Alfred C. Ward (essay date 1924)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2525

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 story by British writers may be said to begin: half a century or so after the form had been naturalized in America.

Even in regard to that late date, it is necessary to particularize British rather than English writers, since it was the Scottish mind and the Anglo-Indian that first found expression in the short story on the eastern side of the Atlantic. English writers might be mentioned who had practised in this branch of literature long before the eighteen-eighties; but there was none—certainly not Meredith—who had found in the prose short story a medium that befitted his genius incomparably better than any other form. Almost without exception, these earlier experimenters had been novelists first and foremost, and short-story writers only incidentally.

“A deal of Ariel, just a streak of Puck, much Antony, of Hamlet most of all, and something of the Shorter-Catechist”: thus had W. E. Henley catalogued a few of the ingredients that go to the making of a Robert Louis Stevenson. Not improbably, a somewhat closer analysis might reveal more than a trace of Don Quixote and Falstaff. At least, where Stevenson the short-story writer is concerned, it may be felt that the delicious freakishness of the one and the full-bodied humour of the other each contributed to the diverse moods which govern tales ranging from “The Sire de Malétroit's Door,” through “Providence and the Guitar,” to “Markheim” and “Thrawn Janet.” But in these and other stories there is also Puck and Ariel and, markedly, the Shorter-Catechist.

Why, with Stevenson, did attention become sharply focussed upon the short story in English literature? The material facts of the growth of periodical literature, and the emergence of a new reading public with no great time to spare, must not be overlooked; yet the primary reason in the case of Stevenson is not to be found there. By more than a few, it has been maintained that R. L. S. the essayist out-tops any other aspect of R. L. S., in spite of the fact that the Samoan natives found the one right name for him in Tusitala—the tale-teller. Stevenson's upbringing and all his characteristics inclined him toward the spinning of yarns, and his mind had been crammed with weird tales.

He grew up, therefore, with a wealth of fictional matter at command; and he possessed a moderated gift of invention. It was at this point that his limitations determined that he should be a maker of short stories rather than of novels. He had no sustained power either in narrative or invention. When he essayed a novel, the resultant book always fell far short of the five or six hundred pages customary in Victorian novels; and, even so, he had frequently to whip his mind, which usually proved an unwilling steed on such excursions. All would go swimmingly for a matter of fifty pages or so—after that, a prolonged and despairing halt ere a fresh impetus was provided.

Necessity rather than choice, therefore—a lack of “staying-power” rather than any special predilection—determined Stevenson's adoption of the short-story form; and to this must be added that the short story is more readily adaptable to the moralizing and sermonizing tendency which was dear to Stevenson the Shorter-Catechist. Four, at least, of the six stories in The Merry Men have a more “serious” intention than mere provision of entertainment. In the “New Arabian Nights,” not even the incident of “The Young Man with the Cream Tarts” is allowed to go by without “a bit of a preach” from Prince Florizel; while “A Lodging for the Night”—which begins so well—simply fades into a vapour of moral discourse from “a very dull old gentleman.”

Whatever compulsion a limited inventive equipment may have exercised in turning Stevenson's attention to the short story, the circumstance nevertheless proved to be a fortunate one. He brought to this department of fiction, artistic consciousness and deliberate craftsmanship which a more fertile mind could scarcely have stayed to contribute. Since the core was so small in compass, the substance imposed upon it demanded more than average attention. When Denis de Beaulieu stumbles inside the Sire de Malétroit's open door, and is given the choice either of immediate marriage with a girl he has never seen before or of being hanged before sunrise, the situation seems most promising. At that early stage, however, the story as a dramatic conception ends, and all the rest might be described as melancholy bickering between Denis and Blanche, followed by hiccups of grief, and a final Lyceum curtain as Denis takes the supple body of Blanche in his arms and covers her wet face with kisses! When Markheim murders the antique-dealer on the fifth page of the story, the action is finished; and the remaining twenty pages are given up to the murderer's meditations and hallucinations. In “Will o' the Mill” there is, quite intentionally, no dramatic movement: the hero does not plunge into the stream of life and activity at all—he stagnates on its verge.

These assertions would seem to militate against the suggestion that Stevenson was essentially a tale-teller; yet it would be difficult to substantiate any proposition that effective tale-telling postulates prodigality and richness of invention. Mr. Ernest Bramah's “Kai Lung” tales are among the most joyous things in modern story-telling. Not because of any full-bloodedness in their plots, but because of their altogether delectable verbal embroidery. Is there any evidence that the old-time minstrel poured out incident after incident in a fine dramatic crescendo? The probability is that his “tale” constituted only the thinnest possible thread, and that it was by felicitous decoration he held the attention of his crowd.

Neither embroidery nor decoration is apposite as a term to be used in reference to Stevenson's stories. Among the foremost principles of his art was the conviction that, wherever possible, one sentence should be made to do the work of two. In other words, he practised what Walter Pater preached—that, in regard to prose style, “all art does but consist in the removal of surplusage.”

As a writer, Stevenson's handicaps were considerable. Limited power of invention, allied with a scrupulous regard for economy of expression, necessitated the importation of other elements to fill the gaps. One such element favoured by R. L. S. was, of course, the moralizing element. But his resources did not end there. Natural description played its part (cf. “Olalla” and “Will o' the Mill”); as also did humour (Providence and the Guitar), and diablerie (“Thrawn Janet”), and sentiment (“The Sire de Malétroit's Door”), and bizarrerie (A Lodging for the Night), and the colouring which travel in far lands enabled him to give (“The Bottle Imp,” etc.).

When all exceptions and provisos have been sufficiently stated (and their statement is necessary for the salutary and friendly protection of Stevenson from extravagant appraisement) three facts remain: that Stevenson gave invaluable service as a pioneer of the short story in English literature; that his influence upon later writers has been deep and incalculable; and that however “thin” his plots and however extensive his “padding,” he captures and retains the reader's interest with a skill which was and is the secret of R. L. S.'s popularity. So far as it is possible to analyse that secret, we may say that its pabulum consisted in a measure of generalized human experience and understanding of the main phases of human emotion.

A census calculated to elicit a verdict as to Stevenson's most popular short story, would probably show the votes fairly evenly distributed among six or ten pieces. A large number of writers of short stories were asked by a New York newspaper, in 1914, to name “point-blank” the best short story in English. Stevenson's “A Lodging for the Night” was one of two stories which gained a large majority of votes over all other stories.1 That verdict was no doubt given because of the verve and brilliancy and dramatic colouring which are striking features in the first half of this “story of Francis Villon.” (And it is not without significance, perhaps, that literary men should have chosen a story in which a literary man is the central figure.) A vote taken among “average readers” would probably show that “The Sire de Malétroit's Door” commands wide popularity, on account of its pathos and sweet sentiment—at which the hypercritical reader gibes, maintaining that both pathos and sentiment in this story are shoddy and insincere.

And so, if readers were canvassed section by section, it would most likely be found that “Markheim,” “Thrawn Janet,” “The Suicide Club,” “The Bottle Imp,” “Will o' the Mill,” and several other stories each command a large following, for the very reason that Stevenson's outlook upon life was not that of any particular class or type. Above all things he was a humanist; and in nothing was he incomprehensibly profound. He had most of the domestic virtues, and a good many of the civic; he possessed the courage and fortitude which many men admire and delight to exercise—by proxy; his religion was all-embracing and non-dogmatic; and with it all, he was an adventurer and a bohemian. As we read him, we choose what we love most from among those characteristics; and—what is the really significant fact—however we are constituted, most of us find something in him to which we respond vigorously, something which excites admiration and even affection (neglecting those who profess to feel only strong disliking).

Setting aside the question as to which is Stevenson's “best” story, and turning to The Merry Men, we find in that volume three of his most remarkable stories standing together—“Will o' the Mill,” “Markheim,” and “Thrawn Janet.” These do not represent the whole range of his work in the briefer kind of fiction, but at least one from among them would almost certainly find a place in nearly every list of his best three stories.


Devolution is the underlying idea in several of Stevenson's stories. In “Will o' the Mill” the retrograde process is conducted along passive lines in the individual; in “Olalla,” an example of racial devolution is displayed in its penultimate manifestation, before a once-noble family finally flickers out in bestiality and disappears into darkness; and in “Markheim,” we are given another instance of devolution as affecting the individual—this time as a consequence of positive wrong-doing. Markheim has committed lesser crimes before he murders the dealer in an antique-shop on Christmas Day while the servant-girl is out and the victim is alone. Again the author's endeavour is to make the atmosphere accordant with the nature of the incidents recorded. Markheim obtains entrance to the shop on the pretext that he requires a Christmas present for a lady with whom he is to dine that night. The dealer suggests a fifteenth-century handglass, which Markheim immediately and vehemently rejects as a “damned reminder of years, and sins and follies”—a “hand-conscience.” As the dealer stoops to replace the glass, Markheim stabs him. Then the murderer's ordeal begins. The ticking of a score or so of clocks in the shop; the dark shadows nodding and swelling and dwindling as the candle-flame flickers in the draught; the unexpected chiming of the clocks; and a sudden knocking on the outer door by a casual visitor: all these help to intensify the murderer's nervous tension—and the reader's suspense. At length Markheim screws up his courage sufficiently to mount the stairs to the drawing-room above, in search of the dealer's money. He sits down to sort out the keys:

And as he sat thus, at once busy and absent, he was startled to his feet. A flash of ice, a flash of fire, a bursting gush of blood went over him, and then he stood transfixed and thrilling. A step mounted the stair slowly and steadily, and presently a hand was laid upon the knob, and the lock clicked, and the door opened.

The visitant is Markheim's own evil spirit; and in a long colloquy the murderer is made to see that, despite good resolves, all his efforts at reform have been abortive and that his path is inexorably downward. Only one door to freedom remains for him—to cease from action and pay the penalty of his crimes. When the dealer's servant-maid returns and rings the door-bell, Markheim confronts her “upon the threshold with something like a smile. ‘You had better go for the police,’ said he: ‘I have killed your master.’” With those words the story is brought to a close which is as effective as its beginning. “Markheim” is as much a sermon as any discourse that ever came from a pulpit. Even as in Hawthorne's stories, the artist may be seen struggling with the moralist and trying to keep him within the bounds of a readable and intriguing narrative. For about half the story this effort succeeds; but with the appearance of the visitant, the artist is shouldered aside, and does not reassert himself until the very end. From the standpoint of æsthetics, it is no doubt impossible to regard that colloquy as other than an unwarrantable intrusion. Nevertheless, the parable type of short story is so long-lived that it is useless to cavil. Granting the permissibility of the parable type, and predicating the beginning and end of “Markheim” as written by Stevenson, it is infinitely easier to say that the dialogue referred to is inartistic, than it is to suggest a changed method of treating the theme without further offence to principles of literary art. The transition from the world of matter to that of intangible presences is abrupt and incredible; there has been no prior suggestion of our being poised waveringly between the material and the psychical; and the adjustment required to accommodate us to the sudden demand upon poetic faith is only to be made with difficulty. Once that adjustment is made, however, we find no more difficulty in accepting Markheim's visitant than we find in accepting the Good and Bad Angels of Faustus.


Stevenson was one of the most mannered among English writers, and a well-trained artificer in words, but he had in his keeping the keys to elemental forces that reck nothing of stylistic niceties. R. L. S. is beloved not because he dressed his phrases in purple and fine linen, but because he knew that fairies, and bogies, and tears, and courage, and kindly sentiment, are cherished in common by the greatest and the least among men.


  1. H. T. Baker's “The Contemporary Short Story.”

Ann Gossman (essay date 1962)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1085

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 knocking at the gate in Macbeth. Some of the images in “Markheim” recall images in Macbeth. What I would suggest, then, is that both the play and De Quincey's theorizing about it may have influenced Stevenson's imagination when he sought to convey the state of mind of his murderer.

Stevenson's story well illustrates De Quincey's theory about the point of view from which a story of murder should be told: that of murderer, not victim. The victim's-eye-view would result in “vulgar horror,” and it would appeal to “the natural and ignoble instinct by which we cleave to life.” The victim's attitude is “abject and humiliating.” Therefore the writer must consider the murderer, who carries within him a much more interesting hell. He must arouse the reader's sympathy in the sense of comprehension, “not a sympathy of pity or approbation.”2

Such an aim, to arouse not only horror, but comprehension and belief, was Stevenson's when he wrote from the point of view of Markheim. He is at pains to make Markheim's victim a dry, sharp antique dealer with no claims other than mere humanity upon our sympathy. “Not charitable; not pious; not scrupulous; unloving, unbeloved,” is the verdict of the possibly somewhat prejudiced Markheim; but the dealer does not contradict him, and he repudiates love as nonsense.3 Here is no gracious Duncan, king and guest, or even friend and host, but a small-souled man distinguished not even by a name. (The monstrous irony, of course, lies in his murderer's assumption of the right to judge the charity of the man whom he is killing for his money.) Whereas Duncan lies dead, “His silver skin laced with his golden blood,” the dealer, likewise stabbed with a dagger—a skewer-like dagger—struggles “like a hen” and then lies on the floor in a heap. In this abject posture he is a much better illustration than Duncan of De Quincey's idea of the dehumanized victim.

Markheim, for that matter, is not quite such a murderer “as a poet will condescend to,” for a tragedy, at any rate; but he confronts, like Macbeth, a world of images to be read in terms of his own guilt, and apparitions that dramatize his spiritual position. The sound of knocking first makes Macbeth conscious of his crime as he wonders whether great Neptune's ocean could cleanse his hands of blood; the sound of a lad's feet on the pavement outside the dealer's house causes Markheim to become conscious of his situation and to notice how the candle flame causes the room to heave like a sea with shadows. Beleaguered with images and reflections, he approaches the “brink of lunacy” and tries to combat hallucinations.

As De Quincey puts it, when the fiend nature takes over, ordinary life, from which the murderer is cut off, is suspended, and time must be annihilated. (The horror for Markheim includes the knowledge that time has ended for his victim, but is not annihilated for him; it may be his Nemesis.) Then, says De Quincey, the reaction of the outer world must be made known audibly:

The human has made its reflux upon the fiendish; the pulses of life are beginning to beat again; and the re-establishment of the goings-on of the world in which we live first makes us profoundly sensible of the awful parenthesis that had suspended them.4

Hence the knocking is heard, and the Porter, who plays at being the Porter of Hell-Gate, reveals how far the fiend-nature of the murderer has become alienated from humanity.

In “Markheim” a very jovial gentleman knocks, shouts railleries, and calls the dealer by name. Markheim looks to see whether he has waked the dealer with his knocking, but he has not; he has merely awakened the reader's attention to an innocent world that celebrates Christmas Day instead of using it as a convenient time for a murder. For Markheim, the victim, whom he re-examines, is repulsively nonhuman: “The face was robbed of all expression; but it was as pale as wax, and shockingly smeared with blood.” Lady Macbeth insists that her husband is unduly craven:

          the sleeping and the dead
Are but as pictures: 'tis the eye of childhood
That fears a painted devil.

(II, iii, 53–55)

What Markheim remembers at this point is precisely what the eye of his childhood had feared: a great screen with garish pictures of murderers and their victims. The horror is that these “painted effigies of crime” had moved him more than the reality now does.

Bent upon his own gain and remote from contrition (as Macbeth was also), Markheim dreads the consequences of his own miscalculations and even fears (as Macbeth refuses to fear) “some wilful illegality of nature”; but he rationalizes (unlike Macbeth) that he is still “innocent in the sight of God.” As Stevenson remarks elsewhere, “There is nothing so monstrous but we can believe it of ourselves.”5 Markheim must face an apparition in order to acquire self-knowledge, but from this point he and Macbeth diverge entirely. The symbolic Doppelgänger, whom the earlier Christmas visitor foreshadowed (if a material presence may be said to foreshadow an immaterial one), confronts Markheim and elicits from him a recognition of the truth. When the visitor assumes the role of supernatural tempter or Bad Angel by offering Markheim secure possession of the money—but not grace—Markheim rejects evil. Powerless to do good, he is still free to resist evil; his spiritual victory is his acceptance of the death penalty. When the “impatient clamour” of the normal world breaks in once more with the return of the servant girl, he tells her to summon the police, for he has killed her master.


  1. Robert Louis Stevenson, “A Gossip on Romance,” Works (New York, 1921), XII, 193.

  2. Thomas De Quincey, “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth,The Collected Writings, ed. David Masson (London, 1897), X, 391.

  3. Stevenson, “Markheim,” Works, XI, 132–133.

  4. De Quincey, X, 393.

  5. Stevenson, “Virginibus Puerisque, II,” Works, II, 26.

Joseph J. Egan (essay date 1966)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3040

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 of this paper is to show that Stevenson's intention in “Markheim” was to present not a short story as such, but a moral fable in the form of an exploration of his main character's mind. The entire atmosphere of the tale is presented as remote and preternatural in order to reduce the elements of realism in the story to a functional minimum. The movement of “Markheim” is thus to a large degree symbolic, and, as we shall see, the setting of the story gradually becomes the central character's own mind.

It is significant that the pawnbroker's shop in which the entire tale takes place contains “many rich mirrors” (p. 109)3 that hold a strange kind of terror for Markheim: “He saw his face repeated and repeated, as it were an army of spies; his own eyes met and detected him” (pp. 109–110). The mirrors seem to accuse Markheim of his evil and become suggestive of the many depths and facets within his own soul. Though he savagely plunges a dagger into the back of the shopkeeper, Markheim can still find meaning in the remembrance of childhood innocence: “How fresh the youthful voices! Markheim gave ear to it smilingly … and his mind was thronged with answerable ideas and images; church-going children and the pealing of the high organ; children afield, bathers by the brookside, ramblers on the brambly common” (p. 117). It is because Markheim yet shows an attachment to goodness that the reflections in the mirrors can seem so horrible to him; if evil had gained complete control over his life, the voice of his conscience would have been silenced forever. The mirrors which so mercilessly reveal Markheim's spiritual decay to his own anguished eyes are thus the means by which Stevenson prepares us for the conclusion of the tale where Markheim's conscience, the better self in his soul, appears to him and persuades him to forego evil.

