Robert Louis Stevenson (13 November 1850 – 3 December 1894) has long been relegated to either the nursery or the juvenile section in most libraries, and his mixture of romance, horror, and allegory seems jejune. In times narrative and well-ordered structure have become the facile tools of Harlequin paperbacks and irrelevant to high-quality “literature,” Stevenson’s achievement goes quietly unnoticed. To confine this technique of “Tusitala” solely to nursery and supermarket, however, is to confuse Stevenson’s talents with his present audience.
Stevenson’s crucial problem is the basic one of joining form to idea, made more difficult because he was not only an excellent romancer but also a persuasive essayist. In Stevenson, however, these two talents seem to be of different roots, and their combination was for him a lifelong work. The aim of his narratives becomes not only to tell a good story, constructing something of interest, but also to ensure that all the materials of that story (such as structure, atmosphere, and character motivation) contribute to a clear thematic concern. Often Stevenson’s fictional talents alone cannot accomplish this for him, and this accounts—depending in each instance on whether he drops his theme or attempts to push it through—for both the “pulp” feel of some stories and the “directed” feel of others.
A Lodging for the Night
Appearing in the Cornhill Magazine for May, 1874, an essay on Victor Hugo was Stevenson’s very first publication. The short stories he began writing soon after demonstrate a strong tendency to lapse into the more familiar expository techniques either as a solution to fictional problems or merely to bolster a sagging theme. A blatant example of this stylistic ambiguity is the early story “A Lodging for the Night.”
The atmosphere of the first part of the story is deftly handled. It is winter, and its buffets upon the poor are reemphasized in every descriptive detail. Paris is “sheeted up” like a body ready for burial. The only light is from a tiny shack “backed up against the cemetery wall.” Inside, “dark, little, and lean, with hollow cheeks and thin black locks,” the medieval poet François Villon composes “The Ballade of Roast Fish” while Guy Tabard, one of his cronies, sputters admiringly over his shoulder. Straddling before the fire is a portly, purple-veined Picardy monk, Dom Nicolas. Also in the small room are two more villains, Montigny and Thevenin Pensete, playing “a game of chance.” Villon cracks a few pleasantries, quite literally gallows humor, and begins to read aloud his new poem. Suddenly, between the two gamesters:
The round was complete, and Thevenin was just opening his mouth to claim another victory, when Montigny leaped up, swift as an adder, and stabbed him to the heart. The blow took effect before he had time to utter a cry, before he had time to move. A tremor or two convulsed his frame; his hands opened and shut, his heels rattled on the floor; then his head rolled backward over one shoulder with the eyes wide open; and Thevenin Pensete’s spirit had returned to Him who made it.
Tabard begins praying in Latin, Villon breaks into hysterics, Montigny recovers “his composure first” and picks the dead man’s pockets. Naturally, they must all leave the scene of the murder to escape implication, and Villon departs first.
Outside, in the bitter cold, two things preoccupy the poet as he walks: the gallows and “the look of the dead man with his bald head and garland of red curls,” as neat a symbol as could be for the fiery pit of hell where Villon eventually expects to find himself. Theme has been handled well, Stevenson’s fiction giving one the feeling of a single man thrown by existence into infernal and unfavorable circumstances, being pursued by elements beyond his control, the gallows and Death, survival itself weaving a noose for him with his own trail in the snow, irrevocably connecting him to “the house by the cemetery of St. John.” The plot is clear and the situation interesting. On this cold and windy night, after many rebuffs, Villon finally finds food and shelter with a “refined,” “muscular and spare,” “resonant, courteous,” “honorable rather than intelligent, strong, simple, and righteous” old knight.
Here, the structure of “A Lodging for the Night” abruptly breaks down from fiction, from atmospheric detail, plot development, and character enlargement, to debate. What Stevenson implied in the first part of his story, he reasserts here in expository dialogue, apparently losing faith in his fictional abilities as he resorts back to the directness of the essay.
Villon takes the side of duty to one’s own survival; he is the first modern skeptic, the prophet of expediency. In contrast, the knight stands for honor, bonne noblesse, with allegiance always to something greater than himself. The moral code of the criminal is pitted against the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie. One’s chances in life are determined by birth and social standing, says Villon. There is always the chance for change, implores the knight. In comparison to Stevenson’s carefully built atmosphere and plot, this expository “solution” to his story is extremely crude.
