Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The plot of “Markheim” could be regarded as simply the story of a murder and its aftereffects on the murderer that lead him eventually to confess his crime. It is more than the story of a murder, however; it is, more significantly, the story of the process a man goes through to first face and then accept the evil side of his nature. The development of self-knowledge and the conflict between one’s good and evil sides are the central themes in “Markheim.” Markheim experiences an insight about his true self when he finally accepts that he has fallen morally. Before this point in the story, he has suppressed and denied his evil side.
Immediately after he murders the dealer, he appears not to feel remorse for his crime; he is more fearful of being caught and punished. Even after he has a flashback, as he looks at the murdered dealer’s face, to the revulsion he felt while looking at a famous crimes exhibit in his childhood, he claims not to feel penitent about his crime but rather feels only pity for the dealer.
Next, as he climbs the stairs to the dealer’s house above the shop and reaches the top floor, Markheim continues to fear being caught as he wonders if the laws of nature will expose his crime. At this point, he still feels his crime is justified, believing God understands and accepts his excuses for committing murder.
In the dealer’s drawing room, when he is in a calmer frame of mind, he hears children singing hymns nearby and recalls his churchgoing days in the past. When his mind is focused on a time when he was more religiously oriented, he hears the step on the stair. It is as if the memory of a time when he was a better and more moral person causes him to externalize his evil side and literally come face to face with it. The story can be seen then as an inward journey from denial and repression to acceptance and ownership of his evil nature.