Markheim, Robert Louis Stevenson
“Markheim” Robert Louis Stevenson
(Born Robert Louis Balfour Stevenson) Scottish short story writer, travel writer, novelist, playwright, and poet. The following entry presents criticism on Stevenson's short story “Markheim” (1885).
See also Treasure Island Criticism.
“Markheim” (1885) is one of Stevenson's most celebrated short stories. First published in 1885 in a Christmas-time annual and later collected in Stevenson's The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables (1887), the short story depicts a murder for profit, an intervening doppelgänger, and the resulting confession and surrender. “Markheim” is among Stevenson's tales of horror and the supernatural, and shows the strong influence of Edgar Allan Poe. The story is also often compared to Fedor Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment (1866) due to its exploration of benevolence and iniquity within the conscience of the individual.
Plot and Major Characters
On Christmas Day, Markheim, a thirty-six year old man, enters a pawnshop. He has sold various items there before and tells the pawnbroker he would like to buy a gift for a woman he is courting. Inside, Markheim beholds himself reflected in a mirror and becomes highly agitated, saying to the pawnbroker: “Why, look here—look in it—look at yourself! Do you like to see it? No! nor I—nor any man.” Markheim witnesses in the mirror a horrifying self-awareness and self-accusation, a “damned reminder of years, and sins and follies.” When the pawnbroker turns away Markheim stabs him in the back with a dagger, killing him. Markheim is next apprehended by numerous “shadow[s] of himself,” peering out from other looking glasses, in which he glimpses “his face repeated and repeated, as it were an army of spies; his own eyes met and detected him.” Markheim then looks for money he knows the pawnbroker keeps in a drawing room above the shop. A mysterious figure—a visitant—confronts Markheim there. This eidolon seems to know Markheim well, in fact, the man has an uncanny “likeness to himself”and discusses Markheim's past with him—prophesying a life of increasing wickedness for Markheim which will only desist in death: “You will never change; and the words of your part on this stage are irrevocably written down.” Markheim asks the wraith if he is the devil and the other answers with an offer to assist Markheim in locating the hidden money and escaping before the pawnbroker's servant returns. Markheim defends himself to the double—claiming that in himself both good and evil coexist—who professes an interest in both vice and virtue, but states that he only exists for evil as inherently manifested in character not act. When the pawnbroker's maid is about to enter the shop, the double encourages Markheim to kill her and flee. Instead, Markheim confesses to the maid: “You had better go to the police. … I have killed your master.” And as he does so, “the features of the visitor began to undergo a wonderful and lovely change: they brightened and softened with a tender triumph, and, even as they brightened, faded and dislimned,” and the double vanishes.
The major themes in “Markheim” are similar to those of Stevenson's famous novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), namely the struggle between good and evil—and freewill and predestination—within the human soul. In “Markheim” this assay between the opposing forces of virtue and malevolence in the individual is expressed through the figure of the ambiguous double or doppelgänger, the visitant, who most critics interpret to be the embodiment of Markheim's conscience. Initially, Markheim believes the apparition to be Satan proffering him help in committing another murder to prevent capture and culpability. However, Markheim is ultimately impressed by his discussion with the other to seek contrition. Once Markheim's achieves penance and triumphs over his own depravity, he sees the visitant/double as transfigured. It is Markheim's own guilty conscience that prompts his confession, both to himself and others, and through which Markheim realizes a state of repentance and redemption. Somewhat ironically, Markheim both fulfils and defeats the visitant's own prediction by effecting self-change through choosing good and thereby inviting death, the most likely result of his confession of homicide. The theme of self-reflection is expressed, in part, through the imagery of the multiple mirrors that earlier confronted Markheim, one is actually referred to as a “‘hand-conscience.’”
Many critics agree that Stevenson was a pioneer in developing the modern short story in English literature and “Markheim” is among his most celebrated short stories. The tale is generally interpreted as an allegory or fable, a narrative of virtue and vice containing a moral. Commentators note that the story's setting is on a rainy Christmas day and that its original publication in the Christmas issue of a magazine supports an interpretation of “Markheim” as a “Christmas sermon.” The visitant is generally considered to be a symbol representing Markheim's true conscience and/or alter ego which in turn draws out his confession and brings for Markheim life-threatening punition, probably execution. Critics have also explicated the story as a psychological anecdote exploring the effects of guilt on the human mind; in this light, some critics assert that “Markheim” contains no supernatural elements and that the visitant is merely a delusion of the murderer's guilt-ridden mind, a projection of his own demeritorious conscience. Scholars have commented on the similarities between “Markheim” and Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment in which the protagonist, Raskolnikov, murders and robs his landlady in her home, but eventually repents the crime. The influence of the “weird tales” of Poe, such as “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843) in which a man's sinful conscience is manifested through hallucinations, on the creation of “Markheim” has also been noted by critics.
