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(Short Story Criticism)

“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 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...

(The entire section is 944 words.)