Markheim by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1887
by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1887
First published in 1885 in an annual aimed at the Christmas market, the Robert Louis Stevenson story "Markheim" was an unlikely candidate for such a volume. True, the story is set on Christmas day, it opens with an ostensible quest for a last-minute present, and there is an encounter with the supernatural. But this is no pleasantly spine-tingling ghost story; rather it is a complex study of the problem of good and evil.
Stevenson had already tried his hand at the supernatural in stories exploiting the folktales of witchcraft, bogles, and warlocks he had heard as a child. "Markheim," collected in The Merry Men in 1887, reflects a different sector of his Scottish upbringing. The Calvinist preoccupation with the polarities of good and evil, free will and predestination, and the elect and the damned were art and part (in the Scots legal phrase) of the Scottish consciousness. Henley unerringly listed among his friend Louis's attributes "some-thing of the Shorter Catechist." The individual's struggle with conflicts of vice and virtue forms the very stuff of "Markheim" and of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The latter is the more powerful foray into the territory of The Confessions of a Justified Sinner, but "Markheim" combines an equally original approach with a narrative treatment of remarkably close texture.
The opening paragraphs set both scene and theme economically:
"Yes," said the dealer, "our windfalls are of various kinds. Some customers are ignorant, and then I touch a dividend on my superior knowledge. Some are dishonest," and here he held up the candle, so that the light fell strongly on his visitor, "and in that case," he continued, "I profit by my virtue." Markheim had but just entered from the daylight streets, and his eyes had not yet grown familiar with the mingled shine and darkness in the shop. At these pointed words, and before the near presence of the flame, he blinked painfully and looked aside.
We learn from the dealer's continuing speech that it is Christmas day when he is known to be alone and balancing his books, that he has previously bought articles from Markheim, and that he suspects they were come by dishonestly.
From this point the story is developed swiftly in dramatized dialogue. Clues are distributed as deftly as in the opening paragraphs—Markheim's instability, twinges of guilt, barely controlled violent impulses; the dealer's shady equivocations, now the faux bonhomme, now the bargainer with the upper hand; increasing tension as the dealer tries to conclude their business and get rid of his visitor. There is a rapid climax as Markheim leaps on his victim and stabs him to death.
The pace of the narrative is then suddenly relaxed. The viewpoint alters, and Markheim's perceptions and reflections follow. A brooding atmosphere is built up—silence broken by the sound of innumerable clocks; the mirrored faces of portraits and china figures apparently moving in the trembling candlelight while the dealer's body lies motionless on the floor; the contrast between the shadowy shop and the steady light from the door open to the rooms above. These also are polarities, though it is open to question whether Stevenson deliberately contrived their parallel symbolism; perhaps they are the unconscious product of his creative imagination.
As Markheim fills his pockets with loot and considers his crime, he is totally impenitent. The boy who had shuddered at pictures of murderers has grown into a man unmoved by the murder he has committed. He fears neither God nor the day of judgment, only that by planning his crime imperfectly he may be caught and brought to trial. Action is resumed when he goes upstairs to look for the dealer's money, confidence returning as he discovers that the house is deserted as he had guessed earlier on seeing the servant girl leave. But as he searches, he hears footsteps, followed by the opening of the door:
What to expect he knew not, whether the dead man walking, or the official ministers of human justice, or some chance witness blindly stumbling in to consign him to the gallows.
But the visitant, as Stevenson calls him, glances round, nods, smiles, and withdraws. Markheim desperately calls him back, and there follows a conversation on the nature of evil that the visitant conducts with worldly courtesy.
Commentators usually refer to this character as the devil, but this is too simple a reading. Stevenson presents him ambiguously:
The outlines of the new-comer seemed to change and waver like those of the idols in the wavering candlelight of the shop; and at times Markheim thought he knew him; and at times he thought he bore a likeness to himself; and always … there lay in his bosom the conviction that this thing was not of the earth and not of God. "What are you?" cried Markheim, "the devil?" "What I may be," returned the other, "cannot affect the service I propose to render you."
That service is knowledge of where to find the hidden money and thus escape before the servant returns. Though Markheim's interlocutor professes an interest in both sins and virtues, he declares that he lives for evil, manifested not in individual acts but inherently in evil character. Markheim protests that both evil and good run strong in him, but his visitant predicts an irreversible progress in evil that will be halted only by death: "You will never change; and the words of your part on this stage are irrevocably written down."
This is truly the doctrine of predestination. But Stevenson tips the balance towards free will. Urged to murder the maidservant when she rings the doorbell, Markheim retorts that his love of good may be damned but his hatred of evil remains. By applying his interlocutor's own logic he can break with further evil by giving himself up to justice and thus to sentence of death—"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," a transformation at odds with Calvinistic notions of the devil seeking whom he may devour. Stevenson's innovative treatment of the theme is both complex and subtle, his stance redemptive.
—Stewart F. Sanderson