New Arabian Nights 1882
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter [with Fanny Stevenson] 1885
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1886
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables 1887
The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter's Tale 1889
Island Nights' Entertainments, Consisting of The Beach of Falesá, The Bottle Imp, The Isle of Voices 1893
The Ebb-Tide: A Trio and Quartette [with Lloyd Osbourne] 1894
The Amateur Emigrant from the Clyde to Sandy Hook 1895
The Body-Snatcher 1895
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with Other Fables 1896
Tales and Fantasies 1905
The Waif Woman 1916
When the Devil Was Well 1921
Two Mediaeval Tales 1929
Tales and Essays [edited by G. B. Stern] 1950
The Suicide Club and Other Stories 1970
Robert Louis Stevenson: The Scottish Stories and Essays 1989
Robert Louis Stevenson: The Complete Shorter Fiction [edited by Peter Stoneley] 1991
Robert Louis Stevenson: The Complete Short Stories 2 vols. 1993
(The entire section is 227 words.)
SOURCE: Ward, Alfred C. “Robert Louis Stevenson: ‘The Merry Men.’” In Aspects of the Modern Short Story: English and American, pp. 102–15. London: University of London Press, 1924.
[In the following excerpt, Ward asserts that “Markheim,” although it strains the reader's credibility, is successful as a parable with a stated moral.]
Stevenson's earliest short stories (the “New Arabian Nights” series) ran in the pages of magazines in 1878; nine years later, Kipling's “Plain Tales from the Hills” (his first prose volume) was published. It is with these two collections—belonging, roughly speaking, to the eighteen-eighties—that the cult of the short story by British writers may be said to begin: half a century or so after the form had been naturalized in America.
Even in regard to that late date, it is necessary to particularize British rather than English writers, since it was the Scottish mind and the Anglo-Indian that first found expression in the short story on the eastern side of the Atlantic. English writers might be mentioned who had practised in this branch of literature long before the eighteen-eighties; but there was none—certainly not Meredith—who had found in the prose short story a medium that befitted his genius incomparably better than any other form. Almost without exception, these earlier experimenters had been novelists first and...
(The entire section is 2525 words.)
SOURCE: Gossman, Ann. “On the Knocking at the Gate in ‘Markheim.’” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 17, no. 1 (June 1962): 73–6.
[In the following essay, Gossman discusses the influence of Shakespeare's Macbeth on Stevenson's “Markheim.”]
In defense of the revealing small incident in fiction, Stevenson writes: “This, then, is the plastic part of literature: to embody character, though, or emotion in some act or attitude that shall be remarkably striking to the mind's eye.”1 This paper will seek to demonstrate that in “Markheim” Stevenson uses the act of knocking at the door to achieve those emotional effects that De Quincey ascribes to the knocking at the gate in Macbeth. Some of the images in “Markheim” recall images in Macbeth. What I would suggest, then, is that both the play and De Quincey's theorizing about it may have influenced Stevenson's imagination when he sought to convey the state of mind of his murderer.
Stevenson's story well illustrates De Quincey's theory about the point of view from which a story of murder should be told: that of murderer, not victim. The victim's-eye-view would result in “vulgar horror,” and it would appeal to “the natural and ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life.” The victim's attitude is “abject and humiliating.” Therefore the writer must consider the murderer, who carries within...
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SOURCE: Egan, Joseph J. “‘Markheim’: A Drama of Moral Psychology.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 20, no. 4 (March 1966): 377–84.
[In the following essay, Egan discusses “Markheim” as a moral fable in terms of the psychological exploration of the main character.]
Though “Markheim” has been called the “greatest of all Stevenson's short-stories,”1 criticism of this tale has seldom gone beyond a summary of the plot. Ann Gossman alone has commented on the craft of Stevenson's story,2 but her article is too brief to serve as a complete and thoroughly satisfying statement of “Markheim”'s artistic and thematic elements. The purpose of this paper is to show that Stevenson's intention in “Markheim” was to present not a short story as such, but a moral fable in the form of an exploration of his main character's mind. The entire atmosphere of the tale is presented as remote and preternatural in order to reduce the elements of realism in the story to a functional minimum. The movement of “Markheim” is thus to a large degree symbolic, and, as we shall see, the setting of the story gradually becomes the central character's own mind.
