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Markheim- Robert Louis Stevenson

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    The passage, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Markheim, commences with bells striking three in the afternoon in London on Christmas day. As the passage continues, the conflict is revealed: Markheim, the protagonist, has murdered a man and must avoid capture for his crime. The passage describes the resulting paranoia and insecurity that he feels. Told from the limited omniscient point of view, the passage focuses entirely on Markheim’s state of mind, with no dialogue save for his imagined conversations, and even lacking other characters physically present. By using limited omniscient point of view, Stevenson also highlights his theme of appearance versus reality.

    The narrator becomes unreliable and ambiguity is created. The reader can never be sure if Markheim’s anxiety of being apprehended for his crime is justifiable or merely another figment of his imagination. Throughout the passage, Markheim experiences a multitude of volatile and contradictory feelings, developing the tense and unstable mood of the prose. Stevenson reinforces this with the use of staggered and cacophonous writing to create a hectic and uneasy tone. All of these factors emphasize Stevenson’s final comment and the theme of the passage that neither appearance nor reality can be trusted.

    As the bells toll, the reader is presented with the juxtaposition of good and evil that permeates the entire passage. It is demonstrated in the variance of the bells -one is deep and foreboding, the other “ringing on its treble notes the prelude of a waltz…” Here the juxtaposition is not only of sounds, but also of the sanctity of church to the evil of Markheim’s deed. Stevenson achieves this by using the metonymy of bells with churches and the further association of churches with basic ‘good’.

    This juxtaposition, however, confuses the reader. Markheim shows no visible remorse for his crime, yet by introducing the passage in such a way, Stevenson implies that he does feel regret. In the next paragraph, it is the sacred and “sudden outbreak of so many tongues in that dumb chamber stagger[s Markheim].” There are further religious references when Stevenson states that Markheim was “startled to the soul,” another word closely associated with redemption and ‘good’. Though Markheim appears unremorseful, such figurative language creates ambiguity and discerns the reader, further bluring the line between reality and appearance.

    The juxtaposition of two such opposites is seen throughout the passage, such as when Markheim reflects, “he should have been more cautious…and not killed the dealer” only to change his mind seconds later declaring, “he should have been more bold and killed the servant also…” Such contradictions underline Markheim’s unstable mentality. By vacillating so rapidly between opposites, Stevenson confuses the reader, much as Markheim is confused. The reader does not know what to believe. Furthering this uncertainty is the use of limited omniscient narrator. Because he is inside the mind of Markheim, he too becomes unreliable. He cannot recount objectively, but instead must relay the emotions exactly as Markheim feels them. Due to this, the reader is not even sure if Markheim’s anxiety of being apprehended is justifiable or merely a figment of his imagination.

    A last important juxtaposition is seen in Markheim’s fear of noise followed by “the swift transition of his terrors, [where] the very silence of the place seemed a source of peril…” This contradiction of noise and silence is a good example of the sensual imagery Stevenson uses to entice the reader. In the first paragraph, the bells ring. Immediately the reader’s aural senses are engaged. Such sensual awareness can be seen to monitor Markheim’s own alertness. Alone in the shop, Markheim’s senses are so heightened that even though “he was alone…in the bulk of the house above him, he could surely hear a stir of delicate footing.”

    The sensual imagery highlights Stevenson’s theme of the unreliability of reality and appearance. If believing the solipsistic philosophy, surely one’s own senses can be trusted; yet in this passage they betray Markheim and fool him into believing something apart from the truth. In the second paragraph his unreliable senses are revealed when “in many rich mirrors…he saw his face repeated and repeated…” It is impossible for there to be more than one Markheim; however, he sees multiple reflections of himself. His sensory confusion is heightened here by the repetition of his own face; it is also seen in the repetition of the word ‘repeated’. By creating and endless cycle, further confusion occurs, both for Markheim and the reader.

    The confusion is intentional on Stevenson’s part to illustrate his theme that neither reality nor appearance can be trusted and it is furthered by his tone. The sentences are at times, short and choppy. In the second paragraph, a sentence runs for nearly seven lines, littered with semicolons and colons. The phrases blur together as does the line between appearance and reality. Markheim’s mental state is foggy and unclear. The writing mirrors this.

    Set in a London antique shop, the location also seems to mirror the plot. It is a foggy day and the shop is gray and dusty. Multiple times Markheim refers to the stillness of it evoking thoughts of death. The silence and the fact that antiques are old remind Markheim of his crime, furthering his paranoia and leading him to believe he will be caught. Additionally, he is alone in the antique shop. This isolates him to create a scenario in which he is pitted against the outside world.

    Markheim’s conflict revolves around whether or not he will be caught for the murder he has committed. Due to ambiguous language, and unreliable narrator, and confusing sentence structure though, the reader is unsure if Markheim’s suspicions are warranted. Markheim, as well, is unsure. He hallucinates and constantly changes his mind. He is confused, much like the reader. From this haze Stevenson draws his theme -that neither appearance nor reality can be trusted.

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    Markheim- Robert Louis Stevenson. (2017, Nov 15). Retrieved from

    Frequently Asked Questions

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    What is the theme of Markheim?
    The development of self-knowledge and the conflict between one's good and evil sides are the central themes in “Markheim.” Markheim experiences an insight about his true self when he finally accepts that he has fallen morally. Before this point in the story, he has suppressed and denied his evil side.
    What object does the dealer offer Markheim?
    The dealer offers Markheim a mirror. Markheim says that is not a suitable gift because the reflections in mirrors allow people to see themselves as they become older and uglier. He then tries to engage the dealer in conversation. The dealer, however, is not interested.
    Who is the stranger in Markheim?
    Markheim believes the stranger is the Devil. Though he never identifies himself, the stranger is clearly supernatural; he says that he has watched Markheim his whole life. He tells Markheim that the servant is returning to the store early, so Markheim had best hurry or face the consequences.

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