The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

Categories: Novel

James Hogg’s literary masterpiece, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, hereinafter referred to as Confessions, shows attention to the accuracy of the history of Scotland, the radical Scottish Presbyterianism of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the Scottish countryside, and the city of Edinburgh intermingled with the narratives to create a compelling supernatural tale.

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I shall discuss how Confessions is distinguished by considerable doubling in theme and in form. The double narrative tells the story in two different perspectives by two different people while doubling in the story illustrates the contrast between good and evil with the added lagniappe of a nightmarish doppelganger.

“Double Double Toil and Trouble”: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (The Weird Sisters, Macbeth, 4. . 20) James Hogg’s literary masterpiece, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, hereinafter referred to as Confessions, shows attention to the accuracy of the history of Scotland, the radical Scottish Presbyterianism of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and the Scottish countryside intermingled with the narratives to create a compelling supernatural tale.

I shall discuss how Confessions is distinguished by considerable doubling in theme and in form. The double narrative tells the story in two different perspectives by two different people while doubling in the story illustrates the contrast between good and evil with the added lagniappe of a nightmarish doppelganger. Hogg’s Confessions is highly esteemed by enthusiasts of dark romance as the finest of the nineteenth century.

This story is a dazzling blend of the mystery story, a cutting satire on religious fanaticism of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in Scotland, and the confession of a mad man (Dirda, 188).

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The text presents the history for consideration from the perspective of the objective unknown third-person Editor according to Enlightenment ideals and from Robert Wringhim, whose memoir, dug up with his corpse, is shown as “the rage of fanaticism in former days. ” (Duncan).

In his essay, “Fanaticism and Civil Society: Hogg’s Justified Sinner,” Ian Duncan says, The division of narratives in [Confessions] maps the foundational antagonism in which civil society and fanaticism have mutually defined each other since the beginning of the sixteenth century…Hogg’s novel allows us to read fanaticism as the dialectical product of objective historical processes of modernization—a more radical ideology of modernity rather than some archaic, residual, or atavistic moral force.

Far from originating in alien cultures, civil society and fanaticism grow up together, each unthinkable without the other. Using many examples of pairing and doubling in theme and form Hogg advances for critique not only Robert’s Antinomian fanaticism, but also the dubiously enlightened objectivity of the Editor. Both views are inadequate leaving the reader in a quagmire of questions. The Editor’s narrative seems to be frank and truthful, though his clear sympathies reveal how subjective he really is as a contemporary ‘enlightened’ man.

His expounding weakens his objective standpoint by his own acceptance of the supernatural as a valid force in the story. The complex narrative form of the novel presents big challenges to the reader. At the center of the plot is Robert Wringhim who is indoctrinated from birth in the theological beliefs of extreme Antinomian Calvinism, by his biological parents Reverend Wringhim and Rabina Orde Colwan, also known as Lady Dalcastle. Robert kills his half-brother, George, and a number of others, as well as committing a rape.

Robert does not remember performing these heinous acts and is in a constant state of anxiety. In Mei Yong Wern’s essay, “Reader Responsibility In Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of A Justified Sinner,” she says, This anxiety is further aggravated by the tripartite narrative structure of Confessions. The novel is divided into three parts, and the first constitutes the editor's narrative, which is a third-person account of Robert's confession. The second comprises the actual memoirs penned by Robert, and the third an account of how the memoirs were discovered.

The tripartite narrative structure acts as a hall of mirrors within which the reader is entrapped. Upon encountering the first two narratives, the reader is invited to participate in an attempt to fix Robert’s story as either fictional or nonfictional, a task however made futile by the dialectical playing off of the two narratives. In the last narrative, the reader’s anxiety reaches its climax through inability to verify the fictional. The question of Robert’s guilt remains unresolved in the novel, passing Robert’s anxiety on to the reader.

Hogg’s text is fragmented by questions concerning legitimacy, lucidity, and the differences between the inner self and the outer self. Like Robert Wringhim, the text is assembled from irreconcilable parts. In his essay, “Borderline Experience: Madness, Mimicry, and the Scottish Gothic,” Scott Brewster says, “First there is the dispute about authorship; then there are its narrative frames, (the found manuscript, the editorial insertions, the refusal of the Ettrick Shepherd to participate as character/producer of narrative); then there is Hogg’s position in the literary establishment. Hogg knowingly comes out of pre-modern rural folk culture, according to Ian Duncan, “Its authentic primitivism distinct from politically aware rural working class…[Hogg’s] concern with delirium, paranoia and obsession express his critical engagement with post-Enlightenment modernity and with rural traditions,” placing him inside and outside both of these historical eras. The name issue is a double presence in Confessions enmeshing legal name, family name, and legitimacy. Generations of George Colwans become heir to the Dalcastle estate yet Robert Wringhim, the illegitimate son of Rev.

