Markheim Questions and Answers
by Robert Louis Stevenson

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What are the verbal, textual, and linguistic breaks and inconsistencies in the short story?

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There are many examples of inconsistencies in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Markheim.” These can be found in both of Markheim’s conversations (with the dealer and the stranger) and in the characterization of Markheim himself. These inconsistencies revolve around the themes of integrity and dishonesty, virtue and sin—ultimately, good and evil.

The first conversation in the story, that between the dealer and Markheim, is marked by dishonesty. In his opening lines, the dealer implies that he takes advantage of customers' ignorance to make the greatest profit, even as he guards against other visitor’s dishonesty. Thus, the theme of virtue and vice is set up from the very first paragraph by a character who admits to using both to find his “windfalls.”

The rest of the conversation is marked by lies and paradoxes. For instance, the dealer says that he assumes that Markheim wants to sell an object inherited from his uncle. This seems like an innocent enough means of acquiring an item to sell. However, the dealer also calls out Markheim’s shifty behavior and emphasizes that he, the dealer, is “the essence of discretion, and [asks] no awkward questions.” He later remarks that Markheim is only one of several customers claiming to be “the nephew and sole heir of a remarkable collector.” From this, the reader can infer that the dealer is used to dealing in stolen properly and has met his fair share of dishonest customers looking to profit off other people’s possessions.

Perhaps the most obvious deception in this initial conversation is Markheim’s own: he says that he is there to buy a Christmas present for a engagement, when in reality, his objectives are murder and theft. Yet even though he is about to commit premeditated murder, Markheim attempts to extend the conversation, asking to know the dealer better. As he puts it: “Who knows? We might become friends.”

It should be acknowledged here that this remark is very swiftly followed by Markheim’s fatal attack on the dealer. It is a jarring switch, and it is hard to reconcile an attempt at potential friendship with this grim attack.

These deceptions and others mark the conversation between the dealer and Markheim. Conversely, that between the strange visitor and Markheim is somewhat remarkable for the apparent honesty with which the two speak to each other. This seems a strange thing to say to about a conversation between a murderer and a supernatural stranger accused of being the devil. Yet the stranger consistently and accurately warns Markheim of the approach of the servant girl and makes assessments of the murderer’s history and nature that the latter cannot deny. Similarly, what Markheim did not admit to the dealer, he does to the visitant—he had not made money in the Stock Exchange, but “lost some thousands.” He freely acknowledges the sins of his life, and admits that he has been growing lax in all his virtues and has fallen into more and more heinous sins—he has “gone down in all.”

The philosophies described by Markheim seem inconsistent as well. In the story, the reader witnesses the man commit vicious murder, yet the man looks on his victim with pity. He fears the retribution and judgment of man’s laws, yet “about God Himself he was at ease…he felt sure of justice.” It is the voices of children singing church hymns that brings him peace as he searches for the treasures he committed murder for. He knows that he is “worse than most” men but also claims to abhor evil and calls himself a reluctant sinner. When the visitant offers to tell him about the money, Markheim claims he “will do nothing to commit [himself] to evil,” as if he has not done just that by murdering the dealer.

Such paradoxes continue to the end of the story, where the greatest of all is revealed: that a man who can only live a life of evil may yet find freedom by accepting death. “My love of good is damned to barrenness…but I still have my hatred of evil.” So Markheim confesses his crime, though it will condemn him to the gallows. And the visitor, who has been encouraging Markheim through the entire conversation to find the money and escape, is “softened with a tender triumph” when Markheim resolves to reject his evil life by accepting his own death. Was the visitant the devil, as Markheim said? If so, why rejoice when the murderer chooses to cut short his own life rather than continue living in evil? Is a man who is willing to commit murder and look upon his victim with pity but “not a tremor” of penitence also capable of being a good man? Markheim believes a man should be judged by his heart. “You propose to judge me by my acts!” he exclaims to the visitor, asking him to “look within” instead.

There is so much more that can be discussed regarding these many inconsistencies throughout the text and the philosophies of the characters within. In the end, though, they seem to consistently pose this question: how is a man to be judged? Can a man who has lived an evil life still choose, in the end, to find grace?

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