The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

This week begins with my contribution to the Wuthering Expectations Scottish Literature Reading Challenge and Clishmaclaver, James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Amateur Reader is kindly reading along with me, so visit Wuthering Expectations for his posts as I spend the next three days with this delicious Scottish Gothic novel.

For lack of knowing better where to begin, I’ll start with the title. That “justified” is very important, but its meaning here is specialized and probably opaque to many. It’s the door to so much that is Scottish about the book. Robert Wringhim, the eponymous sinner, “was now a justified person, adopted among the number of God’s children—[his] name written in the Lamb’s book of life, and…no bypast transgression, nor any future act of [his] own, or of other men, could be instrumental in altering the decree.” Predestined to be saved through God’s grace and the atonement of Christ, Robert believes his sins will be forgiven no matter what. His memoirs and confessions form the middle of the novel, bookended by two “editor’s narratives” introducing and concluding his story.

Briefly, that story begins with the wedding of Robert’s parents, and ill-matched pair. His mother, a pious adherent of the strictest Calvinist doctrine, effects a separation from his father, a religiously casual laird, after just six months of marriage. She first delivers George, likely the product of the unhappy couple, who will be raised by his father. Later, she gives birth to Robert, suspected of being her minister’s son and largely raised by that man. Robert is a cunning and deceitful child, and after the minister’s pronouncement that Robert is one of the elect he begins to be visited by a mysterious personage who calls himself Gil-Martin. Persuaded by Gil-Martin of the antinomian doctrine that the elect can commit no sin which will not be forgiven, Robert becomes a sort of avenger of the lord, helping the unregenerate along to a quicker end than they might naturally have reached. He is supposed to have killed his brother, his mother, and a girl he seduced, but after George’s murder Robert finds himself with no memory of large spans of time and increasingly confused and persecuted by Gil-Martin. Hounded by the public and his own friend, eventually Robert reaches a tragic end, anonymous in the Scottish countryside.

Robert is impressively despicable. In the initial editor’s narrative we are set against him: his mother is a fanatic and a shrew, and he is his mother’s son. His first encounter with his brother occurs when they are teenagers in Edinburgh, and the former objects to the latter’s playing tennis. This kicks off an extended period where Robert shadows his older brother, sullenly appearing whenever he is at leisure with his friends, and spoiling everyone’s fun. Robert portrays himself in an equally bad light when we reach the memoir, though admittedly not on purpose. His confessions include more detail of his early life, and he recounts incidents that reflect very badly on his character. There is a boy who does better in school, so Robert steals his notebook and draws in it caricatures of their teacher. A servant of Robert’s adoptive father, the minister, gives Robert a piece of his mind and Robert contrives to have him fired. And through it all he maintains his own rightness in the most supercilious way imaginable. He’s just the sort of person who would end up thinking himself not bound by moral law and therefore licensed to kill.

But in spite of his arrogance, avarice, envy, obsession, and self-centeredness, Robert is not entirely unsympathetic. As his confusion and despair build, his audience is able to pity him, and while we may initially have sentenced him to worse, by the end his torments seem sufficient. He still believes his motives have been correct, but he is lost and knows that he is very much a sinner.

This is only the beginning. Who is Gil-Martin? What is the verdict on predestination? This week, I will fail to answer either of those questions.

5 comments to The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

  • I don’t see how you can’t fail. The novel is rigged against you!

    It’s why Modernists took to it. They loved that instability.

    I didn’t realize, the last time I read it, that the newspaper article published by “James Hogg” was a real newspaper article published by James Hogg! Viral marketing, as we for some reason call it now. A hoax, to use the old name, but a hoax that Hogg uses to both reinforce and attack the “reality” of his own novel.

    Is it sufficient to attribute Robert’s continuing struggles to conscience, or is there something else going on? Is he fundamentally good, but damaged, for example? Is there a “good” power that sometimes intervenes in his favor?

  • nicole

    I was really surprised to read about the reality of the letter, too. “Guerrilla marketing,” even.

    I’m not sure I’m willing to say Robert could be fundamentally good; his conduct before finding out he’s one of the elect is awful. But there again he could still be “damaged” by Calvinism. Maybe that’s it: he’s been damaged right from the beginning, and it’s only by “hitting rock bottom,” as they say, that the layers of bad start to peel off and a more normal conscience comes through.

    But the more I thought about many of these issues, the more the novel seemed well and truly rigged. I wonder if it’s not too unstable to ever answer any questions about it.

  • Fundamentally capable of good, maybe? Your idea makes more sense.

    I basically agree that the puzzle has no solution. I think that’s part of what Hogg is doing at the end. Two contradictory stories turns out to be insufficient – too clear! – so he brings the story into the present day and demolishes whatever fixed meaning one might have clung to. No detail is safe.

    One path that makes great sense, then, is to do what you were talking about in the other post – take the editor seriously and treat the whole memoir as an allegory, although a weirdly detailed one, and treat the stories outside the pamphlet as being actually based on the pamphlet. I haven’t thought this through. Did Borges ever cross your mind reading this book?

  • nicole

    Sort of amazingly, he did not, but I didn’t start taking that idea about the pamphlet seriously until quite late in the game. I sort of discounted it for no real reason when the editor first mentioned it, but then it got me thinking.

  • I’m not saying it was wise, but now I wrote a whole entire post about this.