So, back to James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. It’s interesting the way people shorten the title into Confessions of a Justified Sinner; I understand not wanting to repeat the whole thing, but chopping off the first four words makes the book sound more religious than it may be — there’s tons of religion in the novel, definitely, but there’s a more secular way of reading it that the “private memoirs” part captures.
But first, I think the introduction-writer made the rather ridiculous claim I wrote about the other day because of the complexity of the book’s structure, i.e. the two narrators and the ways their stories overlap and diverge. But this makes up a big part of the fun of reading the book and doesn’t mean it’s particularly hard to follow.
The story is basically this: Robert Wringhim is raised by his mother and her severely-pious friend (or “friend” — their relationship is ambiguous) to believe that he, according to a Calvinist belief in predestination, has been chosen as one of the elect — he has received salvation and is guaranteed a place in heaven. He is taught that salvation comes not through works but by faith alone. The novel, written in 1824, takes place during the end of the 17C and the early years of the 18C in Scotland, and in the context of religious controversy, which gets played out in Robert’s life through his pious mother and her husband who cares little about religion. Robert’s parentage is uncertain; many believe that his mother’s friend is his real father (and this seems likeliest), although, of course, the friend denies it.
Into this situation comes a strange figure who quickly enmeshes himself deeply into Robert’s life. Exactly who this figure is never gets clarified. He doesn’t want to reveal any information about himself; he only reluctantly tells Robert to call him Gil-Martin, although it seems clear this is not his real name. He prefers to see Robert only when they are alone.
With the entrance of Gil-Martin, the book only gets stranger and stranger; when Robert first sees him, he is astounded because he looks exactly like Robert. He looks exactly like Robert at that particular moment, but his appearance changes. He can look like whoever he wants to at whatever moment he wants to. He also holds strange powers of attraction over Robert:
I felt a sort of invisible power that drew me towards him, something like the force of enchantment; which I could not resist. As we approached each other, our eyes met, and I can never describe the strange sensations that thrilled through my whole frame at that impressive moment.
They soon begin to spend all their time together, devoting hours to deep theological discussions. Gil-Martin appears to hold many of the same beliefs as Robert, but soon he pushes them to extremes that make Robert uneasy; he begins to argue that since Robert is part of the elect and his salvation is assured, he can do whatever he likes with no consequences. He can even commit murder — in fact, he may have a duty to commit murder, according to Gil-Martin, because if humanity is divided into two categories, the saved and the damned, and if they can tell who is who, then why not murder the damned? Why not rid the earth of them and make it a better place?
Robert at some level knows how twisted this logic is, but he is under Gil-Martin’s spell and whenever he is in his presence he loses his ability to think clearly. He is trapped.
Robert doesn’t seem to understand who Gil-Martin is, at least at first, but the reader quickly realizes that he may very well be the devil, tempting Robert to commit horrible deeds. On the other hand, and here is the more secular reading, he may be Robert’s own creation, a product of a diseased, schizophrenic mind. The two figures blend strangely and Robert begins to lose hold of his sense of self:
I generally conceived myself to be two people. When I lay in bed, I deemed there were two of us in it; when I sat up, I always beheld another person, and always in the same position from the place where I sat or stood, which was about three paces off me towards my left side. It mattered not how many or how few were present; this my second self was sure to be present in his place; and this occasioned a confusion in all my words and ideas that utterly astounded my friends … The most perverse part of it was, that I rarely conceived myself to be any of the two persons. I thought for the most part my companion was one of them, and my brother the other; and I found, that to be obliged to speak and answer in the character of another man, was a most awkward business at the long run.
By this point, Robert is a complete wreck, and the reader is on shaky ground — who is who and what is happening and what does it all mean? And then there’s the business of the two narratives. The story is not told in a straight-forward manner; rather, an editor tells what he knows of Robert’s life — his information coming partly from research but largely from tradition and so therefore suspect — and then Robert tells his story, covering some of the same ground the editor already covered and branching off in new directions. So there’s an editor who claims to be reliable but probably isn’t entirely, and there’s Robert who clearly is not reliable but who has most of the information we want, if only we could believe him.
To add to the fun, Hogg includes a page of Robert’s handwriting in the front of the text; it’s a page supposedly from Robert’s confessions. Hogg had a friend imitate handwriting from Robert’s time period to give the book a greater air of authenticity. Detracting somewhat from this sense of authenticity, however, is an appearance in the novel by James Hogg himself and by a servant of Sir Walter Scott’s. It seems that Hogg is having a little postmodern fun with his readers, blurring the boundaries between fiction and real life, refusing to offer any solid answers, drawing attention to the unreliability of history and the artificial nature of any text.
The more I write, the more complex the book seems. I still do not agree with David Groves when he says that “no one will understand very much about Hogg’s Confessions on first reading,” but I do believe that the more you think about this book, the murkier it gets. Perhaps the true situation is that the reader understands the book best on a first reading, but subsequent readings only undermine that confidence.