The pawnbroker himself is closely associated with the mirrors in his shop, and indeed he offers the fifteenth-century hand glass to Markheim: “‘I ask you,’ said Markheim, ‘for a Christmas present, and you give me this—this damned reminder of years, and sins and follies—this hand-conscience!’” (p. 106). Like the mirrors that he buys and sells, the pawnbroker, too, becomes a reflection of the evil within Markheim's own soul, as is suggested by the strange conversation in which the two men engage:

The dealer looked closely at his companion. It was very odd, Markheim did not appear to be laughing; there was something in his face like an eager sparkle of hope, but nothing of mirth.

“What are you driving at?” the dealer asked.

“Not charitable?” returned the other, gloomily. “Not charitable; not pious; not scrupulous; unloving, unbeloved; a hand to get money, a safe to keep it. Is that all? Dear God, man, is that all?”

(p. 107)

Immediately before this exchange, we were given an early glimpse of Markheim's attempt to rationalize his situation. He knows that he has done wrong, but he has deluded himself into thinking that his evil is not really an essential part of him and that he is as one with the pawnbroker, whom he tries to depict as being “in secret a very charitable man” (p. 106). But when the dealer shows his disdain for goodness and human sentiments by labelling them “‘nonsense’” (p. 107), an awareness of the way in which he himself has continually chosen evil over the good is brought home to Markheim: “‘Every second is a cliff, if you think upon it—a cliff a mile high—high enough, if we fall, to dash us out of every feature of humanity’” (p. 107). It is important to our understanding of Stevenson's tale to realize why Markheim “‘cannot look [the dealer] in the eye’” (p. 104). Markheim has spent his life “pawning” his soul with good resolutions he had never intended to keep, but he will not admit the extent of his evil even to himself, and his murdering the pawnbroker is symbolic of his refusal to face the truth about his life.

In addition to his being the reflection of Markheim's own evil, the pawnbroker also functions to suggest the whole course of spiritual ruination which the murderer's life has taken. He is described as “the little pale, round-shouldered dealer” (p. 105) to call attention to the “sickly” nature of Markheim's soul, and he continually talks in terms of “time” to indicate that Markheim's spiritual condition is the result of a lifetime of self-delusion and neglect of humane values: “‘You will have to pay for my loss of time. … I in love! I never had the time, nor have I the time today for all this nonsense’” (pp. 104, 107). In fact, the dealer lives in “the house of time,” for his shop is filled with clocks and time-pieces of various centuries: “Time had some score of small voices in that shop, some stately and slow as was becoming to their great age; others garrulous and hurried. All these told out the seconds in an intricate chorus of tickings” (p. 108). The idea that Markheim sees in the pawnbroker the summation of the degradation of his whole life is given further emphasis when the contemplation of his victim's corpse carries the murderer back in time to a day in his boyhood on which he beheld in a fair booth reproductions of famous murder scenes:

The thing was as clear as an illusion; he was once again that little boy; he was looking once again, and with the same sense of physical revolt, at these vile pictures; he was still stunned by the thumping of the drums. A bar of that day's music returned upon his memory; and at that, for the first time, a qualm came over him, a breath of nausea, a sudden weakness of the joints, which he must instantly resist and conquer.

(p. 113)

Markheim has not been successful in his attempt to shut out guilt, for at this point the awareness of his evil is beginning to break in upon his thoughts and his salvation now becomes possible. And yet we are told that “the same heart which had shuddered before the painted effigies of crime, looked on its reality unmoved” (p. 114): “At best, he felt a gleam of pity for one who had been endowed in vain with all those faculties that can make the world a garden of enchantment, one who had never lived and who was now dead. But of penitence, no, not a tremour” (p. 114). The irony of this passage lies in our realization that Markheim is looking upon the image of his own soul's dissolution; and the murderer's lack of penitence indicates that he will have to pass a severe test before he can overcome the inhumanity which has been flourishing in his heart for a lifetime.

Although Markheim constantly fears that someone will discover the pawnbroker's body while he is searching for his money, these fears are really but an extension of the accusation of his own conscience. From the dark corners of Markheim's soul arises the terrible realization of his wickedness and guilt, and this realization haunts his thoughts:

He looked about him awfully. The candle stood on the counter, its flame solemnly wagging in a draught; and by that inconsiderable movement, the whole room was filled with noiseless bustle and kept heaving like a sea: the tall shadows nodding, the gross blots of darkness swelling and dwindling as with respiration, the faces of the portraits and the china gods changing and wavering like images in water. The inner door stood ajar, and peered into that leaguer of shadows with a long slit of daylight like a pointing finger.

(pp. 108–109)

The pawnbroker's house, then, becomes at once both the image and exterior reflection of Markheim's troubled mind, and as we follow the tormented murderer from chamber to chamber in this place of “mingled shine and darkness” (p. 104), we penetrate ever further into the depths of his psyche. It is in relationship to this interpretation of the significance of the dealer's house that the hero's name takes on symbolic overtones, for Markheim (Mark = German, essence; heim = German, house) may be translated as the essential house, that is, the house of the soul.

The strange movement of time now adds to the horror of this psychological journey into Markheim's mind, as the fleeting moments which are told off by the multitude of clocks in the dealer's shop become symbolic of the murderer's entire passage through life: “Outside, it had begun to rain smartly; and the sound of the shower upon the roof had banished silence. Like some dripping cavern, the chambers of the house were haunted by an incessant echoing, which filled the ear and mingled with the ticking of the clocks” (p. 114). The relentless raindrops become alternates to clock ticks, and the phrase “to plunge into a bath of London multitudes” suggests forgetfulness of time through a dissolution of individual identity and the sense of guilt: “Here was a broad hint to hurry what remained to be done, to get forth from this accusing neighbourhood, to plunge into a bath of London multitudes, and to reach, on the other side of day, that haven of safety and apparent innocence—his bed” (p. 112). Markheim's desire for his bed, his desire to “sleep,” symbolizes his wish to drive out all thoughts of his wasted life by putting an end to time through death, the eternal sleep. The twenty-four steps to the first story of the pawnbroker's dwelling, which we are told “were four-and-twenty agonies” for Markheim (p. 115), are suggestive of the twenty-four hours of the day and reinforce the time-movement motif of the story, which concentrates a lifetime of evil and guilt into minutes, as Markheim wanders alone in the dark passages of his own soul. Time seems to be closing in on the haunted murderer, and the phantom steps which dog his flight and the mysterious shadow that retreats before him herald the approach of the moment when Markheim will have to face his own conscience and make the final and irrevocable choice between good and evil: “He glanced over his shoulder at the open door, where the shadow was still lingering and shivering … and as he began with a great effort to mount the stairs, feet fled quietly before him and followed stealthily behind” (pp. 112, 115).

The upper drawing-room of the dealer's house symbolizes the innermost depths of Markheim's consciousness; he can go no further now but must answer the demands of conscience. The confused state of the drawing-room mirrors the disorder within the murderer's soul: “The room was quite dismantled, uncarpeted besides, and strewn with packing-cases and incongruous furniture” (pp. 116–117). We are told that “the windows [of the room] opened to the floor; but by great good fortune the lower part of the shutters had been closed, and this concealed him from the neighbours” (p. 117). Of course, the fact that the shutters conceal Markheim from the observation of others is ironic, for they also “shut” him in to the dreadful scrutiny of his own conscience. Significantly, like the ground floor shop, the drawing-room, too, contains “several great pier-glasses, in which he beheld himself at various angles, like an actor on a stage” (p. 117).

“Markheim” is the first of Stevenson's tales in which the alter-ego appears as a distinct personality, and the mysterious visitor who enters the door of the drawing-room is thus the figure of Markheim's better self come to confront the evil in his soul. It is important to see that the better self appears at precisely the moment that Markheim hears “the music of a hymn, and the voices of many children” from “the other side” of the partition (p. 117) and begins to think back on past moments of goodness: “And then, at another cadence of the hymn, back again to church, and the somnolence of summer Sundays, and the high genteel voice of the parson (which he smiled a little to recall) … and the dim lettering of the Ten Commandments in the chancel” (pp. 117–118). The other side of the partition symbolizes “the other side” of Markheim's life—the past goodness from which his evil has now separated him; and his generous response to these memories of innocence represents the first step in the murderer's spiritual and psychological salvation, for it brings on the flow of his better emotions, as signified by the appearance of the alter-ego.

The voice of Markheim's conscience now becomes another self which assumes the role of a demon tormentor in order to draw forth the last vestiges of goodness from the murderer's heart. At first Markheim continues his rationalizing and desperately tries to pass himself off as a kind of Byronic hero who has a strange secret hidden in his soul which drives him on to evil: “‘My life is but a travesty and slander on myself. I have lived to belie my nature … I am worse than most; my self is more overlaid; my excuse is known to me and God’” (pp. 119–120). But the excuses and self-deception which the murderer advances in defense of his wicked deeds all fall in their turn before the relentless exposé of the alter-ego. The visitor finally forces Markheim to admit that there is not one thing in which he has improved but that he has steadily withdrawn himself from all goodness: “‘No,’ he added, with despair, ‘in none! I have gone down in all’” (p. 124). In the closing passages of “Markheim,” Stevenson seems to anticipate the methods of modern psychiatry since Markheim is capable of declaring for goodness only after he acknowledges his evil and honestly confesses it to his better self without attempting to hide any part of his guilt: “‘It is true,’ said Markheim; ‘and I see clearly what remains for me by way of duty. I thank you for these lessons from my soul; my eyes are opened, and I behold myself at last for what I am’” (p. 125).

By disguising himself as the vile agent of evil, the visitor is able to summon up all of Markheim's hatred and loathing for the wickedness in his soul. Stevenson's use of irony in the debate between Markheim and his alter-ego gives a subtle emphasis and an additional artistic dimension to the meaning of the story.4 The better self taunts Markheim with the idea that “‘you will never change … the words of your part on this stage are irrevocably written down’” (p. 125), and Markheim becomes convinced that his tormentor is correct: “‘My love of good is damned to barrenness; it may, and let it be! But I have still my hatred of evil; and from that, to your galling disappointment, you shall see that I can draw both energy and courage’” (p. 126). Though Markheim believes that he is no longer capable of doing good, his better self has been so successful in calling forth the murderer's hatred of evil that Markheim is actually spurred on to an objectively good act. Thus when the pawnbroker's maid returns to her employer's shop, the visitor urges Markheim to kill her and thereby free himself from the danger of arrest for his crime. But the alter-ego has counted on Markheim's not complying with his promptings; and when he says to him, “‘Up, friend; your life hangs trembling in the scales! up, and act!’” (p. 125) it is for the “life” of his soul that he wishes Markheim to act. Markheim's hatred of the evil which he has allowed to flourish in his soul moves him to tell the shopkeeper's maid to call the police, 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” (p. 126).

The Christmas Day setting of “Markheim” suggests that Stevenson wanted us to see that the alter-ego enters the winter twilight of the drawing-room as the savior of the hero's soul. The visitor has helped Markheim restore his soul to a measure of order by making him admit his spiritual degradation to himself. This confession of guilt moves from an interior to an exterior level of consciousness and the realistic mood of the story is reinstated when Markheim opens the door of the dealer's shop to the returning maid. His subsequent request for the police represents the murderer's removal of the mask of self-deception and false goodness under which he had sought to conceal his evil from society. In admitting to the public crime of murder, Markheim openly acknowledges his “crime” against his own soul and his willingness to accept the consequences of his accumulated evils.


  1. Clayton Hamilton, On the Trail of Stevenson, 2nd ed. (Garden City, N.Y., 1915), p. 61.

  2. Ann Gossman, “On the Knocking at the Gate in ‘Markheim,’” NCF, XVII (1962), 73–76.

  3. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1911. All citations made in the text will be from this edition, the Thistle, VII. Occasionally upper- and lower-case letters have been altered in references to “Markheim” for the sake of clarity and improved appearance.

  4. Stevenson's critics have failed to comment upon the subtle irony in the words of Markheim's visitor, and they usually take at face value his contention that Markheim is incapable of any kind of good action. (See, for example, Ralph Tymms, Doubles in Literary Psychology [Cambridge, England, 1949]: “At last Markheim sees himself as he really is, hopelessly enslaved to evil: yet he determines to take the one step that can destroy the tyranny he can no longer disobey, by a negative effort of revolt; for if his acts must always be evil, he can at least cease from action, and lay down the life he is powerless to improve” [p. 92].)

Irving S. Saposnik (essay date 1966)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2617

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 Some, on the other hand, are uncertain as to the nature of the visitant,2 while others refrain from pinning a qualitative label on the visitant, and instead give a psychological identity, calling it Markheim's “unconscious self” and his conscience.3 There are several elements in the tale which indicate that the nonqualitative readings come closest to Stevenson's intention.

The Christmas setting, for example, is a deliberate attempt to place the action at a time most fit for introspection. Christmas, as Stevenson points out in his essay “A Christmas Sermon,” is the end of another year, “moving us to thoughts of self-examination.”4 Since Markheim refuses to engage in just such self-examination, it is most appropriate that his murderous act occur on Christmas Day and that his conscience confront him after the sounds of a Christmas hymn have turned his thoughts back to the neglected moral teachings of his childhood.

The tale's religious atmosphere is further strengthened by several key references to God: Markheim's desire to hide himself under the bedclothes where he might be “invisible to all but God”; his belief in the exceptional quality of his acts, which warrant God's mild judgment; his fear that his subconscious self “was not of the earth and not of God.” Thus, both the Christmas setting and the Godly references suggest that Markheim's confrontation with his conscience possesses the quality of a religious experience. This experience, however, is not analogous to Christian renunciation, as Edward Eigner believes,5 but rather to Christian self-examination, which here motivates renunciation only because examination did not come sooner. To suggest, then, that Markheim's final action was “the will of heaven,” as Eigner does, is not only to revert to Penzoldt's opinion that the God of “Markheim” is a vengeful God, but to absolve Markheim of the responsibility which he all too conveniently shuns.

Markheim shuns this responsibility because he is a moral coward, the same type of moral coward presented in other Stevensonian writings. Like Deacon Brodie, for example, he refuses to acknowledge responsibility for his sinful acts and is unwilling to recognize his involvement with evil and its involvement in himself. Steeped in vice, he commits the ultimate act of murder which releases his pent-up conscience, who now confronts him with the nature of his actions and cleverly tricks him into accepting the responsibility which he so carefully avoided. Nonetheless, even at his moment of fullest self-recognition, Markheim is not man enough to “co-endure with his existence” (“A Christmas Sermon,” XVI, 308), but, confronted with his evil inclinations, he can do naught but commit himself to death. This “death-wish” of Markheim's, his confusion of recognition with resignation, places him among still other Stevensonian characters who too easily accept passivity as a solution to existential complexity.6 The religious references, therefore, do not emphasize the virtues of renunciation but rather make clear the hazards and indeed the un-Christian nature of self-delusion. The appropriateness of the Christmas setting is, then, apparent, for it is at the conclusion of another year's activity that man must account for his actions by examining both his actions and himself.

Markheim's self-examination is motivated by an act not different in kind but in degree from that which he had committed in the past. “All sins are murder,” exclaims the visitant (p. 275),7 but the cruelty of this final sin has released the conscience which Markheim was too fearful to acknowledge previously. This fear is exemplified by Markheim's reluctance to look at himself. At the outset of the tale, he upbraids the pawnbroker for presenting him with a mirror, “this damned reminder of years, and sins and follies—this hand-conscience” (p. 275); while after the murder he is staggered to see his face repeated “in many rich mirrors … as it were an army of spies …” (p. 277). It is only when his subconscious goad finally taunts him into self-examination that he begins to see himself for what he really is.

This subconscious goad, it should now be clear, is itself neither God, angel, nor devil. It is, rather, that part of the individual, namely the conscience, which stores up guilt, “the objective consequence of sinful action,”8 and then confronts its possessor with his responsibilities. Indeed, it truly, as it says, lives for evil, for without the inevitable paradigm of evil, sin, and guilt, the conscience would “perish from disuse.” Yet man's inherent evil insures that it is rarely unemployed. Never able to be pacified (“A Christmas Sermon,” XVI, 311), it remains a “rabbinical fellow given to morbid sensibilities”; “a dangerous faculty,” which “must be employed but not indulged” (“Reflections and Remarks on Human Life,” XVI, 362). Markheim neither employs nor indulges his conscience; he tries instead to forget its existence entirely and thus impels its assertiveness.

The conscience's appearance is thus well prepared for by Markheim's reluctance to recognize it, while its presence is suggested even before it appears. First there is the above-mentioned incident with the hand-mirror and Markheim's unwillingness to look into this “hand-conscience.” Then, after the murder, Markheim is “beleaguered by many shadows.” He is constantly aware of some presence observing him as he retreats from the murder room:

Yes, he was alone, of course; and yet, in the bulk of empty house above him, he could surely hear a stir of delicate footing—he was surely conscious, inexplicably conscious, of some presence. Ay, surely; to every room and corner of the house his imagination followed it; and now it was a faceless thing, and yet had eyes to see with, and again it was a shadow of himself; and yet again beheld the image of the dead dealer, reinspired with cunning and hatred.

