What is the meaning of the short story "Markheim"?

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Whenever we consider the "meaning" or "message" of a given story we must remember that such concepts are extremely relative, and every work of literature has a potential multiplicity of meanings that we need to be aware of. However, when we think of this masterful example of the Gothic genre, it is clear that the meaning revolves around the concept of the "double" or the "doppelgänger" that is introduced. Consider how, once he has committed the crime, Markheim comes face to face with a curious and fascinating figure, described as follows:

Perhaps there was a film upon his sight, but 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.

Note the insubstantial way this "double" figure is described, and the way that Markheim feels at times that it has a resemblance to himself and that he knows him. Markheim goes on to identify this figure as the devil, and, to support his conclusion, this strange personage does seem to tempt Markheim on into ever-greater depths of sin and persuade him to live his life committing evil acts, however, this does not explain the rather curious change in the expression of this guest at the end of the tale when Markheim determines to be master of his own destiny and turn himself in. Consider how he transforms:

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 dissolved.

Such a change, linked with Markheim's determination to "cease from action" and thus escape his fate of condemning himself to evil, indicates that this figure is actually a projection of Markheim's repressed conscience, a creation of his own mind, that explores psychologically Markheim's character and is able to "tempt" Markheim back to good.

Thus this story is a powerful psychological examination of the conscience of a criminal and how Markheim comes to choose to turn himself in, thus laying down his evil life and stopping his slide into even more hellish acts.

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What is the story 'Markheim' about?  

This story is about a murderer who wrestles with his conscience.

The main character, a young man called Markheim, goes to buy a gift from an antique dealer’s shop, and murders the dealer to steal his money. Left alone in the shop, he is soon disturbed by the arrival of a mysterious visitor who seems to know all about him. They fall into a philosophical discussion about his crime and what is to be done about it. Markheim’s misery of mind is made clear during this exchange, but he is also puzzled by his visitor, who never identifies himself clearly.

Finally, Markheim decides to give himself up to the authorities. Hearing the front doorbell ring, he goes down to answer it. The maidservant who works at the shop, has returned. The crux of the whole story lies in the final sentence, when Markheim addresses the maid:

‘You had better go for the police,’ said he, ’I have killed your master.’

Markheim, then, follows through his decision to hand himself in. He has committed a crime, but he also faces up to it and is willing, in the end, to pay the price. This is the second main event of the story; the first is the murder itself. In between, the story is taken up with the discussion of crime and guilt and such-like themes.

The identity of the visitor is never finally revealed, and remains the most intriguing aspect of the story. In an essential way, this person appears to be some part of Markheim himself; some kind of double or doppelganger, as in stories by Edgar Allen Poe, who influenced Stevenson in the writing of this tale. Stevenson of course is famous for another tale about doubles, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The visitor can perhaps most readily be taken as an allegorical projection of Markheim’s conscience. The way that he probes Markheim’s innermost thoughts and emotions is suggestive of this. Most telling is his transformation when Markheim decides to give himself up; his features suddenly become radiant and beautiful, representing, perhaps, the triumph of Markheim's good side over the bad.

In any case, the psychological aspect of the story is the most important one, concentrating as it does upon Markheim’s thoughts and feelings. However, it is dressed up in all the familiar trappings of a gothic supernatural tale: the sensational crime, the gloomy, dusty setting with its ominous ticking clocks, the strange visitor, and the general dark foreboding atmosphere.

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