Wringhim and Rabina Colwan, both of whom are also illegitimate, becomes the doubtfully legitimate heir to the Dalcastle estate. Rabina refuses to take the name of her husband and discards her first son George, who is the legitimate heir. Rabina, from the beginning of the story is an unsympathetic character. At her own wedding party, she declines participation. She instead isolates herself and her pastor, Rev. Wringhim from the festivities to discuss their extreme theological ideas. Her husband George behaves in a typical manner for a bridegroom.

He dances, drinks too much, and kisses the girls. When it is time to go to bed, Rabina insists on praying. George (hereinafter referred to as the Laird) wants to consummate his marriage, but is a little worse for drink. After much argument, he goes to sleep leaving Rabina to her prayers, which are pointedly sarcastic. When the Laird arises the following morning, he has to hunt for Rabina. He finds her and carries her bodily to the bedroom where he completes the marriage act. She later flees to her father’s house where her father punishes her for running away from her husband.

Eventually the Laird retrieves Rabina and sets her up in her own apartments on the opposite side of the castle from his living area. He then brings in Ms. Logan as housekeeper, in reality she is his consort. Ms. Logan and the Laird are quite content with their arrangement. When the baby, George is born the Laird takes him to his apartments with the provision that the baby may go to Rabina when she wants to see him. Strangely, she never wants to see him. They never see Rabina after that. Ms. Logan and the Laird raise George in a loving home. George is educated in the parish school, though he is not a stellar scholar. Rev. Wringhim continues to visit Rabina, and they ‘discuss religion’ locked away in her bedroom. Wringhim decides to confront the Laird about his immoral life.

Before doing so, according to H. B. deGroot, in her essay, “Calvinism, Presbyterianism, Antinomianism: The Theological Background of the Confessions,” He [Wringhim] quotes (or really misquotes) Paul’s Epistle to Titus…‘Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure. ’(Titus 1. 15). Wringhim’s version is: ‘To the wicked, all things are wicked; but to the just, all things are just and right’. Lady Dalcastle then replies: ‘Ah! hat is a sweet and comfortable saying, Mr. Wringhim! How delightful to think that a justified person can do no wrong! Who would not envy the liberty wherewith we are made free? ’ (p. 13). Oh, sweet double standard! When Rabina gives birth to her second child, Robert, the Laird refuses to sign for his baptism, after all he has not seen Rabina since he took the baby George from her at his birth. Eventually, Rev. Wringhim signs for the boy’s baptism and takes the baby to live with him. Rabina moves to her own apartments in Glasgow much to her content.

We learn from Robert’s memoir that later, Rabina spends much time dwelling in the home of Rev. Wringhim, highlighting the double standard. What is moral for the ‘Justified’ is quite different from accepted thoughts on morality. Even the ‘Justified’ would find their own behavior unacceptable in others who they do not deem to be ‘Justified’. In Confessions we see a man with a wife and a housekeeper/consort who is the loving mate of the man, and raises the child of the man and wife, as if he were her own. There is the wife who is not really a wife, but is the consort of the unmarried pastor. The wife gives birth to two sons rejecting them both, to be raised by others.

In her essay, “The Double as the ‘Unseen’ of Culture: Toward a Definition of Doppelganger,” Milica Zivkovic says, “Anthropological data offer evidence for scholars researching the double motif in literature of the widespread belief among ancient and ‘primitive’ peoples that twins are magical, reflections awesome, shadows tabooed, dreams portentous and, most significant of all, that the soul itself is portable. ” The mythical double takes various forms such as twins, adversarial brothers, sin and salvation, metamorphic twinning, firstborn parents, and lovers and soul mates reflecting a universal duality.

Doppelganger is a loan word from German meaning literally ‘double goer’. We see many occasions of “double going” characters in Confessions. Robert haunts George wherever he goes even when it is impossible for him to be there. Witnesses swear that Drummond is the person who summoned George away from the brothel and killed him, though Drummond was not in the area. George is seen walking and talking with Robert long after his death. Hogg values the use of the double because of its resistance to classification or definition, and for its ‘escapist’ qualities in the opportunities it offers to Gil-Martin to conceive himself in innumerable ways.