(p. 279)

In time the shadow grows more palpable and the footsteps less delicate, until Markheim hears a thumping upon the stairs and is confronted by his likeness. The visitant promptly points out that it has appeared because of Markheim's summons and, addressing him in a tone of “everyday politeness,” slowly and craftily begins to establish Markheim's guilt. When Markheim accuses it of being the devil, it neither affirms nor denies the attribution, but continues to prod him with its knowledge of his actions. Markheim, however, denies that anyone or anything could know him: “My life is but a travesty and slander on myself. I have lived to belie my nature” (p. 285). But his likeness still continues to claim that it knows him “to the soul.” Markheim scoffs at this claim and asserts that if the visitant really knew him, it would see that his evil actions have not been of his own making, but that he has been forced by “the giants of circumstance” into deeds of an unwilling sinner. His double, however, still persists, refusing to allow him to find comfort in self-delusion. Assuming the role of devil's advocate, which Markheim had himself suggested, the conscience, by process of reverse argument, taunts Markheim into finally seeing himself; by posing as the epitome of evil, the conscience succeeds in effecting that which it could not effect in its customary guise. For Markheim knows only disguise, and the subconscious self must approach him on his own terms in order to force him to acknowledge his guilt, a guilt conditioned by an evil will which he had early become aware of but was too fearful to admit. Reared in a pious household, familiar with the sound of the Sabbath organ, the noble books, the talk about innocence and guilt, Markheim undoubtedly learned about man's inherent evil, yet he plunged forward into a sinfulness that he hoped would allow him to forget that he shared this inheritance with all of humanity. Unable to forget, however, this British child with a German name has now traveled past “the borderland of good and evil” to find the bounds of home (Mark-Heim) only in death.9

His conscience allows Markheim to believe that he freely chooses death at the moment when he decides to give himself up to the police, but it is clear that the death choice was made at that moment when Markheim first set out on his evil ways, for he then allowed evil to gain full control of his actions. He, himself, must finally admit that his evil is paramount: “I have gone down in all” (p. 290). As his double points out, in his decline he has also lost any chance of God's mercy:

Two or three years ago, did I did not see you on the platform of revival meetings, and was not your voice the loudest in the hymn? For six and thirty years. … I have watched you steadily fall. Fifteen years ago you would have started at a theft. Three years ago you would have blenched at the name of murder. Is there any crime, is there any cruelty or meanness, from which you still recoil? … Downward, downward lies your way; nor can anything but death avail to stop you!

(pp. 289–290)

Markheim has no way out; his life would be a prolonged series of evil actions; death, if unknown, is at least an end. Thus, his subconscious self succeeds in getting Markheim to realize that his one act of “freedom” is to renounce his existence: “It is true,” said Markheim, “and I see clearly what remains for me by way of duty. … If I be condemned to evil acts … there is still one door of freedom open—I can cease from action. If my life be an ill thing, I can lay it down” (pp. 290–291). Perhaps, as he comes to realize, his love of good is “doomed to barrenness,” but Markheim believes that he can still thwart his double and, to its “galling disappointment,” deny its “evil” promptings. With Markheim's decision to give himself up, the conscience's function is ended; only death remains, and the subconscious self can now await its own quiet haven, its job completed: “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” (p. 291). Markheim, however, “did not pause to watch or understand the transformation,” but intent upon a death which will finally bring forgetfulness, he gives himself up “with something like a smile.”

It should be clear from the above comments that to categorize either the promptings of the conscience or Markheim's surrender as good or evil is to simplify Stevenson's intent. They are neither solely good nor solely evil because they are, under the circumstances, inevitable, and since there is no choice involved there can be no simple qualitative result. This inevitability is produced by a commitment to both sinful action and hypocrisy, the joint refuge of a moral coward. Such a commitment is initially conditioned by an attempt to dichotomize ethical values into strict polarities in order to absolve the self from responsibility. Viewed according to this ethical psychology, “Markheim” may be read as another in a series of Stevensonian investigations into the complexities of the human personality, with its necessity for self-recognition and subsequent moral action despite an inherent evil which insures certain failure: “There is indeed one element in human destiny that not blindness itself can controvert: whatever else we are intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted” (“A Christmas Sermon,” XVI, 309).


  1. Three recent critics who may be included in this category are: Stephen Gwynn, Robert Louis Stevenson (London, 1939), p. 127:

    “But the murderer's secret movements … are soon interrupted by the arrival of another person, who, after presenting himself as the devil, is slowly transformed into Markheim's better self. …”

    Richard Aldington, Portrait of a Rebel: The Life and Work of Robert Louis Stevenson (London, 1957), p. 171:

    “The visitor so startlingly intruding on the scene of the crime is the ‘devil’ but is also Jesus, and is an allegory of the conflict ‘good-evil’ in Markheim's soul.” Edwin Moss Eigner, “The Double in the Fiction of R. L. Stevenson,” diss. State University of Iowa, 1963, p. 144:

    “This [the visitant's ‘tender triumph’] is by far the highest token of praise which Stevenson accords to one of his resigning heroes. The act of life-desertion seems here really the will of heaven.”

  2. One of the more uncertain critics is Peter Penzoldt, The Supernatural in Fiction (London, 1952), p. 107, who at first suggests that “the tempter was not Satan, but God, or at least an angel …” and then elaborates upon this by stating that the visitant is “the devil, who eventually proves to be God,” and then shortly after concludes, “The God of ‘Markheim’ represents the vengeful character of the perverted puritan deity, which tradition exhorted Stevenson to worship.”

  3. The more cautious critics are represented by Morton Dauwen Zabel, “Introduction,” Robert Louis Stevenson: The Two Major Novels (New York, 1960), p. xvii; and Alfred Michel, Robert Louis Stevenson: Sein Verhältnis Zum Bösen (Bern, 1949), p. 116. Though Michel cannot refrain from calling the visitant Markheim's “better self,” he still realizes that it is “an embodiment of his conscience.”

  4. Robert Louis Stevenson, The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Swanston Edition, 25 vols. (London, 1911): “A Christmas Sermon,” XVI, 309. All references to Stevenson's works, unless otherwise indicated, will be to this edition.

  5. Eigner, p. 145: “The story takes place on Christmas Day, and the hero's choice is presented as an example of Christian renunciation.”

  6. One finds this solution in Stevenson's adolescent poetry in the form of sensuality; in his An Inland Voyage (I, 103) in the form of “non-ego”; in his allegorical short story “Will O' The Mill” (VI, 216–263) in the form of solitude; and, in such fictional characters as Herrick in The Ebb-Tide, in the form of cowardly resignation.

  7. See in this connection Stevenson's essay, “The Ethics of Crime,” Vailima Edition, 26 vols. (London, 1922), XXIV, 275: “All sinful acts run to murder. Murder is a distinction without a difference.”

  8. The definition is Reinhold Niebuhr's in his The Nature and Destiny of Man, I (New York, 1964), 222.

  9. No critic, to my knowledge, has ever commented on the disparity between Markheim's nationality and his name. The fact that he has a German name, with obvious symbolic overtones, suggests that Stevenson intended to write an allegory in the German manner, a manner which he could have learned directly from his reading of Poe. Yet though Markheim's literary ancestors may be German, his domestic and religious background seems to be that of Scottish Presbyterianism. In fact, one can apply to Markheim Chesterton's comment about Henry Jekyll, that “there is something Caledonian about Dr. Jekyll,” G. K. Chesterton, Robert Louis Stevenson (London, n. d.), p. 69. There is “something Caledonian” about Markheim as well; not only in his moral rigidity but in his recollections of childhood:

    church-going children and the pealing of the high organ; children afield, bathers by the brookside, ramblers on the brambly common, kite-flyers in the windy and cloudnavigated sky … and the somnolence of summer Sundays, and the high genteel voice of the parson … and the painted Jacobean tombs, and the dim lettering of the Ten Commandments in the chancel (p. 284).

    Something comes over me out of the past; something of what I dreamed on Sabbath evenings to the sound of the church organ, of what I forecast when I shed tears over noble books, or talked, an innocent child, with my mother (p. 288).

Edwin M. Eigner (essay date 1966)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2536

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 Nights. But it is not at all necessary in such works for the hero to begin, as Brodie does, with a belief in his essential depravity. Indeed, the title character of the story “Markheim” starts by denying that there is any evil at all in his real nature. Such a conviction is equally wrong, and certainly it is equally dangerous, for it, too, must lead inevitably to a rejection of self and to suicide.

Markheim has just committed a murder, but he is certain that God understands and forgives him. “His act,” Markheim admits, “was doubtless exceptional, but so were his excuses, which God knew; it was there, and not among men, that he felt sure of justice” (xi, 143). Like Hogg's justified sinner, and like Bulwer's Eugene Aram, Markheim believes that evil actions need not stain the character of the good man. Thus he says:

I have lived to belie my nature. All men do; all men are better than this disguise that grows about and stifles them. You see each dragged away by life, like one whom bravos have seized and muffled in a cloak. … I was born and I have lived in a land of giants; giants have dragged me by the wrists since I was born out of my mother—the giants of circumstance. And you would judge me by my acts! But can you not look within? Can you not understand that evil is hateful to me?

(xi, 147–148)

This comfortable explanation is, of course, exactly contrary to Deacon Brodie's. Here it is the good self which is essential, and the evil acts which form the misleading disguise. Nevertheless, Markheim is as little able as Brodie to maintain his theory. He doubts it even as he speaks, for his troubled conscience has projected an imaginary double, a diabolic look-alike, to debate the matter with him. Pressed by the arguments of his double, which are, of course, his own arguments, Markheim must recognize the duality of his nature. He must admit that he has “in some degree complied with evil.” Yet he is not about to make peace with this wickedness. Instead, he defies it.

Shall one part of me, and that the worst, continue until the end to override the better? Evil and good run strong in me, haling me both ways. I do not love the one thing, I love all. I can conceive great deeds, renunciations, martyrdoms; and though I be fallen to such a crime as murder, pity is no stranger to my thoughts. … And are my vices only to direct my life, and my virtues to lie without effect, like some passive lumber of the mind? Not so; good, also, is a spring of acts.

(xi, 152)

Of course, everything we have seen in Stevenson tells against such a hope. The only action that can come from good seems to be the act of resignation from life, and Markheim, forced to the wall by the renewed arguments of his imaginary double, finally realizes this fact; and, as we might expect, he embraces it as a solution. “If I be condemned to evil acts,” he reasons, “there is still one door of freedom open—I can cease from action. If my life be an ill thing, I can lay it down” (xi, 154).

Markheim's double, as we have noted, has been presented as a devil-figure. Up to the very last moment he has been encouraging the hero to “act,” urging him to kill the murdered pawnbroker's maid, who threatens to return and discover the crime. Action, as usual in Stevenson, runs on hellish energy. However, after Markheim's conscience asserts itself and he decides to put into effect “what remains for me by way of duty” (xi, 153), that is, to give himself up to the police, “the features of the visitor began to undergo a wonderful and lovely change: they brightened and softened with a tender triumph” (xi, 155). This is by far the highest token of praise accorded to one of Stevenson's resigning heroes. The act of life-desertion seems almost to be presented here as the will of heaven. The story takes place on Christmas Day, and the hero's choice might be interpreted as an example of Christ-like renunciation. So it is evident that we must have to do in this chapter not only with legendary evil, but with legendary good as well.

Edgar Knowlton has shown through close textual similarities that “Markheim” owes a great deal to Crime and Punishment,1 which Stevenson had read with great pleasure in its first French translation.2 This influence would seem to make the case for “Markheim” as a Christian allegory even stronger. But probably Knowlton goes beyond his evidence when he calls Stevenson's story “a cameo version,” simply a retelling of Dostoyevsky's.3 Certainly the plots, as well as the styles, afford similarities. In both works the murder victim is a rapacious and colorless old pawnbroker whom the hero believes he is privileged to kill without moral harm. And each hero believes he has two identities. We have already heard Markheim on his theory of disguises; Raskolnikov claims it was the devil and not he who killed the old woman. In both stories, moreover, the hero finally surrenders himself to the authorities. But, as we have seen, Stevenson never merely retells the stories from which he borrows. Always he touches them with his own particular problems and conflicts, which are related to, but are certainly not identical with those he finds in the parent story. The conclusion of “Markheim,” for example, is not nearly so optimistic as the ending of Dostoyevsky's romance.

At the start of his story, Stevenson's hero, although he expresses his life-hunger in a Dostoyevskyan metaphor, has probably a greater love for life than Raskolnikov ever has. Markheim says:

Life is so short and insecure that I would not hurry away from any pleasure. … We should rather cling, cling to what little we can get, like a man at a cliff's edge. Every second is a cliff if you think upon it—a cliff a mile high—high enough, if we fall, to dash us out of every feature of humanity.

(xi, 133)

Raskolnikov, who has been only half alive through most of Crime and Punishment, never feels life so immediately as this, but it is the purpose of his final surrender to bring him into life. “Go at once,” Sonia tells him, “this very minute, stand at the crossroads, bow down, first kiss the earth which you have defiled and then bow down to all the world and say to all men aloud, ‘I am a murderer!’ Then God will send you life again.4 And when he tells his sister that he has chosen not to commit suicide but to give himself up, Dounia exclaims, “Then you still have faith in life? Thank God, thank God!”5

But the punishment for murderers was more severe in England than in Russia. Raskolnikov had to fear fifteen to twenty years of penal servitude, years which, as the author believed, would fit him once again for living. Markheim will be hanged. He is not choosing between suicide and surrender as Raskolnikov is, because for Markheim, surrender can only mean a kind of suicide. Moreover, like so many of Stevenson's life deserters, he embraces his death almost gleefully. “Life, as he thus reviewed it, tempted him no longer; but on the further side he perceived a quiet haven for his bark” (xi, 155).

Dostoyevsky writes about men like Ivan Karamazov, who try unsuccessfully to renounce life. And Christianity is one of the strongest forces preventing their self-destruction. Stevenson's characters, on the other hand, are originally full of a desire to live, but it is an appetite which they are unable to maintain. Christianity for them is a negative force, one which seems to justify inaction and to encourage suicide. Thus Markheim imagines he pleases heaven when he withdraws from action, and he gives himself up “with something like a smile” (xi, 155).

Deacon Brodie seemed to be headed in the very same direction as Markheim, that is, towards some sort of virtuous resignation from life. At one point in the action, he refrains from committing a murder because he hears a psalm being sung, and he firmly refuses the escape which his friends and family offer him, because, as he says, he is “waiting for the rope.” But in the original version of the play, his savage or active nature reasserts itself at the last moment. He betrays and denounces his family and his mistress as “Rogues, rogues; accessories after the fact, officer, all accessories after the fact.” As for himself:

I've lived a man, and I'll die as I've lived. I had but one pleasure in life; it was to fool and juggle and jockey you one and all. I've done it always, damn you; and damn you, I'll do it once more!

In his attempt now to escape, he receives his death wound, and he dies convinced again of his original belief in man's essential evil. For his last words are the defiant and significant tag line from the beginning of the play, “Rogues all!—rogues—rogues.”6

This ending, however, is from the 1878 draft of the play, and it sounds anyway more like Henley, the author of Invictus, than Stevenson. In the revision, the mistake was rectified, and the one Stevenson hero who had been allowed to die defiantly, like a legendary villain, is brought ingloriously to his knees and made to pray with his sister. He had vilely denounced her in the earlier version, but now he takes a loving farewell of her and of all his friends and assures the arresting officer that “there is but one man guilty; and that man is I.” Moreover, one feels that his death in this version is not brought about by any desire to escape and to experience more life, but rather to save his family the disgrace of a trial and a public hanging. And his last words in this draft are not “Rogues all!—rogues—rogues,” but “The new life … the new life!” (vi, 115). Thus the energetic part of Stevenson's divided man, even at its most hellish, is not very likely to win the war in the members.

“Markheim” and the revision of Deacon Brodie are works of the middle 1880's; there is a temptation to account for the emphasis on Christianity one finds in them with the fact that about this time Stevenson was regaining some of his own lost faith. Indeed, we shall later on look at still a third work of this period, “Olalla,” which shows a very similar emphasis. After his youth, Stevenson was never formally a Christian. Lloyd Osbourne writes that “in the accepted religious meaning,” his stepfather “was wholly an unbeliever.” Moreover, the faith Stevenson found in his middle thirties was not the mysticism of Dostoyevsky, much less that of John Knox; it was the new ethical Christianity which Tolstoy was preaching. Osbourne writes:

Tolstoy had a profound influence over him and did much to formulate his vague and sometimes contradictory views. Tolstoy virtually rediscovered Christianity as a stupendous force in the world, not the Christianity of dogma, supernaturalism, hell, and heaven, but as a sublime ethical formula that alone could redeem society. Stevenson in this sense was an ardent Christian.7

It was in response to this faith that Stevenson, as we noted earlier, considered martyring himself in Ireland over the Curtin affair. But certainly there are significant differences which Stevenson must have seen, between his own contemplated sacrifice and the renunciations Markheim and Brodie make. For one thing, Stevenson felt that his death would benefit society in a positive way; Brodie and Markheim wish only to remove themselves from further temptation to do evil. Stevenson saw his own martyrdom, moreover, not as a cessation from endeavor, as his two heroes did, but indeed as a strong piece of action, and one requiring a good deal of initiative and courage. He was itching for action; the very last thing he sought was a quiet haven for his bark.

The solutions of Markheim and Brodie were never Tolstoy's. Yet there is some similarity between their problems and those Tolstoy tried to answer. Tolstoy felt that man's belief in his duality stemmed from an interior debate between his personality and his reason:

One self, his personality, bids him live. But another self, his reason, says: “You cannot live.” The man feels that he is divided. And this division torments and rends his soul.8

This is very similar to what we have seen in Stevenson, but while Tolstoy understood and noted that the agony occasioned by this recognition often leads men to suicide and to philosophies of suicide, he certainly never endorsed such solutions or called them Christian. Indeed, he himself struggled against suicidal tendencies. And Tolstoy's non-resistance philosophy, like Stevenson's, was a positive force, certainly not a justification for inaction: What is demanded, Tolstoy wrote, is not a “renunciation of the personality,” but “its submission to the law of reason.”9

The truth is that Stevenson's personal religious beliefs, even those derived from Tolstoy, found no more expression in his fiction than did his socialism. He became interested in Tolstoy's Christianity because it was very compatible with beliefs and attitudes he already held. But after the influence of Tolstoy, as before it, the theology in Stevenson's stories belongs entirely to the characters, not to the author. If we want further proof, we need only note that Christian thought, rather like that which informs “Markheim” and Deacon Brodie, appears in stories which were written long before Stevenson's conversion to Tolstoy, indeed, in the period of his greatest disbelief. The best of these is “The Merry Men” (1881), which is a Hawthorn-esque tale of a fanatically pious Presbyterian of Lowland stock, who finds himself gleefully participating in what he believes to be the world's basic evil. Theology, of course, figures strongly in such a story, and in such a way as to cast light on Stevenson's use of religion both in the “Christian” works of the mid-decade and in the tragedies which follow after them. …


  1. “A Russian Influence on Stevenson,” MP, XIV (Dec. 1916), 449–454.

