Markheim by Robert Louis Stevenson: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Good versus evil, fate versus free will - which will win? In this lesson, you'll explore the two sides of that coin. We'll look at a summary of the story, ''Markheim'' and analyze Stevenson's greater meaning in the plot.

Good vs. Evil

Ever come across a character who is struggling with decision between good and evil?

The main character in Markheim struggles between good and evil choices.
angel, devil, good, evil, markheim, robert louis stevenson

It's a scenario that plagues the title character in Robert Louis Stevenson's ''Markheim'' as well. What starts as a bad decision morphs into a situation where Markheim must decide whether to continue on the path of evil or convert to the path of good. Which choice does he ultimately make? Let's look more closely at the story.

Markheim and the Store Dealer

''Markheim'' is a story about a character of the same name. It's Christmas Day and Markheim has entered a shop under the pretenses of buying a Christmas gift. The dealer at the store has dealt with him before though, and thinks that he's there to sell something of suspicious origin. The dealer says, ''You can give, as usual, a clear account of how you came into the possession of the object?''

Yet, Markheim tells the dealer he is not there to sell (even stolen goods), but to purchase a Christmas present for a lady.

Debating a Gift

The dealer pulls a mirror from his cabinets to Markheim's dismay. He certainly wouldn't want to give a lady a gift like a mirror for Christmas, and he tells the dealer so. The dealer appears in a rush to get Markheim out of his store (he's there alone on Christmas Day, after all), and Markheim questions him: ''Where is the hurry?''

Markheim asks to be shown another gift, and the dealer stoops to select another piece. As he stands back up, he is caught by Markheim, stabbed and falls to the floor.

Paranoia

With the dealer dead on the floor, Markheim begins to think about his decision: ''He should have chosen a more quiet hour; he should have prepared an alibi; he should not have used a knife; he should have been more cautious, and only bound and gagged the dealer, and not killed him...''

As he begins filling his pockets with loot, his mind starts playing tricks on him. The clanging of clocks in the store fill his mind; the mirrors reflect his face like ''an army of spies.'' He thinks he hears footsteps both inside and outside the store. He feels as though he's being watched.

A Supernatural Conversation

Realizing his time is limited, Markheim makes his way further into the residence attached to the shop. He starts trying to find the dealer's money and valuables before his maid returns.

It's then that his conversation with a character identified as the visitant (or supernatural figure) begins. The visitant is described as having outlines that seem to change, at times looking like Markheim himself, and at other times, ''like a lump of living terror.''

The visitant knows that Markheim is looking for the dead dealer's money, and remarks that Markheim has ''long been a favourite of mine ... and I have long observed and often sought to help you.'' Markheim feels certain he's having a conversation with the devil, this visitant who knows him ''to the soul.''

The conversation that ensues explains Markheim's lifelong descent into criminal activity that has intensified over the years. Markheim responds defensively: '''Do you think I have no more generous aspirations than to sin, and sin, and, at the last, sneak into heaven?'' Markheim, on the other hand, says he can choose good as he wants, and that ''This crime on which you find me is my last.''

The visitant tells Markheim he is doomed to fail, to lose the money he steals and to ultimately die in his evil pursuits.

Final Decision

The doorbell rings - the maid! Markheim is faced with a choice: to commit to a complete life of crime or turn from his evil acts once and for all. He says ''My love of good is damned to barrenness;...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.''

Just then, the image of the visitant softens into a ''wonderful and lovely change.'' Markheim descends the stairs to the door and announces to the maid: ''You had better go for the police. I have killed your master.''

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