It is significant that the pawnbroker's shop in which the entire tale takes place contains “many rich mirrors” (p. 109)3 that hold a strange kind of terror for Markheim: “He saw his face repeated and...
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SOURCE: Saposnik, Irving S. “Stevenson's ‘Markheim’: A Fictional ‘Christmas Sermon.’” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 21, no. 3 (December 1966): 277–82.
[In the following essay, Saposnik surveys the critical debate over the identity of the visitant in “Markheim.”]
For a story of its relatively short length, “Markheim” has produced more than its share of critical confusion. Much of this confusion centers around the identity of the visitant, and whether it be God, angel, or devil. Most of the critics share the belief that it is a “good” spirit and base this opinion on the final brightening of its countenance into a “tender triumph.”1 Some, on the other hand, are uncertain as to the nature of the visitant,2 while others refrain from pinning a qualitative label on the visitant, and instead give a psychological identity, calling it Markheim's “unconscious self” and his conscience.3 There are several elements in the tale which indicate that the nonqualitative readings come closest to Stevenson's intention.
The Christmas setting, for example, is a deliberate attempt to place the action at a time most fit for introspection. Christmas, as Stevenson points out in his essay “A Christmas Sermon,” is the end of another year, “moving us to thoughts of self-examination.”4 Since Markheim refuses to engage in just such...
(The entire section is 2617 words.)
SOURCE: Eigner, Edwin M. “The House of God.” In Robert Louis Stevenson and the Romantic Tradition, pp. 126–33. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966.
[In the following excerpt, Eigner discusses the Christian ethics expressed in “Markheim” in comparison to the Christian mores of the Russian writers Fedor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy.]
The idea we have just been considering, the theme of the disguised significant self, occurs elsewhere in Stevenson. There is, in fact, a regular disguise motif running through much of the early fiction, appearing in Prince Otto, in The Black Arrow, and in several of the stories from The New Arabian Nights. But it is not at all necessary in such works for the hero to begin, as Brodie does, with a belief in his essential depravity. Indeed, the title character of the story “Markheim” starts by denying that there is any evil at all in his real nature. Such a conviction is equally wrong, and certainly it is equally dangerous, for it, too, must lead inevitably to a rejection of self and to suicide.
Markheim has just committed a murder, but he is certain that God understands and forgives him. “His act,” Markheim admits, “was doubtless exceptional, but so were his excuses, which God knew; it was there, and not among men, that he felt sure of justice” (xi, 143). Like Hogg's justified sinner, and like Bulwer's...
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SOURCE: Miyoshi, Masao. “Masks in the Mirror: The Eighteen-Nineties.” In The Divided Self: A Perspective on The Literature of the Victorians, pp. 294–96. New York: New York University Press, 1969.
[In the following excerpt, Miyoshi views the notion of duality in “Markheim” as the embodiment of Markheim's conscience.]
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) was by no means the first product of Stevenson's fascination with the dual personality. From childhood he had been familiar with the legend of Deacon Brodie, daylight cabinetmaker and moonlight burglar, and a full twenty years before Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde he was already working on a play based on Brodie's life.1 In 1883 he wrote a wretched and revolting story (“The Travelling Companion”), which was turned down by his publisher and which he himself soon decided to destroy. He called it a “carrion tale,” and later explained why he had written it: “I had long been trying to write a story on this subject, to find a body, a vehicle, for that strong sense of man's double being which must at times come in upon and overwhelm the mind of every thinking creature.”2
Then there is “Markheim” (1884), which somewhat resembles Crime and Punishment.3 The hero, intent on robbery, enters a pawnshop on Christmas eve on the pretext of looking for a present. There, like Dorian Gray...
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SOURCE: Keppler, C. F. “The Saviour.” In The Literature of the Second Self, pp. 106–09. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1972.
[In the following excerpt, Keppler discusses the symbolism of the visitant in terms of Christian ethics.]
In another group of examples the good second self resembles in technique the second self as Tempter; he is a more subtle Saviour than the ones we have thus far considered, realizing that the major task of salvation must be done by the person being saved, and enticing him by one means or another toward the inward state with which such self-salvation is synonymous. Naturally, as the second self who pursues in order to save is bound to seem objectionable and menacing to the first self who stands in need of salvation, so the second self who tempts for the same purpose is bound to seem devious, suspect, allied with the Devil or perhaps the Devil himself. It is for the latter that the unnamed intruder of Stevenson's “Markheim”1 is mistaken by the first self, though he proves a very different Devil from the ones we met in Chapter 4. Similar in plan to Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, this story begins with a murder, and again it is the murder of an old pawnbroker by an impoverished young man; again, also, the murder is merely the prelude to the real story, the story of its consequences in the mind of the murderer-protagonist. Markheim's need...
