheen of the window, reminds Marlow of that final tragic gesture of Kurtz's African mistress. While this deluded woman talks on, Marlow keeps remembering the real, the despicable Kurtz, and "The horror! The horror!" keeps echoing in his mind. The portrait of the Intended had revealed a "delicate shade of truthfulness" in her features, but Marlow doesn't test it. When she asks him to repeat Kurtz's last words, he tells her, "The last word he pronounced was-your name."
She cries out in triumph, then collapses weeping. Marlow is thunderstruck at his lie. We know how much he hates a lie (I, 5). We've seen him dodge telling the full truth on certain occasions; we've even seen him let the brickmaker go on believing something that wasn't true. But we haven't seen him lie outright-until now. The truth, he says, "would have been too dark-too dark altogether...."
Is the darkness, then, the ultimate truth, and light not just a flicker but an illusion as well? When do "beautiful illusions" become ugly delusions? Kurtz's "horror" has begun to seem like Marlow's own judgment on the world of lies we live in, and on this anguished note he breaks off his tale.
A brief paragraph brings the novel to a close. The Director notices that they've missed the turn of the tide, but now they can proceed.
Marlow's story has had its effect on our narrator, at least. At the outset his senses were full of the light on the Thames, and when he thought of the great British sailors he called them "bearers of a spark from the sacred fire" who had carried light into the unknown reaches of the world. Now his mind is full of darkness. "The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky-seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness."