Style and Technique

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Two literary techniques, atmosphere and the use of the Doppelgänger or double, are notable in “Markheim.” Most of the story is taken up by Markheim’s inner conflict in coping with his guilt and the evil in his nature, and the eerie atmosphere accentuates and externalizes this conflict. The shop is lit by candles that waver and cast weird shadows, the overall light is dim so that mirrors and pictures appear strange, clocks sound in the dimness, and rain causes a variety of startling noises sounding like footsteps and echoes. This dim, rainy setting works to unnerve Markheim, who already is overwrought internally by committing murder and repressing his guilt about his crime.

The use of the double also helps to emphasize as well as externalize Markheim’s conflict. The double or Doppelgänger is a technique that Robert Louis Stevenson uses in a number of his works, the most famous being Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and it is an effective way to indicate the duality in man’s nature. In “Markheim,” the use of the double and the debate between Markheim and his other self also help bring the story to its climax: Markheim’s moment of self-knowledge. It is only when he sees his double face to face that Markheim begins to accept his evil nature. Before he encounters his double, he believes he is justified in his crime, but his double makes him face his crime and forces him to question the good side of his nature, which he asserts still exists. When he finally admits that he is beyond grace, he realizes that his only chance at redemption is to confess his crime. The technique of the externalized other side of his nature visually represents for the reader and for Markheim how he resolves his conflict.

The identity of the double, however, has been debated among critics. Some maintain it is a devil, others an angel, still others assert that it is a hallucination brought on by Markheim’s overwrought nerves. One additional interpretation, stressed in the earlier discussion of the theme, is that the double is the result of externalizing Markheim’s repressed guilt and limited self-knowledge.

The similarities between Markheim’s story and the story of Raskolnikov in Fyodor Dostoevski’s Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886) are obvious. Both stories deal with the murder of a pawnbroker and the aftereffects of the murder on the murderer, as well as the criminal’s eventual punishment. In addition, both stories have similar dim, eerie atmospheres.

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Critical Essays