Review: Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

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To the wicked, all things are wicked; but to the just, all things are just and right... How delightful to think that a justified person can do no wrong!
Today I am writing about a book that not all of you will be familiar with and one which is wrongly overlooked in my opinion. It is, to give it its full and rather verbose title, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Written by Himself; With a Detail of Curious Traditionary Facts and Other Evidence by the Editor (1824). This rather unwieldy title foreshadows the complex and circumlocutory nature of the story itself, which is peppered with splittings of the narrative and facts approached from different angles – indeed, it would sit very nicely in the Post-Modern canon were it not a good 150 years too early. Confessions of a Justified Sinner (if you’ll forgive the abbreviation) is a wonderful Gothic satire of Calvinist faith and the notion of predestination mixed with some clever literary techniques and insightful perspectives on a mind fracturing from within. Written by James Hogg, a self-educated shepherd who had an axe to grind against the literary establishment, it is refreshing for eschewing at least some conventions and Hogg manages to lace his story with a commentary on the state of contemporary authorship under the pressure of monolithic English nationalism in addition to the main narrative. But let me not jump ahead of myself. First to the plot.

After being abandoned by his pious if hypocritical mother, Robert Colwan-Wringham, illegitimate son of a reverend, is raised as an Antinomian Calvinist in 17th Century Edinburgh and believes himself assured of a place in God’s kingdom in the next world, regardless of his actions in this one. Robert encounters a mysterious man names Gil-Martin who becomes a spectral presence in young Wringham’s life. It is a friendship that yields much bloodshed as Robert, following the strange disappearance of his brother, is coaxed into committing acts of violence against those who appear ungodly, assured of his own good standing with the almighty through his understanding of predestination. His sad tale of misguided terror starts with the disappearance of his brother, George, and culminates with the taking of his own life in a final symbolic act that both typifies the surety of Robert’s belief in his own salvation and the melancholy that runs throughout his story. As the reader we are given two accounts of Robert’s late life, one from the justified sinner himself and another from the ‘editor’ who pieces together facts after the event to form his own narrative. Unsurprisingly each differs in numerous ways with the editor finding his subject a rather more distasteful character who stalks his brother and shamelessly commits acts of violence whereas Robert is rather more generous in his assessment, painting his story in a sympathetic light.

Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg book cover
Almost two hundred years since the publication of Confessions of a Justified Sinner and Hogg’s treatment of religious fanaticism still feels worryingly prescient. The perversion of Calvinism which he presents – easily substituted for contemporary Islam(ism) – shows the power of misrepresentation of sacred texts and the blind dogma of followers who act on this dangerous form of piety. Hogg does not simply vilify the misguided actions of Robert and Gil-Martin but shows some of the context in which their particular bastardisation of Christianity was born, humanising them too. There are certainly some interesting comparisons to be drawn between the approach of modern authors taking on and often Othering terrorists associated with religious groups and the far less simplistic approach that Hogg takes with his justified sinner.

The dialectic between religious fanaticism and civil society is very interesting and Hogg appears to take the position that each, existing in opposition to the other, are intractably linked. This is a fruitful way of considering those who play the role of antagonists to the conventional mainstream and wrapped up in Hogg’s discussion of fanaticism and civility is also a discussion of the modernity that shaped the contemporary, and often secular, world, as well as approaching the literary landscape and those writers who existed outside of canonical tradition. In short, there is a lot more to the central dialectic than simply fanaticism versus rationality.

Religious fanaticism is not the only explanation for Robert’s behaviour. It is impossible to say whether Robert, under the pressure of his upbringing, is mentally ill and whether Gil-Martin, far from being a devil to tempt him into wrong, is simply a creation of his own troubled mind. Senses are not to be trusted in the novel and it would not be hard to read the text as a brilliant evocation of schizophrenia or of a similar illness. The way in which Hogg throws this sense of mental fragility into the mix with religious dogma and extremism without providing a definitive reading of the situation is brilliantly intelligent and a very satisfying attempt to approach what must be a complex subject however it is viewed.

Robert’s attempts to escape from Gil-Martin, which results in his sad demise, are made even more poignant when it is considered that his tormentor may have been of Robert’s own creation, making him truly inescapable. This is an interesting perversion of the religious sense of predestination and for me, however one wishes to interpret reality in the novel, the unravelling of Robert’s troubled mind is profoundly sad. On the claustrophobia, throughout the novel there is a sense of characters always watching other characters, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere in which to exist and one that lends itself to a paranoia that is associated with so many mental illnesses. Even as a simple comment on the pious, to look always to others is unhealthy, but I think Hogg does much more with this idea than just that.

The instability of Robert as the narrator makes him wholly unreliable and a very interesting portrait of a mind coming apart long before multiple (or borderline) personality disorder was ever given a name. Robert professes not to understand his own actions and Gil-Martin is wholly mysterious, leaving the reader in a quandary. The editor does little to alleviate this knotty story as most of his information is second hand and he can only draw conclusions from what he knows, which is insufficient to provide true clarity. For the reader, the facts of the story remain elusive and one is forced to accept that neither subjective nor objective accounts provide a satisfactory sense of completeness.




This dual narrative is but one instance of doubling in the novel. The editor and Robert both recount their own version of the same story, proving that facts are less singular than may be imagined; and of course, Gil-Martin is a dark doppelganger to Robert. These are the two most prominent examples of doubling in the book but there are frequent uses of doubles throughout. Through this destabilising of a consistent, knowable truth, Hogg creates a sense of disunity that prevents all hope of a definitive interpretation and undermines any sense of either the characters or the story having one truth. This is a remarkably modern concern and by leaving the reader in the wilderness and very far from authenticity, Hogg marks Confessions of a Justified Sinner as a book ahead of its time. Indeed, the final doubling is between the text and the reader; the word and the interpreter. Locked in an unending quest for interpretation, the reader only comes to appreciate the circularity of the text all the more for becoming part of its intractable resistance to interpretation.

Another starkly modern turn in the novel is the keen discussion of the relationship between father and son which would bear a psychoanalytical analysis. We’re not quite in the realm of Oedipal patricide but Robert, who hates his father, is not far from this. That he has no fruitful relationship with a paternal figure means that he is untethered (perhaps modern psychologists would say unattached) and drifts easily into admiration for false teachings. Gil-Martin fills for Robert the hole left by a stable father figure and there is an obvious coupling between Robert’s absent father on this earth and the warning of becoming untethered from God’s family. After all, if the emancipation from a biological father can cause such trouble, what harm might estrangement from the divine father cause?

As much as the novel carries many (post-)modern tropes – Hogg even inserts himself into the story as a shepherd; talk about authorial intrusion! – Confessions of a Justified Sinner is heavily influenced by Scottish folklore. Indeed, Hogg intentionally pushes against literary standards passed down through the English canon and strikes a blow for the heterogeneity of fiction. There are clear anti-establishment and pro-nationalist undertones to Hogg’s narrative and it feels all the more refreshing for this.

Because of this stance it is perhaps unsurprising that the novel was left underappreciated for many years and a great deal of credit for the revivification of the work’s reputation must be given to AndrĂ© Gide, who was a strong advocate for the Confessions of a Justified Sinner’s genius. Readers are certainly better off for this effort as James Hogg’s novel is one which feels completely foreign to so much of the nineteenth century fiction with which I, and I suppose many others, are familiar. The novel truly belies interpretation and any line that critics have taken on it is entirely open to dispute, I would suggest. Therein lies the beauty of this strange, complex novel.

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