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.

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 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

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

Fables 1896

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

Robert Louis Stevenson: Tales from the Prince of Storytellers [edited by Barry Menikoff] 1993

Treasure Island (novel) 1883

A Child's Garden of Verses (poetry) 1885

Kidnapped, Being Memoirs of the Adventures of David Balfour in the Year 1751 (novel) 1886

The Misadventures of John Nicholson: A Christmas Story (novel) 1887

The Wrong Box (novel) 1889

The Bottle Imp (novel) 1891

The Wrecker (novel) 1892

Catriona: A Sequel to Kidnapped (novel) 1893

Weir of Hermiston: An Unfinished Romance (novel) 1896

St. Ives, Being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England (novel) 1897

Selected Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson (letters) 1997


Alfred C. Ward (essay date 1924)

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...

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Ann Gossman (essay date 1962)

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 entire section is 1085 words.)

Joseph J. Egan (essay date 1966)

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...

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Irving S. Saposnik (essay date 1966)

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...

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Edwin M. Eigner (essay date 1966)

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...

(The entire section is 2536 words.)

Masao Miyoshi (essay date 1969)

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...

(The entire section is 721 words.)

C. F. Keppler (essay date 1972)

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...

(The entire section is 1311 words.)

Irving S. Saposnik (essay date 1974)

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...

(The entire section is 2516 words.)

Theodore Ziolkowski (essay date 1977)

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,...

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J. R. Hammond (essay date 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 1917 words.)

Harold Orel (essay date 1986)

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...

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John Herdman (essay date 1990)

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...

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Barry Menikoff (essay date 1993)

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...

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Susan Garland Mann and David D. Mann (review date 1994)

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...

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Further Reading


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...

(The entire section is 273 words.)