  2. Stevenson called it “easily the greatest book I have read in ten years. … Henry James could not finish it: all I can say is, it nearly finished me. It was like having an illness.” Letter to Symonds, Spring 1886, Works, XXI, 398.

  3. Knowlton, p. 449.

  4. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment, trans. Constance Garnett (New York, 1950), p. 407.

  5. Ibid., p. 501.

  6. Pages 321–322.

  7. “Introduction,” Works, I, xix-xx.

  8. “On Life,” On Life and Essays on Religion, trans. Aylmer Maude (London, 1950), p. 37.

  9. Ibid., p. 85.

Masao Miyoshi (essay date 1969)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 721

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 Brodie's life.1 In 1883 he wrote a wretched and revolting story (“The Travelling Companion”), which was turned down by his publisher and which he himself soon decided to destroy. He called it a “carrion tale,” and later explained why he had written it: “I had long been trying to write a story on this subject, to find a body, a vehicle, for that strong sense of man's double being which must at times come in upon and overwhelm the mind of every thinking creature.”2

Then there is “Markheim” (1884), which somewhat resembles Crime and Punishment.3 The hero, intent on robbery, enters a pawnshop on Christmas eve on the pretext of looking for a present. There, like Dorian Gray prematurely encountering his portrait, the sight of himself in an antique hand-mirror unhinges him: “Why, look here—look in it—look at yourself!” he cries to the pawnbroker, “Do you like to see it? No! nor I—nor any man.”4 There is too awful a self-recognition in the mirror, a “damned reminder of years, and sins and follies [in] this hand conscience” (132). At the height of his self-aversion Markheim murders the man, only to be confronted at every turn in the stifling little room by some presence, some “shadow of himself.” In one glass after another “he saw his face repeated and repeated, as it were an army of spies; his own eyes met and detected him” (135).

Out of his anguish, there appears another man Markheim at once recognizes as a “likeness to himself” (146). The double is that other self, his conscience. Markheim at first tries to justify himself to this double. What he seems to be, he argues, is not his true nature but merely a disguise, a mask: “I have lived to belie my nature. All men do; all men are better than this disguise that grows about and stifles them” (147). Arguing in the Godwinian vein, he is, he insists, merely what the “giants of circumstance” have made of him, his true self having no responsibility for anything the “lie” happens to do. Underneath his false face anyone can see the “clear writing of conscience” (148). The double admonishes him for all this self-defensiveness, and when the shopkeeper's servant girl suddenly returns he advises killing her and running. However, Markheim, realizing that he is still free and, like the hero in Sartor Resartus, can still prefer good to evil, confronts her and tells his crime. During this confession, the features of his double brighten and soften, and he gradually disappears. Markheim has reconciled the double agents of action: his true free self and circumstance. The “other self” has no reason any longer to live.

“Markheim”'s resolution of free will and circumstance is glib, and the reversal at the end—the thief-murderer's sudden conversion—is tacky. Despite the good description of the dealer's apartment and the uncanny way in which this room almost converges with Markheim's interior, the story is slight and remains only a preface to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.


  1. “Deacon Brodie; or, the Double Life” was coauthored by W. E. Henley, published in 1880, and produced in 1883. Later Stevenson revised it and published the new version in 1892.

  2. The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. Sidney Colvin (New York, 1911), II, p. 282, and “A Chapter on Dreams,” Works, XII, p. 247.

  3. Stevenson mentioned Dostoevsky in a letter to J. A. Symonds written in the spring of 1886. However it is quite possible, as Laura L. Hinkley suggests, that he had read the Russian novelist before writing “Markheim.” See The Stevensons: Louis and Fanny (New York, 1950), p. 231. She also charts Stevenson's gradual development of the dual-personality theme which culminated in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. See p. 238.

  4. Works, XI, p. 131.

C. F. Keppler (essay date 1972)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1311

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 to seem objectionable and menacing to the first self who stands in need of salvation, so the second self who tempts for the same purpose is bound to seem devious, suspect, allied with the Devil or perhaps the Devil himself. It is for the latter that the unnamed intruder of Stevenson's “Markheim”1 is mistaken by the first self, though he proves a very different Devil from the ones we met in Chapter 4. Similar in plan to Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, this story begins with a murder, and again it is the murder of an old pawnbroker by an impoverished young man; again, also, the murder is merely the prelude to the real story, the story of its consequences in the mind of the murderer-protagonist. Markheim's need differs from Raskolnikov's in that he has brought it upon himself by a life of dissipation, but he justifies himself no less than the young Russian, not by the philosophy of Might Makes Right but by assuring himself that God, being just, will surely forgive him. Like Macbeth before the murder of Duncan, he is conscious only of the fear of earthly retribution, and he looks down with no stirring of conscience on the crumpled, blood-stained body that a moment ago was a living man.

But Markheim, in realms of his being of which he has not taken account, is no more immune to the monstrousness of his deed than is Raskolnikov. He has looked upon his victim, before plunging his dagger into the latter's heart, with infinite pity and a touch of horror; he has, for all the danger of doing so, delayed the stroke, trying to converse with the flint-hard old dealer, trying to penetrate the mask of everyday to some vestige of humanity within, trying as Raskolnikov tries to find some excuse for not doing the act to which his sense of duty to himself has brought him. And once the crime is committed, and he is alone and free to search for the pawnbroker's money, he discovers that he is neither alone nor free; on every side there are companions, there are watchers, there are reminders and compellers. As he moves about with a candle, the mirrors on all sides catch his reflection: once more the old device of the mirror, placing the self outside the self, as though independent of its original (Narcissus, Baldwin, William Wilson), in this case not only inimical but manifold, “as it were an army of spies.” The silence is vexed by sounds other than clocks: his own stealthy footsteps—or is he positive they are his own? In the drawing room upstairs, going through the dealer's keys, he hears them again, and now in horror he knows they are not his own; they are mounting the stairs from below. Suddenly the knob turns, and, as Markheim cries out hoarsely, a visitor, apparently taking this for an invitation, enters and shuts the door behind him. The outlines of the newcomer seem to waver slightly, to Markheim's terrified gaze, like those of idols in candlelight. Markheim has no doubt of the other's reality, but he has increasing doubt of the other's humanity; “and at times he thought he knew him; and at times he thought he bore a likeness to himself; and always, like a lump of living terror, there lay in his bosom the conviction that this thing was not of the earth and not of God.”2

In other words Markheim, like Ivan Karamazov and Faust in their hours of extreme vulnerability, appears to be playing host to the Devil. And like those other diabolical visitants, Markheim's is no gloomy fallen Archangel but a poised, polite, cynical man of the world, precisely the sort of man Markheim ought to have been in order to carry out his plans with full success. At once he seems to take Markheim's side, gives him sound advice on how to proceed, urges him to hurry before the maidservant returns, offers to tell him where the money is hidden (“for a Christmas gift,” as he sweetly puts it), and suggests that Markheim be content with the kind of scoundrel he is and act accordingly. All this is much the sort of thing we have seen other Devils doing, tempting to evil with plausible diabolical arguments that are articulations of thoughts already present in the first self's mind. But Markheim's visitor differs from the others in that he tempts in just the reverse direction from theirs, toward good instead of evil. By affecting to take the side of Markheim's viciousness he forces Markheim to face the fact of this viciousness, to stop deluding himself with notions of his justification or of good intentions to reform, and to see that the course he has taken can lead him only where it has always led him, steadily deeper into degradation and hopeless damnation. Nor is this done, as we have seen it done by Svidrigaïlov, out of malice; for as Markheim at last defies the diabolical counsel (the maidservant has returned, and the “Devil” suggests that Markheim murder her as well) and chooses the one door of freedom left open to him, that of self-renunciation, the features of the visitor “brightened and softened with a tender triumph.” Markheim walks down the stairs and opens the house door.

He confronted the maid upon the threshold with something like a smile. “You had better go for the police,” he said. “I have killed your master.”3

To be sure there is a certain allegorical flavor about the tempter of Markheim, just as there is about the pursuer of the first William Wilson. Nevertheless, the former is no more a mere personified idea than the latter, but from his first appearance, for all his mystery, he is a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood character in the story, perhaps even more vivid than his counterpart. It is true that he is perceived only by Markheim, as the Devil of The Brothers Karamazov is perceived only by Ivan. But it should be noted how careful Stevenson is to avoid stamping his visitant as “nothing but” a mental content; just as careful as Dostoyevsky is to do the opposite. The fact that the features of the visitor “faded and dislimned” as Markheim turns away to give himself up is not the same thing as his disappearance before Markheim's eyes. Indeed Markheim does not watch the transformation, even though we are told that the transformation takes place, and have it described for us. In other words, we are made aware of something (whether or not a supernatural something) happening to the visitor of which Markheim is not aware, something that must therefore take place outside the range of Markheim's experience, in the realm of objective reality.

In “Markheim,” then, we find the second self as Saviour assuming the guise of the Devil and apparently tempting as the Devil, but using the process of pseudo-temptation to accomplish his real temptation, which leads Markheim from the lostness of self-love to the triumph of self-conquest. …


  1. In Vol. III of The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, edited by Charles Curtis Bigelow and Temple Scott (New York: The Davos Press, 1906), pp. 359–78.

  2. Ibid., p. 372.

  3. Ibid., p. 378.

Irving S. Saposnik (essay date 1974)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2516

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 recognition he sought, and they subsequently kept alive his literary name even when his popularity dimmed. His narrative ability, however, did not always manifest itself equally: too many of his works remain either unrealized or incomplete. In part, this fact must be attributed to uncertain health; in part, to constant travel; in part, to family demands.

But, had he lived a “normal” life, his artistic problems would have still been present. On the simplest level, he faced the difficulty of joining his form to his idea—not only of telling a good story but of insuring that its fictional elements represented the thematic details he wished to communicate. But his well-advertised philosophical position—pessimism in regard to the possibilities of human action—and his well-documented artistic attitude—a belief in the necessity of concision and a minimum of detail—often clashed with his desire to create broadly representative fiction. What he found increasingly was that the didacticism of the essay, the emotion of poetry, and the passion of drama were neither in themselves nor in combination sufficient to create a totally satisfying (even if successful) narrative. His development as a writer is, therefore, a history of repeated attempts to meet the challenge of narrative form.

Stevenson's fictional method is nowhere better described than in his own statement in “A Humble Remonstrance”: “Our art is occupied, and bound to be occupied, not so much in making stories true as in making them typical; not so much in capturing the lineaments of each fact, as in marshalling all of them to a common end” (XIII, 150). Consciously placing himself in opposition to Henry James's investigation of “the statics of character,” he offers a fiction whose literary relations are allegory, fable, and romance. As distinct as each of these may be in their individual expression, they share an ability to convey the essentials of human experience with a limited intensity which is immediately recognizable: “fear in the single glimpse of an eyeball, evil in a few sharp sounds” (Furnas, 245).

Stevenson creates stories illustrating essential human experience for he wishes to awaken, in both reader and character, those basic internal forces which are called into action only by sufficient external stimuli. These stimuli, activated by a skillful manipulation of extenuating circumstance, force the fictional character to act with a promptness which precludes psychological development while it necessitates that the reader identify fully with the gripping situation. The reader of a Stevenson story can expect to encounter fiction whose spareness is both its virtue and defect, narrative in which characters are “stylized figures which expand into psychological archetypes” (Northrop Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism [304]), and plot in which individual detail is clearly, and often conspicuously, joined to final purpose. A typical Stevenson story may be recognized by its blend of myth and melodrama, its normally transparent structure, and its often disappointing conclusion. The disappointment results as much from his hurried attempts to direct events as from his continuing inability to convince himself of the possibilities for action either in art or in experience.

Since Stevenson's short stories were written over a longer period of time—his first story dates from 1877—and are generally more finished than his novels, they provide a more comprehensive view of his fictional method. Published for the most part in separate periodicals, they were subsequently collected under the titles New Arabian Nights (1882), The Merry Men (1887), and Island Nights' Entertainments (1893). The stories in More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter (1885) were never published separately, are perhaps more Fanny's than her husband's, and are sufficiently similar to the first Arabian stories to be considered along with them.

Conveniently, each of these collections brings together stories of a similar locale and influence so that it is possible to speak of the French stories of New Arabian Nights, the Scottish stories of The Merry Men, and the South Sea stories of Island Nights' Entertainments. In addition, certain stories in each collection may be considered as more or less representative of a characteristic type of Stevenson narrative: in the first, esthetic parody; in the second, psychic fable; and in the third, a special blend of exotic realism. Each collection, therefore, offers a suitable context in which the dimensions of a Stevenson story may be seen in its particular and general relations.


While the reaction to “Markheim” has been more favorable than to “Olalla,” the difficulties it presents may be seen even in those who consider it successful. The major difficulty centers around the role of the visitant and the contradictory attempts to identify that hallucinatory being with absolute moral equivalents. For some, he is an angel; for others, the devil; but the more cautious prefer a psychological identity to a qualitative label. Even those critics who replace much of the confusion with a discussion of Stevenson's imaginative use of symbol and literary allusion are overly concerned with reading the narrative as a record of “a sinner's progress.”1 But the symbolic structure which they document forbids such analysis and reinforces the ambiguities which make “Markheim” a moral fable without a moral. The story's action is markedly interior; and, as that action passes from the stylized antique shop of the murdered dealer to the increasingly frenzied mind of the murderer, external objects—clocks, footsteps, mirrors, raindrops—begin to assume the subjective murkiness of Markheim's guilt-ridden ego. In fact, much in the story recalls both Dostoevsky and Nabokov, especially the climatic confrontation of a hapless being with his compulsive double identity.2

Stevenson's fiction never approaches the involved complexity nor the moral intensity which both Dostoevsky and Nabokov fashion so ingeniously. Yet he, like them, admires and follows the Doppelgänger tradition and its use of doubles to suggest tormented psychology.3 While the respective doubles assume various forms, they are usually projections of subconscious drives personified in an alter-ego which forces its counterpart into unwilling action and eventual death. A man's double is a manifestation of hidden or disguised truths which have been willfully submerged. Stevenson's creation of a double in his story suggests that Markheim's identity must be defined rather than the visitant's, for the visitant is a product of Markheim's deranged mind or of his long-dormant conscience. Whatever the visitant is, therefore, it has no objective reality; it attains form and meaning only as Markheim acts and reflects upon his actions. Because its origin is an unwilling summons from an unknown self, it is able to disguise its true motives and direct Markheim into an unwilling act of surrender. The final irony occurs when Markheim disobeys what he believes to be its promptings and surrenders himself to the police. Summoned by a senseless murder, the visitant leaves only when certain that the murderer will pay for his act. With an obvious reversal of the Christmas setting and its significance, the materialized conscience demands suicide for a life of crime.

A psychology which creates an ambiguous alter-ego cannot be considered as either good or evil. Markheim's actions substantiate the complicated emotions which trouble him. At the point of killing the dealer, he still wishes for some saving grace to stay his hand; and, when he stoops over the prostrate heap that was a man, he thinks back upon his religious training and the domestic comforts he knew as a boy. While a sinner, he has suffered immeasurably by his plunge into the irreversible paradigm of criminal action. Hesitant at the outset, he allows his qualms only a partial voice for fear that he will have to face the truth about himself. Now that his actions have led him to murder—“All sinful acts run to murder. Murder is a distinction without a difference” (“The Ethics of Crime,” II, 209)—he has no choice but to cease his action. What he must atone for, more than the murder itself, is his existence as a moral coward. An equivocator, he is afraid to look at himself when presented with the reality which his subconscious no longer allows him to deny. Before he meets his double, he shuns the candlelight, refuses to look at himself in the mirror, and wishes to throw himself under the bedcovers where he may be “invisible to all but God.” He fears God less than man because he believes his justification sufficient; but, knowing he has wronged man, he cowers before the truths which self-examination reveals. More pitiful than tragic, he is a lost soul who can “save” whatever remains of his life only by ending it.

Both narrative structure and symbolic pattern help to reveal Markheim's involved psychology. The murder is made to appear a senseless act without purpose. Initially, he performs the killing mechanically as if someone else were guiding the dagger in his hand; only after he has killed the dealer does he consider taking his money. Having murdered, he shies away from his act in fear: fear of the crumpled body and of the shadows which seem to remind him of the inescapable actuality of his act. As he flees the murder room and retreats to an upper story of the dealer's house, these shadows pursue him until they begin to form themselves into alternating configurations of his own guilt and the dealer's accusing image. Left with no escape, he shudders convulsively when he hears steps upon the landing and barely stifles a scream when the door opens upon his double.

In their subsequent conversation, Markheim refuses the “evil” counsel which he believes his double offers, yet his refusal is less than complete. More conscious than his actions reveal or than he would admit, he has always shied away from responsibility; eager to satisfy his desires (“I would not hurry away from any pleasure”), he has willingly allowed self-indulgence to become a way of life. As a result, his final surrender is more an act of resignation than of salvation. He gives himself up to the police with the same spirit that Olalla returns to her cloister; afraid to face his existence—he reviews his life as “a scene of defeat”—he embraces the opportunity to end it: “Life … tempted him no longer; but on the further side he perceived a quiet haven for his bark.”

The image of a boat coming to its final rest is suggestive of the poems in A Child's Garden of Verses in which the child longs for some respite from his oppressive world. Like that child, Markheim directs his life toward ultimate negation; and his final act may be seen as a grim, adult parallel of the sentiments in “My Bed is Like a Little Boat.” Unlike that child, however, Markheim is a trifler with life; and the fantasy of his thirty-six-year existence can no longer be played beneath the bedcovers. Time has caught up with him. Its symbolic and actual presence in the story emphasizes his defeat even as it beats like the throbbing of his jangled emotions until he can no longer deny its finality.

First there is the actual narrative time and the necessary telescoping of events in order to highlight Markheim's increasing mental instability. Second, there are the artifacts of measurable time, most notably the antique clocks which chime the final hours of his indecision. Since they are antique clocks they are, as it were, double indicators of time's relentless pursuit: both in their age and function they confront Markheim with his inescapable guilt. Imprisoned by time and its artifacts, he signals his growing frenzy by internalizing other sounds as time's reminders: church bells which ring in the hour of three; raindrops which beat like the ticking of clocks. Time and circumstance meet, and Markheim can deny neither. Having already offered poverty and “the giants of circumstance” as excuses, he has no choice but to confess his guilt and accept his surrender: “If I be condemned to evil acts … there is still one door of freedom open—I can cease from action. If my life be an ill thing, I can lay it down.” Placed before the familiar Stevenson door of opportunity, he chooses to close it upon a wasted existence.

Markheim's final decision is meant to be difficult since it is between surrender or another murder, and its ambiguities are compounded by the story's Christmas setting. Made to resemble Christian resignation, his passive act is nonetheless as much a denial of Christ's sacrifice as Olalla's was. Coupled with the visitant's rather primitive demand of his life for the one he has taken, it is a striking illustration of the inevitability of failure. It is also a glaring example of the doubts that Stevenson had about the possibility of salvation; for, in “A Christmas Sermon” he writes of the necessity to persevere despite uncertainties he could never deny. The heroic in life, he says, is “to co-endure with our existence.” At Christmas, the conclusion of another year, man is called to self-examination; at the end of present time he must account for his past actions. Markheim likewise is forced to consider how he has spent his own time, and he must acknowledge that both its physical and spiritual dimensions offer only one solution; inextricably bound to the consequences of sinful action and cowardice, he can do nothing but stop time. Unlike the ideal man of Stevenson's essay, Markheim can take comfort from neither life nor death. His final act saves the life of the returning maid but condemns his own guilty existence. In doing so, he insures his actions will cease, while death remains a mystery. His surrender is neither good nor evil; it is only the end of an unrealized life—a conclusion without consolation. …


  1. Ann Gossman, “On The Knocking At the Gate in ‘Markheim,’” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, XVII (June, 1962), 73–76; Joseph J. Egan, “‘Markheim’: A drama of Moral Psychology,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, XX (March, 1966), 377–84.

  2. Edgar C. Knowlton, “A Russian Influence on Stevenson,” Modern Philology, XIV (December, 1916). 449, considers “Markheim” to be a cameo version of Crime and Punishment.

  3. The best catalogue—and it is little more than that—of the Doppelgänger tradition is Ralph Tymms's, Doubles in Literary Psychology (Cambridge, Eng., 1949). His inability to produce more than an extensive list of the Doppelgänger's appearance indicates both the widespread nature of its influence as well as the difficulty of distinguishing between its several forms. For a more satisfying study see Masao Miyoshi, The Divided Self (New York, 1969). Numerous critics have commented on Nabokov's indebtedness to the tradition, so much so, that in a recent interview, Nabokov: The Man and His Work, ed. L. S. Dembo (Madison, Wisc., 1967), pp. 19–44, he dismisses the subject as “a frightful bore.”

Theodore Ziolkowski (essay date 1977)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1137

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, therefore, the mirror seems to be truly magical because the appearance of the double in the mirror is narrated from the point of view of the hero, who accepts it as such.

“Markheim” is the story of a man who visits an antique dealer on Christmas Day under the pretext of buying a gift for a lady.1 At the first opportunity he kills the dealer with a dagger and goes upstairs to the drawing-room in search of money, with which he plans to recoup his huge losses on the Stock Exchange. Here, as he is sorting out the keys, he hears footsteps coming up the stairs of the empty house. A hand takes the knob, the lock clicks, and the door opens. A face looks into the room, smiles “as if in friendly recognition,” and then withdraws, closing the door behind it. When the startled Markheim cries out, the visitor enters the room. As Markheim stares at him, “the outlines of the new-comer seemed to change and waver like those of the idols in the wavering candle-light of the shop; and at times he thought he knew him; and at times he thought he bore a likeness to himself; and always, like a lump of living terror, there lay in his bosom the conviction that this thing was not of the earth and not of God.” In the ensuing conversation the stranger warns Markheim to speed up his activities, for the maid is returning sooner than expected. Playing the devil's advocate in the subtle dialectics that follow, the stranger urges Markheim on to crime. “For six-and-thirty years that you have been in this world, through many changes of fortunes and varieties of humour, I have watched you steadily fall. Fifteen years ago you would have started at a theft. Three years ago you would have blenched at the name of murder. Is there any crime, is there any cruelty or meanness, from which you still recoil?” Although he offers to show Markheim where the money is hidden, Markheim delays until the doorbell announces the returning maid. Even at this moment he could still escape with a lie; but he resolves that there is still one door of freedom open to him from his life of corruption: “I can cease from action.” Now it becomes evident that the stranger has been, all this time, the personification of Markheim's conscience. As the visitor's features brighten and soften with a tender triumph, Markheim descends the stairs and sends the maid to summon the police, confessing that he has killed her master.

As in Poe's “William Wilson,” the mysterious stranger, the voice of conscience, is reified through his appearance in a mirror. But in Stevenson's story the reflection assumes a much more vivid and independent life than was the case in Poe and Dostoevsky: there the motif of the mirror simply reinforced the initial delusion; here the motif is magnified into the symbol of the story. The author introduces the motif in the first scene, when Markheim is still pretending to be interested in a gift. The dealer suggests a fifteenth-century hand-glass; but when he shows it to Markheim a shock passes through him, “a sudden leap of tumultuous passions to the face.” Rejecting the mirror as a possible gift, he exclaims: “Why, look here—look in it—look at yourself! Do you like to see it? No! Nor I—nor any man.” It is only later that we realize that Markheim resists the mirror, at this first encounter, because it presents to him the image of his guilty soul: the mirror is established, in other words, in its traditional role as image of the soul. “I ask you for a Christmas present, and you give me this—this damned reminder of years, and sins and follies—this hand-conscience!”

Creeping up the stairs after the murder, he is haunted by the thought that something in the house is watching him: “a faceless thing, and yet had eyes to see with; and again it was a shadow of himself.” By the time he reaches the landing he feels so observed that he longs to be at home, “girt in by walls, buried among bedclothes, and invisible to all but God.” All this—the fear of mirrors as a “hand-conscience,” the sense of guilt, and the growing dread of being observed—prepares us for the inevitable mirrors in the drawing-room upstairs: “several great pier-glasses, in which he beheld himself at various angles, like an actor on a stage.” In short, Markheim becomes, in the reflection of those mirrors, an actor on the stage of his own guilty conscience. The dialogue with the stranger turns out to be a discussion with his own double as reflected in the great mirrors of the drawing-room. Everything else—the footsteps on the stairs, the hand on the doorknob—can be accounted for by his overwrought conscience and imagination. When Markheim leaves the room to confront the maid downstairs, the stranger merely fades away after his features—Markheim's, of course—undergo a wonderful transfiguration.

To the extent that Poe and Dostoevsky were interested in the growth of schizophrenia, the episodes with the mirror were reduced in importance to passing moments in an extended process. To the extent, in contrast, that Stevenson is obsessed with the crucial moment of confrontation with conscience, so vivid that it becomes hallucinatory, the mirror can be used almost in its original magical force: for the course of several minutes Markheim's conscience assumes such eidetic reality that it seems literally to have emerged from mirrors become magical. Paradoxically, this use of the image of the magic mirror is possible only when the psychological realism of the narrative has progressed to a point at which it is clear that no hint of the supernatural is intended. Although the motif with all its eerie implications is clearly a borrowing from romantic sources with which Stevenson was intimately familiar, we do not for an instant suspect any supernatural happenings; the magic is nothing but the product of Markheim's over-excited imagination. But we feel it precisely because the narrator restrains his own commentary and lets Markheim speak for himself. …


  1. The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables, Biographical Edition (New York: Scribner, 1921), pp. 116–41.

J. R. Hammond (essay date 1984)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1917

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 short stories after a long apprenticeship of writing essays, literary criticism and book reviews. From the time of his earliest published story “A Lodging for the Night,” written when he was twenty-seven, to the closing years of his life he never lost his interest in the short story as an art form and continued to experiment in techniques of narration and the presentation of character. His stories are remarkably varied in style and theme. They range from tales of atmosphere and suspense to allegorical fantasies, from exciting narratives of adventure to profound studies of human character. Taken together his stories constitute an impressive body of work embracing many facets of his personality and interests and containing abundant evidence of the diversity of approach at his command.


Stevenson had been anxious for some years to issue a further collection of his stories before publication of The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables was finally agreed upon. The six stories included in the volume form an extremely heterogeneous collection, ranging from Poesque horror to gentle allegory, from the vivid descriptive writing of “The Merry Men” to the haunting power of “Thrawn Janet.” Each story possesses features of interest but three of the tales—“Will o' the Mill,” “Markheim” and “Olalla”—are of exceptional significance in the context of his life and his distinctive personal philosophy. …

“Markheim,” in common with “Will o' the Mill,” is a story rich in allegorical undertones but probing far deeper levels of psychology. Strongly influenced by Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (he remarked to a friend that the latter was ‘easily the greatest book I have read in ten years’1), it is one of his most carefully executed tales and is a fascinating example of that preoccupation with man's dual personality which found its fullest and most dramatic expression in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On first reading, the story appears to be a study in terror after the manner of Poe or Algernon Blackwood. Markheim schemes to murder an antique dealer and rob him of his money. He enters the antique shop on the pretext of being a customer wishing to purchase a present for a lady. Engaging the dealer in conversation he waits for a suitable opportunity and then stabs his victim from behind. Stricken with fear and guilt at his action, Markheim wanders through the premises in search of the dealer's hidden wealth. He is still searching the building when a strange visitor enters the house, purporting to know the murderer's innermost thoughts and to understand his intentions. The visitor converses with Markheim for some time, reviewing his past life and the motives for his actions. When the dealer's maid enters the building the visitor tempts Markheim with the prospect of killing her also, ransacking the house at his leisure and making good his escape. Markheim rejects this counsel, dismisses the stranger and confesses his crime to the maid, urging her to summon the police. In confessing to the murder he thus forfeits his own life.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the story is the manner in which an atmosphere of tension is built up through a steady accumulation of detail. A candle on the counter flickers, casting weird shadows; faces on paintings change and waver ‘like images in water’; a multitude of clocks tick and chime; strange reflections stare back at the murderer from mirrors; heavy rain outside causes unnerving echoes and a sound ‘like some dripping cavern’; odd sounds and creaking floorboards cause paroxysms of fear and suspense. The steady accretion of atmospheric detail continues with such relentless force that at last Markheim fears for his own sanity: ‘on every side he was haunted and begirt by presences.’ The suspense mounts to an unbearable intensity as Markheim's nervousness increases. It is almost a physical relief when the tension is burst by the sound of a stranger slowly and steadily mounting the stairs. The murderer's presentiment that he is not alone, that he is being watched by unseen eyes, is communicated in a series of powerful images. Rarely has a writer depicted so forcefully the combination of guilt and terror which afflict a criminal in the immediate aftermath of his deed.

Critical opinion is sharply divided as to the identity of Markheim's strange visitor. Some commentators regard the stranger as the devil; some insist that he has no objective reality, that he is simply a figment of Markheim's disordered imagination; some, including Colvin, regard the conversation between the two as ‘the dialogue of Markheim with his other self.’2 My own reading supports the latter view. There can be no question that Stevenson was fascinated with the idea of the doppelgänger (literally ‘double-goer’—a mirror-image) which figures so prominently in English literature and which exercised him throughout his life. This can be seen in his portrayal of Janet McClour in “Thrawn Janet,” of the brothers in The Master of Ballantrae, of Hoseason in Kidnapped and, most strikingly of all, in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His attitude to morality, the influence of his Calvinist background and his obsession with evil and with moral ambiguity found its most profound expression in the idea of the duality of man, the divided self which affects every human action.

Seen in these terms the stranger is a mirror in which Markheim is made to see his own soul and debate his own weaknesses. The description of the visitant is revealing:

Perhaps there was a film upon his sight, but the outlines of the newcomer seemed to change and waver like those of the idols in the wavering candlelight of the shop; and at times he thought he knew him; and at times he thought he bore a likeness to himself; and always, like a lump of living terror, there lay in his bosom the conviction that this thing was not of the earth and not of God. And yet the creature had a strange air of the commonplace, as he stood looking on Markheim with a smile.

The language of this passage needs to be approached with some care. The use of such terms as ‘the creature’ and ‘this thing’ suggests a supernatural presence, while the phrase ‘like a lump of living terror’ powerfully evokes the fear and misgiving with which Markheim regards the man. Yet the effect of the passage as a whole strongly reinforces the notion of a doppelgänger, a second self confronting the murderer with a reminder of his shortcomings. ‘at times he thought he knew him’; ‘at times he thought he bore a likeness to himself’; ‘the creature had a strange air of commonplace’—the cumulative effect of these phrases is striking. In surveying his interlocutor Markheim is uncomfortably aware that he is face to face at last with the evil within him, with those aspects of his personality most susceptible to greed and corruption. (It should be noted that the confrontation between them is the opposite of that depicted in Poe's short story ‘William Wilson.’ Whereas the narrator in that story is confronted by his better self, Markheim is faced with his worst self, by a personification of his inherent propensity to selfishness.) It seems clear that Stevenson recognised in Markheim not simply a representative human being with a propensity to both disinterested and selfish actions, but a surrogate for himself. Markheim is thirty-six years of age: Stevenson's own age at the time of publication. Moreover, in the conversation between Markheim and the stranger can be discerned numerous echoes of the author's preoccupation with good and evil, of his lifelong concern with the mainsprings of human behaviour. It is as if Stevenson is debating with himself on the conflict between vice and virtue, on the continual tensions within the human make-up which shape our actions.

Particularly suggestive is the stranger's comment: ‘Do I say that I follow sins? I follow virtues also; they differ not by the thickness of a nail. … Evil, for which I live, consists not in action but in character.’ To which Markheim replies: ‘I prize love, I love honest laughter, there is no good thing nor true thing on earth but I love it from my heart. And are my vices only to direct my life, and my virtues to lie without effect, like some passive lumber of the mind? Not so; good, also, is a spring of acts.’

In this insistence that evil consists not in action but in character, this awareness of the continual interplay between altruism and the pursuit of self-interest, can be recognised the author's distinctive approach to human conduct. As a description of murder and its aftermath “Markheim” could have been written by any of a dozen writers; only Stevenson could have transformed such an apparently simple plot into a profound allegory of the duality of man. …


In his review of the collected short stories of Edgar Allan Poe,3 Stevenson observed:

Pointlessness is, indeed, the very last charge that could be brought reasonably against them. He has the true storyteller's instinct. He knows the little nothings that make stories or mar them. He knows how to enhance the significance of any situation, and give colour and life to seeming irrelevant particulars.

These words were written in 1874, three years before the publication of his own first story, yet they could be taken as a summation of his achievement in the field of the short story. The range of his endeavour in this field was remarkably wide. In form his tales range from the gripping narrative of adventure (“The Pavilion on the Links”) to the subtle allegory or fable (“Will o' the Mill” and “The Merry Men”), from the psychological study of “Markheim” to the sustained horror of “Olalla” and “The Body Snatcher,” from the realistic comedy of “John Nicholson” to the profound imagery of “The Beach of Falesa.” Within these stories Stevenson experimented in methods of presenting character and incident and in approaches to narration and construction. He perfected techniques of storytelling which came to full fruition in the novels but which are none the less effective for being wrought on a smaller canvas. Above all he excelled at the ‘little nothings that make stories or mar them,’ those literary touches which make the reading of his shorter works of fiction such a rewarding experience. Whilst he was deeply influenced by Poe and Hawthorne, he in turn exercised a profound influence on later practitioners of the short story and novella including Wells, Conrad and Conan Doyle. His tales will continue to be read not simply for their artistic merit and the force of their narrative power but for their illumination of the darker facets of human personality and continuing relevance to twentieth-century concerns.


  1. RLS to J. A. Symonds, spring 1886.

  2. Quoted in George E. Brown, A Book of RLS, p. 157. For a fuller discussion of this matter see Irving S. Saposnik, Robert Louis Stevenson (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1974) pp. 75–9.

  3. ‘The Works of Edgar Allan Poe,’ reprinted in Essays Literary and Critical (Tusitala Edition, vol. 28).

Harold Orel (essay date 1986)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6246

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 material. Two critical questions are our major concern here: why Stevenson thought of a large number of his short stories as being deficient in form or content, and why (despite his reservations) a particular category of his short stories—that of the horror tales—retains the affection of general readers and most literary critics.

Stevenson's reputation declined precipitously after the turn of the century, partly because the reading public became uneasily aware that more had been promised than delivered. Andrew Lang's enthusiasm—so important in establishing Stevenson's fame while he lived—was, in important respects, an excuse for attacks on naturalistic fiction, which Lang, like Stevenson, regarded as a dreary dead end; looked at more closely, Lang's analyses of Stevenson seemed to say less about the man whom Henley had described as

Most vain, most generous, sternly critical,
Buffoon and poet, lover and sensualist:
A deal of Ariel, just a streak of Puck,
Much Antony, of Hamlet most of all,
And something of the Shorter-Catechist,

or about his writings, than about Lang's restless need to find still another culture-hero who opposed Zola's teachings and example.