“Markheim,” a ghost story that deals with a disturbing problem of conscience, also contains a dialogue in its latter half. This dialogue, however, is a just continuation of the previous action. Different from “crawlers” such as “The Body- Snatcher,” “Markheim” reinforces horror with moral investigation. Initial atmospherics contribute directly to Stevenson’s pursuit of his thematic concern, and the later debate with the “visitant” becomes an entirely fitting expression for Markheim’s own madness.
An allegory of the awakening conscience, “Markheim” also has the limits of allegory, one of which is meaning. For readers to understand, or find meaning in, an allegory, characters (or actors) must be clearly identified. In “Markheim” this presents major difficulties. Not only is an exact identity (or role) for the visitant finally in doubt, but also the identity of the dealer is unclear. It can be said that he usually buys from Markheim, not sells to him, but exactly what the dealer buys or sells is a good question. Whatever, on this particular occasion (Christmas Day), Markheim will have to pay the dealer extra “for a kind of manner that I remark in you today very strongly.”
Amid the “ticking of many clocks among the curious lumber” of the dealer’s shop, a strange pantomime ensues. Markheim says he needs a present for a lady, and the dealer shows him a hand mirror. Markheim grows angry:
“A glass,” he said hoarsely, and then paused, and repeated it more clearly. “A glass? For Christmas? Surely not!”
“And why not?” cried the dealer. “Why not a glass?”
Markheim was looking upon him with an indefinable expression. “You ask me why not?” he said. “Why, look here—look at it—look at yourself! Do you like to see it? No! nor I—nor any man.”
After damning the mirror as the “reminder of years, and sins, and follies—this handconscience,” Markheim asks the dealer to tell something of himself, his secret life. The dealer puts Markheim off with a chuckle, but as he turns around for something more to show, Markheim lunges at him, stabbing him with a “long, skewerlike dagger.” The dealer struggles “like a hen” and then dies. The murder seems completely gratuitous until Markheim remembers that he had come to rob the shop: “To have done the deed and yet not to reap the profit would be too abhorrent a failure.”
Time, “which had closed for the victim,” now becomes “instant and momenteous for the slayer.” Like Villon, Markheim feels pursued by Death, haunted by “the dock, the prison, the gallows, and the black coffin.” The blood at his feet begins “to find eloquent voices.” The dead dealer extracts his extra payment, becoming the enemy who would “lift up a cry that would ring over England, and fill the world with the echoes of pursuit.” Talking to himself, Markheim denies that this evil murder indicates an equally evil nature, but his guilt troubles him. Not only pursued by Death, Markheim is pursued by Life as well. He sees his own face “repeated and repeated, as it were an army of spies”; his own eyes meet and detect him. Although alone, he feels the inexplicable consciousness of another presence:
Ay, surely; to every room and corner of the house his imagination followed it; and now it was a faceless thing, and yet had eyes to see with; and again it was a shadow of himself; and yet again beheld the image of the dead dealer, reinspired with cunning and hatred.
Eventually, Markheim must project an imaginary double, a doppelgänger or exteriorized voice with which to debate his troubles. Here, action passes from the stylized antique shop of the murdered to the frenzied mind of the murderer. The visitant, or double, is a product of this mind. Mad and guilty as Markheim appears to be, his double emerges as a calm-sounding sanity who will reason with him to commit further evil. Thus, the mysterious personification of drives buried deep within Markheim’s psyche exteriorizes evil as an alter ego and allows Markheim the chance to act against it, against the evil in his own nature. Stevenson’s sane, expository technique of debate erects a perfect foil for Markheim’s true madness.
In the end, although Markheim thinks himself victorious over what seems the devil, it is actually this exteriorized aspect of Markheim’s unknown self that conquers, tricking him into willing surrender and then revealing itself as a kind of redemptive angel:
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. But Markheim did not pause to watch or understand the transformation.
