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“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.

Major Themes

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...

(This entire section contains 944 words.)

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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.’”

Critical Reception

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.


Principal Works