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SOURCE: Saposnik, Irving S. “A Single Glimpse, A Few Sharp Sounds.” In Robert Louis Stevenson, pp. 60–2, 75–9. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974.
[In the following excerpt, Saposnik offers a psychological reading of “Markheim,” concluding that Markheim's surrender to the police “is neither good nor evil.”]
Stevenson's reputation rests on his unquestioned abilities as a storyteller. Working with both short and long fiction, he produced stories and novels that are generally considered to be the creations of a first-rate narrative talent. Stories such as Jekyll and Hyde and novels such as Kidnapped were immediately able to give him the recognition he sought, and they subsequently kept alive his literary name even when his popularity dimmed. His narrative ability, however, did not always manifest itself equally: too many of his works remain either unrealized or incomplete. In part, this fact must be attributed to uncertain health; in part, to constant travel; in part, to family demands.
But, had he lived a “normal” life, his artistic problems would have still been present. On the simplest level, he faced the difficulty of joining his form to his idea—not only of telling a good story but of insuring that its fictional elements represented the thematic details he wished to communicate. But his well-advertised philosophical position—pessimism in regard to...
(The entire section is 2516 words.)
SOURCE: Ziolkowski, Theodore. “Image as Symbol: The Magic Mirror.” In Disenchanted Images: A Literary Iconography, pp. 187–90. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.
[In the following excerpt, Ziolkowski considers mirrors in “Markheim” as symbols of the character's confrontation with his own conscience.]
We see how well the lesson of narrative stance was learned when we move ahead to two remarkable works that appeared in 1877: Robert Louis Stevenson's “Markheim” is recounted in a dispassionate third-person that identifies itself with the consciousness of the hero; Maupassant's “The Horla” narrates itself in the form of a journal. In both cases, therefore, the mirror seems to be truly magical because the appearance of the double in the mirror is narrated from the point of view of the hero, who accepts it as such.
“Markheim” is the story of a man who visits an antique dealer on Christmas Day under the pretext of buying a gift for a lady.1 At the first opportunity he kills the dealer with a dagger and goes upstairs to the drawing-room in search of money, with which he plans to recoup his huge losses on the Stock Exchange. Here, as he is sorting out the keys, he hears footsteps coming up the stairs of the empty house. A hand takes the knob, the lock clicks, and the door opens. A face looks into the room, smiles “as if in friendly recognition,” and...
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SOURCE: Hammond, J. R. “The Short Stories.” In A Robert Louis Stevenson Companion: A Guide to the Novels, Essays, and Short Stories, pp. 73, 79–83, 96–7. London: MacMillan, 1984.
[In the following excerpt, Hammond analyzes “Markheim” as an allegory for the psychological duality of man.]
Stevenson published four volumes of short stories during his lifetime: New Arabian Nights (1882), More New Arabian Nights (1885), The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables (1887) and Island Nights Entertainments (1893). A final collection, Tales and Fantasies, was published posthumously in 1905.
He had graduated to writing short stories after a long apprenticeship of writing essays, literary criticism and book reviews. From the time of his earliest published story “A Lodging for the Night,” written when he was twenty-seven, to the closing years of his life he never lost his interest in the short story as an art form and continued to experiment in techniques of narration and the presentation of character. His stories are remarkably varied in style and theme. They range from tales of atmosphere and suspense to allegorical fantasies, from exciting narratives of adventure to profound studies of human character. Taken together his stories constitute an impressive body of work embracing many facets of his personality and interests and containing abundant...
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SOURCE: Orel, Harold. “Robert Louis Stevenson: Many Problems, Some Successes.” In The Victorian Short Story: Development and Triumph of a Literary Genre, pp. 115–18, 122–23, 127–37. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
[In the following excerpt, Orel discusses “Markheim” in conjunction with the tales “Ollala” and “Thrawn Janet” as representing some of Stevenson's most successful horror stories.]
Let us assume that the outline of Robert Louis Stevenson's eventful, and not always happy, life is familiar to most readers. Let us also assume that it will not change dramatically because of the discovery of hitherto unsuspected biographical material. Two critical questions are our major concern here: why Stevenson thought of a large number of his short stories as being deficient in form or content, and why (despite his reservations) a particular category of his short stories—that of the horror tales—retains the affection of general readers and most literary critics.
Stevenson's reputation declined precipitously after the turn of the century, partly because the reading public became uneasily aware that more had been promised than delivered. Andrew Lang's enthusiasm—so important in establishing Stevenson's fame while he lived—was, in important respects, an excuse for attacks on naturalistic fiction, which Lang, like Stevenson, regarded as a dreary dead end;...