Stevenson wrote approximately thirty short stories. Their unevenness makes them both exciting and exasperating. He wrote freely when inspiration flourished, and labored mightily over both first- and fifth-rate pieces of fiction in what sometimes seems to have been equal measure. He often began with brio, wandered through wildernesses of increasingly wild situation and characterization, and wound up hastily, and in great confusion, when the ground gave from under him. His manuscripts were littered with false starts; there were uncounted unfinished drafts. These, if completed, would have swelled the number of volumes in the Edinburgh Edition (26), the Vailima (26), or the South Seas (32); no edition can be accounted complete even for the materials that Stevenson did finish.

Should we lament lost possibilities, fragments of masterpieces not written? Stevenson occasionally talked in exactly such a way, as when he referred to the printed version of his novella The Beach of Falesa as “the slashed and gaping ruins” of his art. (He was blaming the corrupted text on printers, proofreaders, publishers, editors, and friends; much more often than Victorian readers appreciated, he found himself opposed to moral and ethical positions held by those exercising editorial decisions on periodical fiction. Not until 1984 did Stevenson's original version of The Beach of Falesa, edited by Barry Menikoff for Stanford University Press, come into print.)

Nevertheless, Stevenson believed that much of the blame for his failed art rested with himself. He enjoyed writing horror stories, or “crawlers,” because Fanny liked them, and encouraged him to write them; but he was sensitive about their limitations—perhaps on occasion overestimating the seriousness of these limitations—and wrote candidly to his correspondents that most of them were sub-literary. He frequently confessed that he had failed to think out the implications of his narrative-line.

What was the source of Stevenson's diffidence? We may begin with his rather odd collection of fables, which were worked on between 1874 and 1894, and which, had he lived longer, might have become a book. At least he promised to deliver a book devoted solely to them when an editor from Longmans visited him in New York in 1888. Several were published in Longman's Magazine (1895) and McClure's Magazine (1896); they were printed as a group in an appendix to a new edition of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1896), and they illustrate (in briefer form than the “fables” contained in his Jekyll-Hyde narrative, “Will o' the Mill,” and “Markheim”) the fable that Stevenson had defined as a genre in his review of Lord Lytton's Fables in Song.1 As Sir Sidney Colvin wrote in a prefatory note, several of these were conceived in “a more mystic and legendary vein,”2 and evidently all these fables—long and short together—were designed to incorporate elements of moral allegory or apologue.

They are slight efforts—very few biographers or critics mention their existence—but their major interest lies in the problems Stevenson obviously encountered when trying to incorporate a message within the briefest of story-lines. The task he set himself was the avoidance of a tacked-on moral: how might he tell the story so that it commented on its own significance without seeming to do so? In “The Sinking Ship” a captain debates with his first lieutenant the proper course of action to pursue while the danger of a powder magazine about to detonate grows more and more serious. The Captain urges his officer to finish his shave, partly on the ground that “to the philosophic eye there is nothing new in our position: the ship (if she is to go down at all) may be said to have been going down since she was launched.” He sees the inevitability of death, and wonderingly speaks of “man's handsome fashion” to carry on as if in every way “he might hope to be eternal.” Is he right to ask for a cigar, while doing nothing to save the ship? Is it really for the best that the ship should blow up with “a glorious detonation”? The first lieutenant, bemused by the Captain's indifference, wonders at the philosophic difference “between shaving in a sinking ship and smoking in a power magazine.” Stevenson offers no answer; there may be none; but the conundrum, offered playfully, deals with a serious issue: the need to play-act when the alternative proffered by an indifferent God is too terrifying to contemplate.

Some of the fables are too brief to clarify Stevenson's line of thought. “The Tadpole and the Frog” amounts to no more than the exchange between a frog (“Be ashamed of yourself. When I was a tadpole, I had no tail”) and a tadpole (“Just what I thought! You never were a tadpole”). Other fables—“Faith, Half Faith and No Faith at All”—run on almost endlessly, and never arrive at the announced destination. Stevenson sometimes is uncertain that the story makes its point (“The House of Eld” and “Something in It”), and appends a blunt “Moral.” The Fables are unfinished experiments in story-telling, but their objective is clear enough, and here, we understand, is a continuation of the running battle between Stevenson's interest in allowing the imagination free rein and his concern that he might not be serious enough to deserve the attentive respect of his audience. It is—in nineteen separate examples—the same problem that confronted him when Fanny objected to his sheer delight in story at the expense of allegory, at a crucial moment when the first draft of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was being considered. …

Stevenson's contributions to the short-story genre, however, should not be under-valued because of a series of problems relating to structure, characterization, and message (i.e., whether or not to include one). Nor should the wide-spread belief that Stevenson's personality, a singularly attractive and ingratiating one, which dazzled a large number of individuals normally suspicious of charm, and thus prevented editors from holding Stevenson's stories to higher standards, distract us from the verifiable history of the widespread popularity of his fictions during the last decade of his life. Another way of saying this: Stevenson always wanted to write commercially, and often succeeded; his short stories between “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and Island Nights' Entertainment (published a year before his death) represent—for better or worse—the flourishing of the Victorian short story in the late 1880s and early 1890s. It is time to re-examine the best of Stevenson's work in this genre, and the Jekyll-Hyde story is as good a place as any to begin.

The various versions of the genesis of “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” are not easily reconciled. Inconsistencies from one version to the next are striking enough without further embroidering of what Stevenson read for inspiration, or what he dreamed, or how many versions he drafted, or the extent to which Fanny Stevenson contributed ideas and criticism. It seems clear that Stevenson read an article about the subconscious in a French scientific journal several years before the story took shape (the article has not been identified); was deeply impressed by it; and used it as an intellectual basis for the “hugger-mugger melodrama” that he wrote about Deacon Brodie. It had some weight in the writing of “Markheim” as well, according to Fanny, and her statement suggests that the essay treated the problems of a split personality. “The Travelling Companion,” written in 1881, revised in 1883, and destroyed when “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” supplanted it, was undoubtedly another dramatization of the same article. …

Formal criticism has had a rather hard time trying to apply rigorous criteria of form or content to Stevenson's short stories; contemporary disdain for the shilling shocker has obscured the importance that this type of story assumed in late Victorian periodicals. Stevenson's best stories sometimes become the target of hostile critics, and his least artistically successful stories bring out devoted admirers by the dozens. Fanny's anxiety that Stevenson not write below his true level of ability has been shared by generations of readers; but where that true level may be fixed is not clear after the passage of a near-century since his death.

Several observations may be made at this point, despite the probability that each is an arguable proposition. First, Stevenson's stories were written originally for periodicals. For the sake of acceptance, Stevenson had to study the market; as he understood it, that market flourished when the literary commodity sold by the periodical was escapist, highly colored, and unobtrusively moral in its implications. He had to imagine himself as a member of the reading public served by any periodical to which he intended submitting a particular manuscript.

Second, the stories so seldom turned out completely satisfactorily that Stevenson encountered difficulties in explaining, either to himself or to his friends, why he had not done better. Of “Thrawn Janet” he wrote, in a preface to The Merry Men begun in 1887, that it suffered from being “True only historically, true for a hill parish in Scotland in old days, not true for mankind and the world.”3 Disgusted by the horridness of the tale, he put one draft of “The Body Snatcher” to a side before trying again, this time for a collection entitled The Black Man and Other Tales, and submitting it to an editor for the Pall Mall Christmas “Extra” (December 1884). He was not pleased by The Merry Men; according to Fanny, he believed that he had failed to get a real grip on his story despite his conviction that he had succeeded in giving the terror of the sea.4 As for “The Travelling Companion,” he sent it to an editor who remarked that it was a work of genius, and indecent, hence unpublishable; Stevenson concurred (“it is a foul, gross, bitter ugly daub … a carrion tale!”), and burned it. “Markheim,” which Stevenson withdrew from Charles Morley's consideration for the Pall Mall Gazette, was characterized by its author as not being his best work, and worth ten pounds less than the forty pounds originally agreed on (“The Body Snatcher,” ugly enough, in Stevenson's haunting phrase, “to chill the blood of a grenadier,” was printed in place of “Markheim,” which, in addition to the problems of inferior style felt so keenly by its author, proved to be not long enough for the assigned space in the periodical). He recognized the falseness of “Olalla,” but only after it was printed, and, as he confessed in a letter to Lady Taylor (January 1887), “‘Markheim’ is true; ‘Olallah’ false; and I don't know why, nor did I feel it when I worked on them.” He expressed some unease about the heterogeneousness of the collection called The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables (1887). The Wrong Box, a work written in collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, was regarded, from the beginning, as a “silly,” “gay,” “absurd” draft of a tale; he wanted to rewrite an important section in May 1889, because he had there “overdone confusion, the meaning is obscure, and the joke does not tell, in consequence.”5 But Scribner's, anxious to exploit Stevenson's name, rushed the uncorrected proofs into print by mid-June, and the second- and third-thoughts of Stevenson's pen never were incorporated in later editions of this novella. (Stevenson was in the anomalous position, more than once, of wanting to rewrite, while his editor or publisher refused to wait patiently for copy, and hurried his work into print.) Even at the end of his life, Stevenson, uncertain of his own acuteness in evaluating his fiction, read stories aloud at Vailima, and accepted, with greater trust than perhaps the situation warranted, remarks about the quality of such stories as “The Waif Woman,” which he omitted from Island Nights' Entertainments, published in 1893. (Incidentally, this last-named volume sold only 2,348 copies of the cloth edition and 1,500 copies of the paper-covered edition during its first nine months; Stevenson, noting in a letter to Colvin dated November 1893, that The Merry Men had sold even fewer copies, remarked with some resignation, “The short story never sells.”)6

Although Stevenson expressed similar sentiments about his novels while he worked on them, the note of diffidence struck for one short story after another seems stronger, and may be heard more often. One becomes convinced that he is sincerely confessing inadequacy; he was never wholly convinced that he had mastered the form. All of which leads to a final generalization: Stevenson's natural bent was to let a story tell itself, and his later tinkerings, after the first draft had been completed, did not necessarily amount to improvements, or to more sophisticated elucidations of his intention. Several critics have already documented this view in terms of his collaborations with Henley, and Stevenson's suspicion that it was true may have contributed to the deterioration of that friendship, although the nominal cause was Henley's accusation that Fanny had committed plagiarism by publishing as her own a story based upon a manuscript written by Katharine Stevenson de Mattos, a cousin of Stevenson. Closer inspection of those stories to which Stevenson appended a moral, or, in Fanny's endearing term, an allegory, may confirm the charge. Perhaps this is no more than a judgment about Stevenson's recurring problem in defining a relationship between form and content, i.e., a judgment that his art suffered frequently because he did not know where, in advance, he wanted his story to lead his reader. His efforts to pretend otherwise, once the story came into print, were often disingenuous; at any rate, seldom convincing; and more than one story was attributed—by Stevenson—to two, and sometimes three, sources, and possessed more than one objective. Such was the case, for example, with one of his popular efforts, “The Bottle Imp,” which was, at various times, said to be “the centre-piece of a volume of Märchen” that he intended, slowly, to elaborate; or the result of reading (rather than seeing on the stage) Richard Brinsley Peake's The Bottle Imp, which had been acted by Richard John (“Obi”) Smith in 1828; or a story designed from the very beginning for translation into Samoan, with appropriate compromises for that audience worked throughout the fabric of the story.

Stevenson's distaste for literary criticism is well known, even though he wrote several essays in this field. “There is nothing more disenchanting to man,” he wrote in “On Style in Literature: Its Technical Elements” (published in The Contemporary Review, April 1885), “than to be shown the springs and mechanism of any art.” He sincerely believed that it was much easier for men “of equal facility to write fairly pleasing verse than reasonably interesting prose,” because “in prose the pattern itself has to be invented, and the difficulties first created before they can be solved.”7 A writer of prose had to keep “his phrases large, rhythmical, and pleasing to the ear, without ever allowing them to fall into the strictly metrical.”8 It is not surprising, therefore, that Stevenson regarded the dominant movement of the nineteenth century—toward an increasing realism, toward the inclusion of more factual details, toward the use of a “local dexterity”9 in a “technical method”10—with some dismay; he preferred to labor (difficulties and all) on fiction, that was “philosophical, passionate, dignified, happily mirthful, or, at the last and least, romantic in design.”11 He sought “truth to the conditions of man's nature and the conditions of man's life”12 rather than “a photographic exactitude in dialogue.” This idealistic view, he granted, would not produce perfect or wholly trustworthy literature, if only because the rendering of any “fact” was closely related to the imperfect sensibility of the author who committed it to print; but Stevenson went further. “The health or disease of the writer's mind or momentary humour forms not only the leading feature of his work, but is, at bottom, the only thing he can communicate to others.”13 He preached a generous and catholic faith in the possibilities of human existence; a writer cannot afford to ape or conceal a sentiment. “Any book is wrong that gives a misleading picture of the world and life.”14 And, for the editor of the British Weekly who had requested a list of books which had proved influential over the years, Stevenson wrote that works of fiction that did not pin a reader to a dogma (“which he must afterwards discover to be inexact”) or teach a reader a lesson (“which he must afterwards unlearn”15) had pleased him most. Apart from poets, playwrights, and essayists whom we might expect to turn up on Stevenson's list (Shakespeare, Whitman, Wordsworth, Montaigne, Spencer), there are the novelists: Dumas (“Perhaps my dearest and best friend outside of Shakespeare is D'Artagnan—the elderly D'Artagnan of the Vicomte de Bragelonne,16 Bunyan, Meredith, and perhaps unexpectedly, Algernon Bertram Freeman Mitford, whose book Tales of Old Japan (1871) taught Stevenson for the first time the proper attitude of any rational man to his country's laws. (Mitford's life, in several respects, paralleled that of Stevenson, and was one of the most romantic lives led by any Victorian diplomat.) This essay, of considerable interest to any friend of Stevenson's idealistic turn of mind, repeats several old themes, in that the function of art is again seen to be a repetition, rearrangement, and clarification of the lessons of life; fiction in this sense instructs fully as much as a work of non-fiction, say, the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Lewes's life of Goethe, or Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. But it also emphasizes “the improvable reader,”17 who benefits from seeing another side of the argument in print; and Stevenson's relationship to his audience, increasingly close as the 1880s gave way to the final decade of the century, became increasingly important to him. “The slightest novels are a blessing to those in distress, not chloroform itself a greater … To please is to serve; and so far from its being difficult to instruct while you amuse, it is difficult to do the one thoroughly without the other. Some part of the writer or his life will crop out in even a vapid book; and to read a novel that was conceived with any force is to multiply experience and to exercise the sympathies … The writer has the chance to stumble, by the way, on something pleasing, something interesting, something encouraging, were it only to a single reader.”18

How rigorously does Stevenson live up to his own dicta in the short stories that he wrote (some of them a full twenty-five to thirty thousand words in length)? The answer must be that he does so inconsistently. Some of his stories are grimly realistic to a degree that would have pleased Flaubert or Zola, and conventional, mildly patronizing assessments of Stevenson as “a lesser Scott”—based in part on his essays of literary criticism—must be revised upward. Stevenson was an artist in his own right, and not a day-dreamer in the Scott-imitators' mode; as a writer, he concerned himself with the more serious romantic conventions that had already been exploited by Hugo—for whom “moral significance” served as an organizing principle.19 Stevenson's high regard for the educative function of fiction is not always borne out by a particular story, and, for that matter, his demand for an open-minded, intelligent, and judicious audience could not always be met. Indeed, Stevenson frequently spoke with some chagrin of the newspaper-reading public as non-serious, even though his short stories were written for a substantial fraction of that audience.

There is no question that Stevenson's brand of moral romance would have palled by the middle years of the Great War; reputations of romantic story-tellers that loomed large in the 1880s and 1890s were destroyed forever by the horrors of trenches dug for some five hundred miles along the Western Front; and even the dedicated singers of an imperial destiny—G. A. Henty, Alfred Austin (the Poet Laureate), and Rudyard Kipling, as well as lesser lights—spoke about “noble duty” to an increasingly skeptical public.20 Yet even if Stevenson exploited imperial emotion and moved many of his fictional characters against imperial backdrops, an integrity-bound tough-mindedness prevented him from sentimentalizing “fortitude,” “loyalty,” and “adventure” in the manner of a Henley, or a Haggard, or a Henty.

Stevenson was at his best in his horror tales, and three of these may be taken as representative: “The Body Snatcher,” “Thrawn Janet,” “Markheim.” They have retained their popularity over a full century, and they serve to identify important characteristics of Stevenson's craft. They are, rather surprisingly, not the product of sudden inspiration (the effortlessness of the narration is deceptive, but easy reading, as professionals know, comes usually from hard writing). “The Body Snatcher” required several months of work at Pitlochry in 1881, went through several drafts, and got into print only after three years had elapsed.

“Thrawn Janet” took longest of all. Stevenson certainly intended to write a story about her when he prepared A Covenanting Story-Book in 1868–9, and listed “The Story of Thrawn Janet” as one of his entries; perhaps he did write a draft at that time; but not until 1871, when he bought a copy of Satan's Invisible World Discovered, by George Sinclair (1685), did he acquire a readily accessible source for a major part of his story (another source being the Reverend Robert Wodrow's Analecta, 1842–3). But the story was not accepted for publication until June 1881, when Leslie Stephen approved it for inclusion in the Cornhill Magazine, and it is impossible to say how many versions it went through before a final metamorphosis.

“Markheim” was drafted in 1881, but not sent to an editor until December 1884, and then as a replacement for “Oliver Leaf,” a story insufficiently blood-curdling for the taste of Charles Morley of the Pall Mall Gazette (“Oliver Leaf” was never published). “Markheim” thus was aimed at a specific audience of readers who knew—from advertisements prepared by Morley—that the Christmas “Extra” issue would contain exciting and even shocking stories. Stevenson distrusted his judgment as to its merits, and—as we have seen—willingly accepted ten pounds less for “The Body Snatcher” than Morley had agreed to pay for “Markheim.” He tried again in 1885, revising “Markheim” extensively, in response to Henry Norman's request for a story in Unwin's Christmas Annual; it was published as one of the items in Norman's The Broken Shaft: Tales in Mid-Ocean (1885, but dated 1886). Similar lengthy periods between genesis and completion of a satisfactory draft may be traced for most of Stevenson's short stories.