Material and intention are artistically intertwined in “Markheim,” but the moral ambiguities of Stevenson’s theme remain complex, prompting various questions: is Markheim’s martyrdom a victory over evil or merely a personal cessation from action? Set on Christmas Day, with its obvious reversal of that setting’s usual significance, is “Markheim” a portrayal of Christian resignation as a purely negative force, a justification for suicide, or as the only modern solution against evil? What is the true nature and identity of the visitant? Finally, can the visitant have an identity apart from Markheim’s own? Even answers to these questions, like Markheim’s final surrender, offer only partial consolation to the reader of this strange and complex story of psychological sickness.
The Beach of Falesá
With Stevenson’s improved health and his move to the South Seas, a new type of story began to emerge, a kind of exotic realism to which the author brought his mature talents. “The Bottle Imp,” for example, juxtaposes the occult of an old German fairy tale (interestingly enough, acquired by Stevenson through Sir Percy Shelley, the poet’s son) with factual details about San Francisco, Honolulu, and Papeete. These settings, however, seem used more for convenience than out of necessity.
The long story “The Beach of Falesá” fulfills Stevenson’s promise and gives evidence of his whole talents as a writer of short fiction. Similar to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), Stevenson’s story deals with a person’s ability or inability to remain decent and law-abiding when the external restraints of civilization have been removed. Action follows simply and naturally a line laid down by atmosphere. Stevenson himself called it “the first realistic South Sea story,” while Henry James wrote in a letter the year before Stevenson’s death, “The art of ‘The Beach of Falesá’ seems to me an art brought to a perfection and I delight in the observed truth, the modesty of nature, of the narrator.”
In this adventure of wills between two traders on a tiny island, Stevenson is able to unify fitting exposition with restrained description through the voice of first-person narrator John Wiltshire. Three decades later, using Stevenson as one of his models, W. Somerset Maugham would further perfect this technique using the same exotic South Sea setting.
Stevenson’s “The Beach of Falesá,” along with the incomplete Weir of Hermiston and perhaps the first part of The Master of Ballantrae (1888), rests as his best work, the final integration of the divergent roots of his talents. If he had lived longer than forty-four years, “Tusitala” might have become one of the great English prose writers. As history stands, however, Stevenson’s small achievement of clear narrative, his victory of joining form to idea, remains of unforgettable importance to students and practitioners of the short-story genre.
Plays: Deacon Brodie, pb. 1880 (with William Ernest Henley); Admiral Guinea, pb. 1884 (with Henley); Beau Austin, pb. 1884 (with Henley); Macaire, pb. 1885 (with Henley); The Hanging Judge, pb. 1887 (with Fanny Van de Grift Stevenson).
Novels: Treasure Island, 1881-1882 (serial), 1883 (book); Prince Otto, 1885; Kidnapped, 1886; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1886; The Black Arrow, 1888; The Master of Ballantrae, 1889; The Wrong Box, 1889; The Wrecker, 1892 (with Lloyd Osbourne); Catriona, 1893; The Ebb-Tide, 1894 (with Osbourne); Weir of Hermiston, 1896 (unfinished); St. Ives, 1897 (completed by Arthur Quiller-Couch).
Nonfiction: An Inland Voyage, 1878; Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes, 1878; Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, 1879; Virginibus Puerisque, 1881; Familiar Studies of Men and Books, 1882; The Silverado Squatters: Sketches from a Californian Mountain, 1883; Memories and Portraits, 1887; The South Seas: A Record of Three Cruises, 1890; A Footnote to History, 1892; Across the Plains, 1892; Amateur Emigrant, 1895; Vailima Letters, 1895; In the South Seas, 1896; The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson to His Family and Friends, 1899 (2 volumes), 1911 (4 volumes); The Lantern-Bearers, and Other Essays, 1988; The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, 1994-1995 (8 volumes); R. L. Stevenson on Fiction: An Anthology of Literary and Critical Essays, 1999 (Glenda Norquay, editor).
Poetry: Moral Emblems, 1882; A Child’s Garden of Verses, 1885; Underwoods, 1887; Ballads, 1890; Songs of Travel, and Other Verses, 1896.
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Hammond, J. R. A Robert Louis Stevenson Companion: A Guide to the Novels, Essays, and Short Stories. London: Macmillan, 1984.
McLaughlin, Kevin. “The Financial Imp: Ethics and Finance in Nineteenth-Century Fiction.” Novel 29 (Winter, 1996): 165-183.
McLynn, Frank. Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1993.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Categories: Short Story