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SOURCE: Herdman, John. “The Double in Decline.” in The Double in Nineteenth-Century Fiction, pp. 129–31. London: MacMillan, 1990.
[In the following excerpt, Herdman inspects the motif of the Doppelgänger in “Markheim.”]
Stevenson's first attempt on the true double motif is the story “Markheim” (1885), in which, as in Poe's ‘William Wilson,’ the double figures as a projection of the protagonist's conscience. The story is undoubtedly related to Crime and Punishment, which Stevenson greatly admired, and probably also to The Brothers Karamazov; and the ambition of the theme is perhaps too much for its diminutive scale. The early pages of the story are marvellously atmospheric. On Christmas Day Markheim enters an antique shop, or pawnshop, with evil intent. The shop is full of ticking clocks, marking the passing of time which is for Markheim a reminder of ill-spent years. When the dealer suggests a mirror as a Christmas present for his lady, he rejects it with horror as a ‘hand-conscience.’1 He pretends to want to be friendly—‘Why should we wear this mask?’—but no sooner has he said this than he stabs the dealer with a ‘long skewer-like dagger.’ The room is full of shadows; all at once all the clocks in the shop strike three in their different voices; and in dozens of ornate mirrors Markheim sees ‘his face repeated and repeated, as it were an army...
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SOURCE: Menikoff, Barry. “Introduction: Fable, Fiction, and Modernism.” In Robert Louis Stevenson: Tales from the Prince of Storytellers, pp. 29–35. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1993.
[In the following excerpt, Menikoff discourses upon “Markheim” as an allegory for “the struggle of good and evil for the heart of man.”]
Unquestionably the single story that most exemplifies duality in man, apart from Jekyll and Hyde, is “Markheim,” originally published as part of a collection of “horror” stories in a volume titled The Broken Shaft. Stevenson used the form to focus attention on the divided self, and its implications for behavior and conscience. It is a story brilliant in its simplicity, its movement, and its psychological acuity. Markheim, a youngish man who has steadily resorted to more serious crimes as a result of his gambling debts, enters an antique dealer's shop on Christmas eve, engages the flinty old man in conversation, then murders him with a long knife. He sets about to rob the store, which is closed off from the afternoon light and filled with clocks and mirrors of all sizes and shapes. In the process of moving through the house, he suddenly encounters another presence. This presence, or “visitant,” engages Markheim in conversation, and the two debate the path that the murderer's life has taken. The visitant offers to help the murderer...
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SOURCE: Mann, Susan Garland and David D. Mann. Review of Robert Louis Stevenson: Tales from the Prince of Storytellers, by Robert Louis Stevenson. The Huntington Library Quarterly 57, no. 1 (winter 1994): 87–91.
[In the following review, Mann and Mann compare an earlier version of “Markheim” to a more recent version of the story reprinted in a collection of Stevenson stories edited by Barry Menikoff.]
Because Robert Louis Stevenson is an acclaimed popular writer, many literate people know something about his life: his courageous fight against lung disease, his marriage to an independent-minded American woman, and his wanderlust, in search of a place that would make it easier for him to cope with his illness. Characters, phrases, and ideas from his best works, Treasure Island, A Child's Garden of Verses, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, have virtually been adopted in many cultures. This year marks the centennial of his death, and festivals are planned in a number of locations where he lived and worked in his peripatetic career: Edinburgh, Scotland; Monterey, California; and Samoa in the South Seas.
Despite Stevenson's wide influence, the academy has not paid much attention to his work, preferring instead the canon of his great friend Henry James as a fit subject. And public acclaim for his poetry and novels, rarely out of print since their first publication...
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Allen, Walter. “The Modern Story: Origins, Background, Affinities.” In The Short Story in English, pp. 3–23. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.
Discusses Stevenson as an important influence in the development of the modern English short story.
Penzoldt, Peter. “The Ghost Story with a Moral—Dickens and Stevenson.” In The Supernatural in Fiction, pp. 92–117. New York: Humanities Press, 1965.
Originally published in 1952, asserts that Stevenson and Charles Dickens were the only short story writers to create modern horror tales with moral messages.
Swinnerton, Frank. “Short Stories.” In Robert Louis Stevenson: A Critical Study, pp. 116–42. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1915.
Provides commentary on Stevenson's major short stories.
Additional coverage of Stevenson's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 24; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 3; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 13; British Writers, Vol. 5; Children's Literature Review, Vols. 10, 11; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1890–1914; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols....
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