Gil-Martin says, If I contemplate a man’s features seriously mine own gradually assume the very same appearance and character. And…by contemplating a face assiduously, I not only attain the same likeness, I attain the very same ideas as well as the same mode of arranging them so that, you see, by looking at a person attentively I by degrees assume his likeness, and by assuming his likeness I attain to the possession of his most secret thoughts” (86). Robert, in his memoir, credits Gil-Martin with many acts that can only describe a doppelganger. Robert first encounters Gil-Martin on the day that his father declares him one of the Justified.

Rev. Wringhim says that Robert attained his position among the Elect due to the pastor’s own prayers encouraging God to make it so. Rev. Wringhim would like to believe that he brought about Robert’s Justification on his own. Robert is delighted with his assured status, dubious as it may be. When Robert meets Gil-Martin he claims, “I felt a sort of invisible power that drew me towards him, something like the force of enchantment, which I could not resist…I can never describe the strange sensations that thrilled through my whole frame at that impressive moment” (80).

He sees Gil-Martin as a young man that appears to be the same as himself. Gil-Martin says, “You think that I am your brother or that I am your second self. I am indeed your brother, not according to the flesh, but in my belief of the same truths, and my assurance in the same mode of redemption, than which I hold nothing so great or so glorious on earth” (80-81). Gil-Martin continues talking in such a way as to appeal to Robert’s twisted theological values, which is all that he has. He is ripe for the devil’s plucking.

Robert falls under Gil-Martin’s spell and remains enthralled with him. According to Robert, Gil-Martin encourages him to kill George, and then proceeds to bring about the events that culminate in Robert thrusting a sword through George’s back. At the scene of the murder, Gil-Martin’s countenance is exactly that of George’s friend Drummond. Robert claims to believe that he is doing the right thing, and resists opportunities for salvation blaming the haze, mist or dimness over his eyes.

Helen Sutherland, in her essay “James Hogg: A Shepherd’s Role in the Scottish Enlightenment,” says, “He [Robert] is now the weapon of the Lord he so desperately wished to be; we recall how this desire is fomented by the Rev. Wringhim’s immoderate prayer when he wishes Robert to ‘be a two-edged weapon in Thy hand, and a spear coming out of Thy mouth, to destroy, and overcome, and pass over’” (84). Robert proceeds to murder the moral preacher, Mr. Blanchard, who sees clearly the evil in Robert and Gil-Martin. Robert says he reveres true ministers of the gospel, but that he hates the moral preachers who expound on good works.

He considers them the absolute “worst and most heinous of all transgressors” (75). Robert believes that by murdering those who are not ‘Justified’ he is fulfilling his work for the Lord. Many characters in Confessions recognize Gil-Martin as the devil himself, but Robert sees him first as a guardian angel and later he believes him to be Czar Peter of Russia in disguise. Robert believes that by association with Gil-Martin, he will come to some great post. Gil-Martin never reveals anything about himself to Robert. He concentrates solely on bringing Robert to eternal damnation.

Most of the murders and the rape in the novel are performed by Gil-Martin wearing the countenance of Robert. Robert, by this time, is completely confused. He does not remember committing the crimes. His complete faith in Gil-Martin obscures his thinking processes. Gil-Martin assures Robert that he did commit all the crimes and Robert believes him and becomes very disoriented. Robert writes his memoir at the end of his life, after all the murders, rape, and slander. He maintains his belief in his own justification.

He opens his memoir, My life has been a life of trouble and turmoil; of change and vicissitude; of anger and exultation; of sorrow and of vengeance. My sorrows have been for a slighted gospel, and my vengeance has been wrecked on its adversaries. Therefore, in the might of heaven I will sit down and write: I will let he wicked of this world know what I have done in the faith of the promises, and justification by grace, that they may read and tremble, and bless their gods of silver and of gold, that the minister of heaven was removed from their sphere before their blood was mingled with their sacrifices (67).

By the end of his memoir the reader is justified in believing that Robert is a madman. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Hogg’s literary masterpiece, provides an accurate view of seventeenth and early eighteenth century Scotland in a satire of the radical Scottish Presbyterianism. Hogg uses a double narrative to enhance the chaos of the story. He blends Enlightenment thinking with that of the distinctly Scottish rural folk with their legends of the supernatural.

The doppelganger, Gil-Martin is the main actor and is thought to be the devil. The tale of good versus evil is chaotic because what one would think is good is overturned. Those who are morally good are the enemy to be done away with in the eyes of the protagonist. James Hogg utilizes many instances of doubling in theme and form, Antinomian fanaticism championed by Robert and Gil-Martin and the dubiously enlightened detachment of the Editor. Both voices of the narratives leave questions for the perplexed reader to resolve on her own.

Updated: Apr 19, 2023
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The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. (2016, Dec 31). Retrieved from

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner essay
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