The basic situations of all three stories are contrived, melodramatic, and even outrageously improbable; in none of them does the plausibility of the plot matter excessively. They are relatively brief; the limited space concentrates Stevenson's mind wonderfully. They all deal with death, and the possibility that for evil spirits death is not final. The stories seem to be told for their own sake, their issuing-forth to be compelled. They are tales of horror, and, in Hardy's memorable phrase, exceptional enough to justify the telling. Nor—despite our observation that two of the three stories take place in a more remote time (“The Body Snatcher” is based upon the doings of Burke and Hare in the eighteenth century, while the climactic scene of “Thrawn Janet” is precisely dated as taking place on August 17, 1712)—a reader may not take comfort; evil is all around us, and never goes out of fashion.

The popularity of these tales (a term perhaps more suitable than that of short stories, since they all partake of the marvelous) was enhanced, at the time of publication, by a large number of sandwich boards. Stevenson was not convinced that the tales helped his reputation among readers whose opinion in such things he trusted, and he wavered between pride and disgust when he alluded to them. But he underestimated their narrative values and their allegorical weight. “The Body Snatcher” strikes a note of awed conviction that men's natures can become satanic, which assumes some importance in Stevenson's later fiction; “Thrawn Janet” is his first mature piece of Scottish fiction, heavy in atmospherics; and “Markheim,” for all its heavy-handed symbolism, invites serious comparison with Dostoyevsky's treatment of a murder in Crime and Punishment, and offers a more substantial and believable treatment of the psychology of the Doppelgänger than does “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

Two of these stories are traceable to a dispirited summer of heavy rain, when the Stevensons lived in Kinnaird Cottage, Pitlochry, in the Vale of Atholl. Space was at a premium; the cottage was small, and divided into two flats (the second was occupied by Stevenson's parents); and the weather, foul and gloomy throughout the supposed vacation-period, provoked a classic exchange between Fanny (“When will spring begin?”) and her mother-in-law (“This is the spring!”).21 But it also allowed Stevenson time to listen to the grim ghost tales recounted by Mrs. Sims, the owner of the cottage, a cook, and a true-bred Scot, and it revived a flagging sense of dedication to the fictionalizing of his Scottish heritage.

“The Body Snatcher” begins with a brief description of four men who like to meet in a hotel-parlour at Debenham: an undertaker, a landlord, an old drunken Scotsman named Fettes, and the man who recounts the events of the narrative. The description of a terrifying ride over a deeply rutted road with a macabre travelling-companion is prepared for by a sober-sided, calm narrator. Though we learn next to nothing about him—not even his occupation—we are reassured by his manner; by his interest in the strange behavior of Fettes; by his willingness to investigate the reasons underlying Fettes's belligerent accosting of a doctor who has come to visit a patient at the hotel. “It is no great boast,” he writes in a confidential manner, “but I believe I was a better hand at worming out a story than either of my fellows at the George; and perhaps there is now no other man alive who could narrate to you the following foul and unnatural events …”

“Thrawn Janet” begins, similarly, with a quiet review of the impeccable reputation as orator enjoyed by the Reverend Murdoch Soulis, minister of the moorland parish of Balweary, in the Vale of Dule, and a masterful description of the strip of causeway down which Mr. Soulis walks, “sometimes groaning aloud in the instancy of his unspoken prayers.” This introductory passage, of approximately a thousand words, is rendered in standard English; again, the strange events to be recounted must be seen first from an unhurried perspective. Many members of the parish do not know about the weird events marking the early years of Mr. Soulis's tenure in Balweary; those who do might be reticent, or shy. “Now and again, only, one of the older folk would warm into courage over his third tumbler, and recount the cause of the minister's strange looks and solitary life.” From this point on the narrative continues in fairly broad Lallans, as an experiment in language that Stevenson seldom undertook.

“Markheim” is told from Markheim's point of view (in the third person); and, we soon learn, he has mixed motives, and a conscience that ultimately will lead to a decision to turn himself in to the police. The dealer whom Markheim murders is not a particularly agreeable person, nor is meant to be; but the brutality of the act, once committed, leads Markheim to thoughts that confirm his original terror, morbid predisposition, and resolve, and that accentuate his physical repulsion at war with his “fascination.” Images accumulate to vivify his knowledge of self-guilt: the door that stands ajar, peering into the shadows “with a long slit of daylight like a pointing finger”; the striking of many clocks (time has “become instant and momentous for the slayer”); the multiple reflections of his own face in the mirrors scattered through the shop, “as it were an army of spies,” with his own eyes meeting and detecting himself; and the candle that he carries from room to room, causing “the gross blots of darkness” to swell and dwindle “as with respiration.” Markheim speaks to a visitant who reviews with him the nature of evil. “Evil, for which I live, consists not in action but in character,” he tells Markheim. “And it is not because you have killed a dealer, but because you are Markheim that I offered to forward your escape …” He goes on to warn Markheim that he can never change. The tale turns upon the issue of free will, for Markheim is determined to cheat his tormenter by exercising his one alternative option: to cease from action, to refuse to kill the maid who even now is ringing the doorbell. He wins an inner battle with his debased instincts as well as the outer debate. One of his last statements is that he has still his hatred of evil, and from that he “can draw both energy and courage.” He thus makes a rational choice to accept full responsibility for the murder of the dealer.

All three tales are insistent on their suggestion that evil, though suffering one fall after another, is so deeply rooted in human nature that it will rise again, and often higher than before. “The Body Snatcher” ends with a pouring rain (“it was no easy matter to make a light in such a world of wet and darkness”), and the discovery by Fettes and Dr. Macfarlane that the body of a sixty-year-old woman has changed, within its “dripping sack,” into the body of Gray, who long since had been cut up by K—, the extramural anatomist. But Wolfe Macfarlane, who began his medical career as “a high favourite among all the reckless students, clever, dissipated, and unscrupulous,” has had no more than a momentary scare at the moment of discovery; the beginning of the story has informed us that he became a great London physician after that eerie ride; and, when we first see him, he enters “richly dressed in the finest of broadcloth, and the whitest of linen, with a great gold watchchain, and studs and spectacles of the same precious material”; and Fettes's confrontation only momentarily disconcerts him. He escapes from Fettes's grasp; from his hoarse whisper, “Have you seen it again?”—and his only loss is a pair of “fine gold spectacles,” which remains behind, broken on the threshold.

“Thrawn Janet” is, in effect, the story of a conversion, for Dr. Soulis (to Stevenson the best name in all the world, which he would gladly have used again if this story had not ruined its possibilities for other narratives)22 begins as a mild-mannered religious believer (“fu' o' book-learnin' an' grand at the exposition, but, as was natural in sae young a man, wi' nae leevin' experience in religion”), and undergoes tremendous shock when he learns that Janet M'Clour, the “auld limmer” whom he hires as maid despite the disapproval of many Balweary citizens, is indeed “sib to the de'il,” just as they have said. The real question here is what Dr. Soulis is converted to, after he has seen her body hanging “frae a nail beside the auld aik cabinet,” with her head lying on her shoulder and her tongue projecting from her mouth, and her heels two feet above the ground (this is an apparition); and after the devil, in Janet's form, comes slowly toward the terrified minister to torment him. Dr. Soulis escapes; indeed, the devil never again appears in Balweary. “But it was a fair dispensation for the minister; lang, lang he lay ravin' in his bed; an' frae that hour to this, he was the man ye ken the day.” His conversion, apparently, is to a soul-wrenching faith in the devil's capabilities to wreak mischief; in the reality of the devil. Because he did not recognize the signs of possession when they appeared (he was newly graduated from college, and had no patience with the superstitions of the townsfolk when he came to Balweary), he was fated to undergo a crisis of the soul; and, with the passage of fifty years after the singular death of Thrawn Janet, turned into “a severe, bleak-faced old man, dreadful to his hearers,” exactly the kind of minister whom Stevenson personally distrusted as being over-dogmatic.

“Markheim,” too, poses an unresolved question at story's end. Stevenson intended it for a Christmas market, but it provides no Christmas cheer. Markheim is not saved by his confession to the maid, or by his decision not to murder her, any more than his presence on the platform of a revival meeting some three years back meant that God's grace had descended upon him at that time. Salvation is denied to a thirty-six-year-old man who has squandered great gifts on the foolish pursuit of pleasure; even at year's end, when the birth of the child Jesus promises a washing-clean, when Markheim truly repents and says, with passion, that “there is no good thing nor true thing on earth” that he does not love from his heart, when he has absorbed the lessons of the dark man, when he has looked within and seen himself for what he truly is, he is not worthy of forgiveness, nor will he receive it. If moral there be, it is that God cannot or will not look past Markheim's acts to approve his repentance; and it is clear that Markheim is correct in his conviction that the “creature” with whom he debates “was not of the earth and not of God.”

The “crawlers,” in brief, are complicated inventions, and possibly Stevenson's lasting legacy to the genre. Stevenson understood that morality in the modern short story would have to be more diffused than it had been in previous generations of stories; the merely fabulous had lost its audience because of a progressive centralization of modern thought. The price was high: the story-teller had lost much of his innocence, the kinds of stories he loved to tell (humorous, fantastic, occasionally even trivial) had fallen from favor. There was, he believed, less humanity in the modern short story. Stevenson's contribution to this field was thought to be—and may still be assessed as—notoriously uneven; Stevenson knew it, and blamed his failures partly on the changing conditions of the relationship between publisher and author; between the author and his public. But there were moments of satisfaction, when he knew he had done well. “Thrawn Janet,” after all, was a story that he read to Fanny in their bedroom, when only a single candle illuminated the page; while outside the rain poured heavily down. At story's end the author took his wife's hand, and, both frightened of the dark, they crept downstairs.

To Sidney Colvin Stevenson wrote, in June 1881, “‘Thrawn Janet’ is off to Stephen, but as it is all in Scotch he cannot take it, I know. It was so good, I could not help sending it.”23 But Stephen liked it too, accepted it without hesitation, and doubtless wished that Stevenson might live forever to continue writing such tales.


  1. Fortnightly Review, n. s. Vol. xv (June, 1874), pp. 817–23.

  2. Works, South Seas Edition (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1925), vol. x, p. 93.

  3. Works, Tusitala Edition (London: William Heinemann, 1924), vol. viii, p. xv.

  4. Ibid., vol. viii, p. xiii.

  5. Quoted by Swearingen, The Prose Writings, p. 126.

  6. Robert Louis Stevenson, Vailima Letters, Being Correspondence Addressed by Robert Louis Stevenson to Sidney Colvin, November, 1890–October, 1894 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1896), vol. ii, p. 191.

  7. Robert Louis Stevenson, Essays of Travel and in the Art of Writing, Biographical Edition (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1923), p. 261.

  8. Ibid., p. 276.

  9. Stevenson, “A Note on Realism,” op. cit., p. 285.

  10. Ibid., p. 281.

  11. Ibid., p. 286.

  12. Ibid., p. 280.

  13. Stevenson, “The Morality of the Profession of Letters,” op. cit., p. 296.

  14. Ibid., p. 299.

  15. Stevenson, “Books which have Influenced Me,” op. cit., p. 316.

  16. Ibid., p. 318.

  17. Ibid., p. 324.

  18. Ibid., pp. 300–1.

  19. Eigner, Stevenson and Romantic Tradition, p. 246.

  20. James Morris, Pax Britannica: The Climax of an Empire (London: Faber and Faber, 1968), p. 343.

  21. Hennessy, Robert Louis Stevenson, p. 152.

  22. Balfour, Life, vol. i, p. 224.

  23. Letters, vol. i, p. 238.

John Herdman (essay date 1990)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1195

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 the story are marvellously atmospheric. On Christmas Day Markheim enters an antique shop, or pawnshop, with evil intent. The shop is full of ticking clocks, marking the passing of time which is for Markheim a reminder of ill-spent years. When the dealer suggests a mirror as a Christmas present for his lady, he rejects it with horror as a ‘hand-conscience.’1 He pretends to want to be friendly—‘Why should we wear this mask?’—but no sooner has he said this than he stabs the dealer with a ‘long skewer-like dagger.’ The room is full of shadows; all at once all the clocks in the shop strike three in their different voices; and in dozens of ornate mirrors Markheim sees ‘his face repeated and repeated, as it were an army of spies’ (p. 93).

It is not surprising that in these surroundings the murderer begins to wonder whether he is alone. He becomes conscious of some presence which at times seems ‘a shadow of himself.’ Yet looking at the body he is unmoved and feels no remorse—he has thrust his conscience outside himself. He has no fear of God in his heart, only a fear that the laws of nature will betray him, or ‘some wilful illegality of nature’ which might be called ‘the hands of God reached forth against sin’ (p. 98). But now his conscience returns to haunt him, animistically, from without: ‘The sense that he was not alone grew upon him to the point of madness. On every side he was haunted and begirt by presences’ (p. 97). These vague phantoms are about to take a more definite shape. Markheim is upstairs in the drawing-room, going through the keys. A footstep mounts the stairs, and the door opens; a face looks in, and smiles ‘as if in friendly recognition.’

From the moment of the double's entry, the story loses its impetus and becomes an argument. A vast novel such as The Brothers Karamazov can carry within it such discursive episodes without losing its structural coherence or its dramatic tension, but a story of less than twenty pages is thrown severely out of balance by a protracted debate between a man and his personified conscience who materialises very much as a deus ex machina. The real point of the tale lies in its surprise ending, a feature of short-story writing which was coming into popularity around this time with no very good results for the future of the genre. Markheim's visitor is very like Ivan's Devil, a thing which seems to bear a likeness to himself but is ‘not of the earth and not of God,’ yet at the same time appears commonplace and everyday. Markheim takes him for the Devil, and his visitor goes along with him, not only playing the Devil's advocate but using the Devil's arguments to lead Markheim unawares towards an opposite conclusion. This is a cruder version of the approach of Ivan's Devil.

The visitor warns Markheim that the maid will return early, thus putting him under further pressure from his old enemy, time. Markheim starts to justify himself, that is, to champion his submerged but true self: ‘My life is but a travesty and slander on myself. I have lived to belie my nature.’ He cannot be judged by his acts; he has been dragged down by the ‘giants of circumstance.’ Evil, he claims, is hateful to him: ‘Can you not see within me the clear writing of conscience. … Can you not read me for a thing that surely must be common as humanity—the unwilling sinner?’ (p. 101). But this reminder of St. Paul cuts no ice with the other, who is interested only in the outcome. He offers to tell him where to find the money, but Markheim refuses to take anything at his hands: ‘I will do nothing to commit myself to evil.’ The double pours contempt on this ‘truckling peace with God,’ but Markheim is firm: this crime will be his last; through the riches it brings he will become an agent of good and live at peace. But his better self, with something of the incontrovertible air of a modern newspaper astrologer, gives him the bad news: he will lose the money on the Stock Exchange.

Still Markheim is determined in the face of this blow that his worst part will not triumph. ‘Evil and good run strong in me, haling me in both ways … good, also, is a spring of acts.’ The soi-disant Devil, however, seeks to deny him this comfort and to bind him by the old predestinarian argument that he is powerless except for evil: ‘Downward, downward lies your way; nor can anything but death avail to stop you’ (p. 104). Markheim is grateful: ‘I thank you for these lessons from my soul; my eyes are opened, and I behold myself for what I am’ (p. 105). They hear the servant enter; the visitor tells him that he must let her in and then get rid of her. But Markheim has a trump card up his sleeve to counter Augustinian theology: if he is condemned to evil acts, then he can cease from action. ‘My love of good is damned to barrenness; it may, and let it be! But I still have my hatred of evil; and from that, to your galling disappointment, you shall see that I can draw both energy and courage’ (p. 106). At this the features of his visitor brighten and soften in a ‘tender triumph’ and he fades away. Markheim gives himself up to the police.

There is an embarrassing air of contrivance about the whole dialogue. Apart from the structural weakness which it imparts to the story as a whole, it carries within it a conceptual flaw: having projected his conscience outside himself as an advocatus diaboli, Markheim still seems able to draw on it from within himself and give form to its promptings in a coherent argument, even if one which, in the detestation of evil which it expresses, seems to come very oddly from one who has plunged a knife into an old man a few minutes previously. If his conscience is already so developed and articulate, why should it have to conduct a Socratic argument with itself? The philosophical validity of its clinching argument is, besides, highly suspect: he admits that he is capable only of evil acts but argues that he can ‘cease from action’; to give himself up to the police is, however, an action, and, we must suppose, a good action. …


  1. R. L. Stevenson, ‘Markheim,’ in The Merry Men and Other Tales, vol. viii (London, 1924) p. 91.

Barry Menikoff (essay date 1993)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2198

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 behavior and conscience. It is a story brilliant in its simplicity, its movement, and its psychological acuity. Markheim, a youngish man who has steadily resorted to more serious crimes as a result of his gambling debts, enters an antique dealer's shop on Christmas eve, engages the flinty old man in conversation, then murders him with a long knife. He sets about to rob the store, which is closed off from the afternoon light and filled with clocks and mirrors of all sizes and shapes. In the process of moving through the house, he suddenly encounters another presence. This presence, or “visitant,” engages Markheim in conversation, and the two debate the path that the murderer's life has taken. The visitant offers to help the murderer escape, but after the long colloquy Markheim decides to give himself up. As the dealer's servant girl returns to the shop, he tells her, “Go for the police … I have killed your master.” Simple enough on the surface, the story is a stunning achievement on a number of levels—as a psychological study of conscience; as a discourse on good and evil; as a textual compression of time and space, light and dark. It certainly looks back to Poe and E. T. A. Hoffman, just as it looks forward to Henry James's “The Jolly Corner.” But this is not a ghost story where the protagonist is visited by images of his past and future selves; rather it is a story where memory renders visible the past. Markheim vividly recalls his experiences as a child, experiences in which the morbid alternated with the joyous, where the open fields were in contrast with the posters of notorious murderers hung up as sensational attractions at a Sunday fair. Stevenson takes for his subject memory and consciousness, twin images that generate the action and envelop the reader. Virtually the entire story takes place in the mind of the protagonist.

