At Christmastime, Markheim, the protagonist, comes to a dealer’s shop, pretending that he is looking for a present for a lady. His real plan, however, is to murder the dealer so he can steal his merchandise and money. Markheim rejects the dealer’s suggestion of a hand mirror for the lady, referring to it as a “hand conscience.” Presumably, from his reaction to the mirror, Markheim feels twinges from his conscience even before he commits the murder. While the dealer is still in the midst of assisting him in finding a present, Markheim stabs and kills him.
The action of the story after the murder is limited, with most of it taking place inside Markheim’s mind; the setting is restricted to the dealer’s shop and house. The murder has intensified Markheim’s nerves and consciousness; as a result, he is easily startled and alarmed by the external noises and shadows he hears and sees inside the shop. Ticking and striking clocks, footsteps running past the shop, shadows cast by flickering candles and the dim light outside, and falling rain all unnerve him and make him even more overwrought.
Internally, he reproaches himself for how he has carried out his crime and imagines that his neighbors somehow know of his crime and are planning his punishment. All these alarms and fears eventually lead him to believe that he is not alone in the shop; he becomes increasingly convinced that there is some presence lurking somewhere, even though he had seen the dealer’s servant leave earlier, and he knows the dealer was alone in the shop.
His fears and imaginings are interrupted by a gentleman beating on the door and shouting for the dealer; he departs when he receives no answer. This interruption reminds Markheim of his purpose, and he realizes he must act quickly before he is interrupted again. He gets the keys from the dealer’s dead body and enters the dealer’s drawing room to gain access to the money cabinet. He is momentarily calmer and more relaxed as he searches for the key for the cabinet but is jarred suddenly by the sound of footsteps mounting the stairs.
He is surprised to see a friendly, familiar face appear at the door. He concludes that his visitor is not human but rather a spirit. This visitor—perhaps a devil, perhaps an angel, a hallucination of Markheim’s...
(The entire section is 596 words.)