The question of duality can be readily placed in a modern context by substituting psychoanalytic concepts focusing on the ego, and in “Markheim” this approach would provide a plausible reading. Another way of examining duality is to approach it from the vantage point of good and evil—a common view of Jekyll and Hyde. But good and evil are more complicated, or perhaps more problematic, than a simple schematic division of the self suggests. Without question the nature of evil is one of Stevenson's major subjects, from his earliest fiction to his last unfinished texts. Although the treatment may not appear as profoundly philosophical as in Melville, where evil is immanent in the world, without origin or explanation, or as psychological as in Hawthorne, where the fall from grace is replicated in every individual's experience, it is in fact a fusion of both. Stevenson's focus on motivation and behavior foregrounds psychology, while his alternation of internal monologue with dialogic debate draws attention to the philosophical argument. Thus psychology and philosophy are joined for both dramatic and theoretic purposes. …

In “Markheim” Stevenson melds the issues of duality and good and evil in a story of conscience, redemption, and the narcissism of consciousness. Confronted by the visitant who appears to know him, Markheim exclaims:

“Know me!” cried Markheim. “Who can do so? My life is but a travesty and slander on myself. I have lived to belie my nature. All men do; all men are better than this disguise that grows about and stifles them. You see each dragged away by life, like one whom bravos have seized and muffled in a cloak; if they had their own control—if you could see their faces, they would be altogether different, they would shine out for heroes and saints! I am worse than most; myself is more overlaid; my excuse is known to me and God. But had I the time, I could disclose myself.”


Markheim's plea is of course self-serving, blaming fate for his criminal conduct and his current condition. But if the argument appears nothing but an attempt at self-justification, it cannot be dismissed altogether. The belief that our outward life bears no relation to who we are is made with telling effect in this paragraph. It is as if “life” kidnaps us from our better selves, holds us in bondage to a behavior that is neither a genuine reflection nor an adequate expression of what we believe or feel. Markheim's cry is for the preservation of his own identity and against the false separation between our exterior and interior lives, of having our physical selves function as surrogates for our purer but captive spiritual beings. In a passage that has profound historical roots, Markheim declares the dilemma of his existence: “Evil and good run strong in me, haling me both ways. I do not love the one thing, I love all” (313–14). That sense of an individual at war with himself received its seminal expression in St. Paul's letter to the Romans (“But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” [Rom. 7:23]), and in two telling descriptions in Sir Thomas Browne, whom Stevenson “sedulously” imitated when he was learning to write, and who as late as 1893 he continued to list in his private canon of revered writers (“With Mr Stevenson's compliments,” undated letter, Parrish Collection, Princeton University Library): “The heart of man is the place the devill dwels in; I feele sometimes a hell within my selfe”; and “There is another man within mee that's angry with mee, rebukes, commands, and dastards me” (Browne, Religio Medici and Other Works, ed. L. C. Martin [Oxford: Clarendon, 1964], 49, 64).

This idea of inward division, that deep within the self there is a powerful disposition to evil that cannot be overcome simply by the mind's conscious desire for good—Milton's “hateful siege / Of contraries” (Paradise Lost 9:119–22)—is central in much of Stevenson's fiction. We have seen how pervasive the image of life as war is in Stevenson. Markheim's internal struggle represents a parallel version of the general struggle embodied in the social realm. In other words, just as life is a battlefield (in the words of Colonel Geraldine in The Suicide Club), Markheim and Gordon Darnaway and Northmour are engaged in a form of warfare within themselves, fighting to break out of the soul-destroying conflicts they face. There is a connection between the individual world and the social world, between the war within the self and the war in the larger world, for Stevenson's fiction is always set in the larger world and is never meant to be contained within the contours of the individual or egoistic consciousness. For the characters, the war within is frequently justified as the inevitable consequence of the war without, and the war without can be seen as a projection of the war within. Thus the battle royal between the “man-eaters” and the “voices” in “The Isle of Voices” serves symbolically as a clash between competing forms of ignorance and evil, and as a projection of the disturbed state of Keola's mind, his being torn between the laziness and greed that got him marooned on the island in the first place, and his desire to return home to his wife and his life in Hawaii.

It would be a mistake to think that there is ever a resolution, let alone a peaceful conclusion to the unending Darwinian battle that is life. One of the reasons the endings to Stevenson's fictions are so problematic is precisely because they are not envisioned in any way as conclusions. The stories are texts whose deeper narratives are still unfolding, or which take different directions, following the fortuitous details that “complete” the action proper. Stevenson's Villon goes out into the night, wondering to himself whether (at the very least) he should have robbed his host of his goblets. That the real Villon disappeared from Paris shortly after a major robbery in Christmas 1456, and that his final end remains a mystery, gives a curious historical veracity to the text's fictional and formal logic.

But as St. Paul and Sir Thomas Browne and Milton tell us, the mind is all, and in the conception lies the crime. Thus the devil (if that is indeed who the “visitant” represents) tells Markheim that he is indifferent to his subject's crime: “And it is not because you have killed a dealer, but because your name is Markheim, that I offer to forward your escape” (313). He then makes the declaration that directly echoes Satan's “Evil be thou my Good” (Paradise Lost 9:110): “Evil, for which I live, consists not in action but in character; the bad man is dear to me, not the bad act” (313). This attitude defines the idea of character and the position of good and evil in the world. If it is not the act that defines the evil, then it must be the perpetrator of the act; if it is not in the deed itself, then it is in its imagining. This serves to shift the attention away from the action and toward the conception. In effect, the action itself might be nothing more than a sophisticated decoy, a divertissement, entertaining in its own right but not really the main event. Good and evil then are exclusively centered in the mind of the individual, irrespective of whether or not he commits a crime. Conversely, if the individual is well loved by friends and family, no crime he may commit alters their judgment or their feeling for him. Dr. Noel's comment to the young man in “The Physician and the Saratoga Trunk” is a fair description of this position: “Credulous youth, the horror with which blind and unjust law regards an action never attaches to the doer in the eyes of those who love him; and if I saw the friend of my heart return to me out of seas of blood he would be in no way changed in my affection. … good and ill are a chimera; there is nought in life except destiny” (77).

Of course, this cannot be taken as an absolute statement of Stevenson's own position. But it is interesting for its philosophical dimension. Stevenson opens up the question of evil in terms of the nature of man, of his actions in the world, and of both in the context of time or “destiny.” These issues are complicated, and neither the visitant nor Dr. Noel is a model for emulation. Yet their positions illustrate the kind of moral complexity that is articulated in all of Stevenson's texts. If good and evil are indeed a “chimera,” then what is an individual's role in life? How are values like love, loyalty, honor, and courage maintained in a world devoid of meaning, yet one where evil is manifest? One answer is that the world is not empty, that evil does have its counterpart, and it is precisely that which gives Stevenson's characters their capacity to survive and their faith to continue living. If “Markheim” is a psychomachy, a struggle of good and evil for the soul of man, the ending is not on the side of evil: “If I be condemned to evil acts … there is still one door of freedom open: I can cease from action. If my life be an ill thing, I can lay it down” (315).

In many ways this passage strikes at the heart of Stevenson's belief that it is thought that determines character, the mind that makes the man, rather than the acts performed. It is not recognized often enough how much of Stevenson's fiction turns on protagonists who use their intelligence to survive, who indeed survive only because of their intelligence. The best-known examples are Jim Hawkins and David Balfour, the latter getting some very simple advice from his minister upon leaving home: “Be soople, David, be soople.” But it can be seen in the shorter fiction as well, in “The Merry Men,” as Charlie unravels the mystery bit by bit; in “The Bottle Imp,” as the resourceful wife figures out how to dispose of the bottle and save her husband's soul; or in “The Isle of Voices,” where the presumably ignorant Hawaiian sizes up the white sailors' inability to believe anything but their own stories and thus decides that the better part of discretion is not to reveal the mystery of Kalamake's lantern. This focus on intelligence belies a common perception of Stevenson as an adventure writer whose compelling stories exist solely on the level of physical action. But Stevenson is nothing if not intellectual, and his dramatic texts represent the embodiment of his ideas. …

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

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1999

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 would make it easier for him to cope with his illness. Characters, phrases, and ideas from his best works, Treasure Island, A Child's Garden of Verses, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, have virtually been adopted in many cultures. This year marks the centennial of his death, and festivals are planned in a number of locations where he lived and worked in his peripatetic career: Edinburgh, Scotland; Monterey, California; and Samoa in the South Seas.

Despite Stevenson's wide influence, the academy has not paid much attention to his work, preferring instead the canon of his great friend Henry James as a fit subject. And public acclaim for his poetry and novels, rarely out of print since their first publication in the 1880s, has not been shared by his accomplishments in the genre of the short story. It is important, in consequence, that we now have a well-edited volume of Stevenson's principal stories by a scholar who has written on Stevenson for many years and edited his work. Barry Menikoff has gathered Stevenson's shorter narratives together here and has published two stories directly from holograph manuscripts for the first time: “Markheim” (held at Houghton Library, Harvard) and “The Isle of Voices” (Rosenbach Museum and Library).

In his preface Menikoff makes it clear that whatever the popular accolades and scholarly neglect, Stevenson is a writer's writer, earning praise from his contemporaries, including George Meredith, Henry James, and, we might add, Arthur Conan Doyle; and from writers (including Edith Wharton and John Buchan) who represented the next generation. Even modernists and post-modernists—Sean O'Faolain, John Steinbeck, Graham Greene, Jorge Luis Borges, and V. S. Pritchett—testify to his continuing influence. Menikoff's gracefully written introductory essay, “Fable, Fiction, and Modernism,” provides the literary context for Stevenson's tales, written between 1877 and 1893. He shows Stevenson's development as a writer of short fiction in relation both to the French contes by Théophile Gautier and Prosper Mérimée and to American short stories by Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In the French tales, Stevenson was drawn to the emphasis on form and on precise language, whereas the American stories turned him toward moral issues. These tales are not merely “easy entertainments,” Menikoff argues, because the lucidity of Stevenson's style can in fact mask his complexity of meaning. Moral questions—often unresolved—run through the tales, a complex frame for Stevenson's technical mastery.

Menikoff goes on to suggest that Stevenson pursues in most of his stories a theme of “chance, or the capriciousness of life” (p. 18); still, “moral issues, which are the heart of every Stevenson story, are always confronted in individual cases” (p. 11). The narrators or principal characters of the tales are usually solitary or lonely figures, often self-absorbed, who dwell in a landscape that typically heightens their isolation. These singular individuals seclude themselves from the world through reading and study but are drawn unwittingly into larger events. In “A Lodging for the Night,” Francis Villon searches for a place to sleep on a cold winter night in 1456 and encounters de Brisetout, a nobleman who accepts him as a guest “for this evening, and no more” (p. 248). The two talk away the night discussing ethical issues, such as “the riddle of … life” (p. 241) and the possibility of immortality in a world ruled by chance; and they discuss art and the futility of human endeavor. But before encountering de Brisetout, Villon has found a woman of the streets frozen to death. After Villon leaves, we are forced to consider not only the circumstances of wealth and poverty, but the overriding circumstance of death. In Stevenson's fiction, Menikoff suggests, “we cannot understand life until we recognize and acknowledge the fact of death” (p. 22).

One might say the stories are not “recollections in tranquility” but recollections in ambiguity. Stevenson's characters frequently exist in a duality of unresolved tension, even of open conflict, as do Jekyll and Hyde. The doubleness of human nature or of good and evil can be found in many stories from this volume, as Menikoff's examples prove. He argues persuasively that, because the stories are often open-ended and moral issues unresolved, Stevenson contributes to the beginning of the modernist movement. His major characters are isolated and without a moral center; their lives are determined by fortuitous circumstances; their thoughts and behavior are frequently linked to questions of good and evil, but the mystery of evil is never resolved. What remains is a fundamental doubt about the human ability to possess complete knowledge. Stevenson's characters seem to be caught in shadows, Menikoff explains, a half-light that is pervasive in the texts: while the action is complete at the end of each tale, the resolution is subverted on a broader, thematic level, showing that ambiguity is not only part of our language but a condition of our existence.

The stories that Menikoff has selected for Tales from the Prince of Storytellers come from New Arabian Nights (1882), The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables (1887), and Island Nights' Entertainments (1893), and they are arranged in the order in which they were first published. Three stories from The Suicide Club and four from The Rajah's Diamond begin the collection, and these are followed by “The Pavilion on the Links” and “The Lodging for the Night”—all from New Arabian Nights and written between 1877 and 1880. From The Merry Men are the title story and “Markheim,” and from Island Nights' Entertainment come “The Bottle Imp” and “The Isle of Voices.” While these are among Stevenson's best tales, there are certainly others that warrant attention, as Menikoff suggests, and he quotes from several, including “The Sire de Maléroit's Door,” “Providence and the Guitar,” and “Will o' the Mill.” One might have wished for “The Story of a Lie” (written 1879), “The Body Snatcher” (1881), “The Treasure of Franchard” (1882), “Olalla” (1885), “The Misadventures of John Nicholson” (1886), and “The Enchantress” (1888?), though generous reviewers might assume that there was not space in the current volume to include all of these. But the selection does lead to the hope that Northwestern University Press will encourage Menikoff to produce a second volume in which these and other stories may be incorporated. With Menikoff's edition of The Beach at Falesa (1984; paperback, 1987), printed from Stevenson's original manuscript, readers could then have available soundly edited texts of the entire short tales of Stevenson.

Despite the absence of certain stories, readers should appreciate the inclusion of two transcribed holograph manuscripts in Menikoff's edition. We briefly compared Menikoff's transcription of the manuscript of “Markheim” with the book text of 1887, though we were unable to consult the earlier version, from Unwin's Christmas Annual for 1885. While Menikoff mentions little about the Victorian editorial changes, we generally found the manuscript version to be of higher quality than that of the text in The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables (and we assume most reprinted versions of this collection). Early in the story, for instance, Markheim is supposedly searching for a gift to give his fiancée at a Christmas evening dinner later that day, and the antique dealer offers him a fifteenth-century hand mirror. Markheim acts as if he is shocked by the offer, and the dealer remarks: “Your future lady, sir, must be pretty hard favoured.” Markheim's response in the manuscript (Menikoff ed., p. 301, lines 33–37) is as follows (omissions in the 1887 text italicized):

No,” said Markheim, with great conviction. “But about you: I ask you for a Christmas present and you give me this—this damned reminder of years and sins and follies, this hand-conscience!”

The book text (1887) reads:

‘I ask you,’ said Markheim, ‘for a Christmas present, and you give me this—this damned reminder of years, and sins and follies—this hand-conscience!’

In the manuscript version, Markheim reacts more determinedly, and he alters the direction of their conversation to find out more about the dealer who would make such an offer. In the manuscript version, too, this interchange arouses a tension between the two men, as Markheim perceives that he and his lady have been insulted. Thus, with Menikoff's manuscript reading, Markheim's actions appear more strongly motivated. The importance of the mirror in each version is strongly symbolic.

Another example shows Stevenson's prose to be more effective than his nineteenth-century editor allowed. After Markheim has murdered the dealer, he goes upstairs in search of money, yet he is suddenly petrified with fear. Menikoff's transcription of the manuscript reads (p. 308, lines 15–21; omissions in 1887 text italicized):

He could never again, he felt, be sufficiently immured and fortified from men's observing eyes; the sole joy for which he longed was to be home, girt in by walls, buried among bed clothes, and invisible to all but God. And at the [that, 1887] thought he wondered a little, recollecting tales of other murderers and the fear they were said to entertain of heavenly avengers.

By omitting the phrase “the sole joy for which he longed,” the unknown editor has preempted the contrast of joy with “fear,” in the following sentence. It would seem that Stevenson wanted to contrast these states of mind to show Markheim's widely fluctuating emotions. While the 1887 text may be simpler (“he longed to be home”), it misses the complexity of the original. Only occasionally, in our spot checking, did we find the earlier editor rendering a service to Stevenson; for example “like an actor on a theatre” (p. 309, line 9) is corrected to “like an actor on a stage” in the 1887 text. Nevertheless, the manuscript version discloses that the material deleted in the printed editions usually illuminates the interior emotions of Markheim.

Some critics have considered Stevenson's short fiction merely a literary apprenticeship, yet his preoccupation with the short story lasted throughout his life. He experimented with folktales, allegories, thrillers, psychological dramas, comedies of manners, atmospheric tales, fables, and tales of adventure. Others have thought his tales limited by their focus on male characters. One should not overlook the important part females play in several of the stories. In “The Pavilion on the Links,” for instance, Clara Huddleston assists the narrator, Frank Cassilis, in defending the pavilion (and her father) against the attack by their foreign adversaries. Mary Darnaway, in “The Merry Men,” supports her irrational father in his personal crisis. It is Kokua, in “The Bottle Imp,” who comes up with the idea about how Keawe can rid himself of the bottle. And in “The Enchantress,” not included in this collection, Emmeline Croft demonstrates an ability to protect her inheritance through bold actions and shrewd legal arrangements.

Menikoff urges both scholars and the general public to read (or to reread) Stevenson's short fiction, and the notes and the glossary of Scottish terms he provides will be valuable for both audiences. While we might ask for more geographical details about specific settings, such as the rocky west coast of Scotland in “The Merry Men,” or a few additions to the glossary, like coble (a row boat) from the same story, Menikoff has certainly made the texts more accessible to modern readers. His substantial introductory essay, which brings to light underlying philosophical ideas in Stevenson's short fiction, will guide readers at the end of the twentieth century to a greater appreciation of the tales. Anyone interested in the short story, late nineteenth-century fiction, or Stevenson will certainly want a copy of this collection. It is a good year to celebrate Robert Louis Stevenson, and time to recognize his contribution to the development of the short story.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Principal Works


Further Reading