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  • James Hogg

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner - critical review

After reading 'The Portrait of Dorian Gray' and 'The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde', I was interested in looking at the idea of duality further and how it is explored differently in literature. I researched that 'The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner', published in 1824, was one of the first novels to establish the idea of the double so clearly. The novel looks at similar ideas to both later novels: 'The portrait' and 'The strange case', but the idea of duality haunts the novel in more than one clear, distinct way. After reading the novel, I read two articles on the novel and the introduction and notes by David Blair. What I found interesting about the novel is the ideas of unreliability: through both the accounts and the way the novel itself is written, especially through the almost competing forms used to tell the narrative, the idea of the double: especially through the main character Robert and Gil-Martin, and religion and ideas on morality.

First, something I found interesting in the novel was the unreliability of the whole narrative due to emphasis on the subjective perception of events. Something which highlights the unreliability of the narrative as a whole were shown in the different accounts about the death of George, the murdered brother of Robert. The witnesses to the event each describe it differently, but what was more interesting was Roberts reliance on Gil's perception, since Robert says that his "senses" were "all in a state of agitation" and changes his account of the event, despite it being very different to his original account. This shows the differences between the moment of experience and the moment of narration, showing that the truth can reduce from the experience to narrative self. This creates the entire account of Robert: the majority of the novel, to seem unreliable. As readers, we are aware of how easily influenced Robert is by Gil Martin, in both action and speech: therefore we can never be sure of the reliability and truth of what he narrates. Furthermore, the fact that Robert left his account to be read by many people when he died, creates a question of the possibility of hidden agendas. The figure of Gil Martin is ambiguous when reading the account: if he is the conscience of Robert or a corporeal form of the devil: however there is a question if Robert deliberately anthropomorphized his evil conscience into this being: to reduce the future blame on him alone to create the idea he was tormented and influenced by another being, which accounts for his actions. Obviously, this is questionable as well: since Gil Martin may just have been Hogg's decision to show Roberts intimate connection with his evil 'other', or even Hogg's creation of the devil into an actual being in a supernatural form in the novel. Overall, the entire novel creates a sense of unreliability: and the reader is left to decide for themselves on the truth of certain events, and the truth of the overall question of the novel: who Gil Martin was and whom he was created by: Hogg as the author of the novel, or Robert (through Hogg) in his deranged mind, or Robert purposely to lessen the future blame on him and warn others of the influence of the evil conscious: there own 'Gil Martin', inside of every being.

Furthermore, the idea of unreliability and lack of truth is heightened by Hogg's use of different forms: framing the narrative through both editorial objective and personal subjective accounts. The novel is told by two narrators: the editor of Robert's account, and Robert Wringhim himself. They both, however, tell the same event in chronological order: they are not used in the same way as other novels, such as Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein', in which different narrators fill the gaps of each other to create the whole story. Instead, the double narrative echoes the novel itself, a novel of uncertain duality. The points of view compete for the reader's faith without offering confirmation or completed evidence. The differences between the two accounts are clear from their first sentences: in which the editors account seems more objective and factual (begins with 'it appears') in comparison to a much more personal, emotional account of Robert (beginning with 'my life has been'). However, both seem as uncertain as each other. The editor's judgement, although seemingly objective, is questionable since he has opposite views to that of Robert, for example, his hostility to Calvinism. The editor fails to conclude on anything: he doesn't conclude on the reader's constant question of whether Robert writes an account of a demon: in which he really believed in Gil Martin, or an ethical parable: warning future readers of the danger of the duality of the human condition. Likewise, Robert becomes less able to provide a coherent account of his life and events within it. He has dramatic memory losses: in which he doesn't remember committing very serious crimes such as rape and murder. The fact the reader is constantly bound to the perception of Robert without the narrative of any events within his life outside of those perceived by Robert, means we have an uncertainty of whether he did commit the crimes or not: and the fact the editor fails to answer these questions creatse a lack of understanding on the events which echoes the psychological state of Robert. Robert says that "one-half, or two-thirds of my time, seem to me to be totally lost", and this is echoed in our reading of his account: in which there are long chronological gaps, and lack on account on many of his crimes. As readers, we are unaware whether this instead, may again be Roberts ulterior motive to have less blame put on him, through a failure to admit to the true nature of his criminality in his 'Confessions', and him not wanting to admit to himself that his 'other': in the form of Gil Martin, is in fact inside him and part of him, and these actions are done by himself: and he fails to admit to this. However, this seems questionable since the reason for his writing is that it is a 'Confession', therefore instead it may just show us the extent of his damaged psychological state and the effect that Gil Martin, or his evil conscience, was having on his perception of reality. Therefore, by creating both these forms of narrative unreliable, Hogg takes the most common fictional forms: editorial fiction and first-person narrative and shows that neither can give valid accounts on things. Their failure to complete each other deepens the questions that the novel creates, and their failure to provide rational explanations on supernatural events further urges the reader to decide for themselves the true nature and intention of the character Gil Martin. Hogg challenges the use of the dual form of narrative by showing that it isn't necessary that by doing this it forms a coherent and united account: which may be a more realistic view of life: in which truth of events can never really be achieved and two juxtaposing perspectives does not necessarily solve this.

The idea of duality is central to the novel, not only through this dual form of narrative but also through the character of Gil Martin and Robert. The reader has to remember that the 'Confessions' is a piece of literature: therefore whether Gil Martin, within the novel, is a supernatural character or a motif for the damaged state of Robert and the duality of humanity's nature, either way, Gil Martin shows the impact of evil it can have on us, doing things that people believe they are incapable of. It is an allegory for the force of evil within us. The doubt created around Gil Martin further echoes the uncertainty we have about our own personal nature and represents we will never have empirical evidence of this evil force within us outside of our own conscience. Through Roberts account, we see him failing to look within him and admit to his nature: in which he can't remember his crimes that he committed, and argues that he "rarely conceived myself to be any of these two persons." The fact that Gil is inescapable from Robert, in which Robert is attracted to him despite feeling strong hatred towards him, and the only way to escape him is through suicide, is similar to both 'The portrait of Dorian Gray' and 'The strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde', in which the only way to destroy their evil 'other' is to destroy themselves. Therefore, although Robert creates a distance and separation between his conscience and Gil Martin: saying that 'two souls which take possession of my bodily frame by turns, the one being all unconscious of what the other performs', this cannot be fully achieved: both through his eternal attraction to him, the fact Gil Martin is constantly with him wherever he goes, and his death. Some critics have argued that Gil Martin is created by Hogg to be a supernatural being, and is not merely Roberts deranged mind since other characters are recorded to see Robert with another being. However, the fact that the account is written by Robert may suggest that this is his further purposeful emphasis that Gil Martin was a real being, to further attempt a separation between himself and Gil Martin: arguing that his evil conscience was a completely different being to him, lessening his personal guilt and future blame on him for the crimes that he committed. But the reader is clear that this is never achieved, and he is fully to blame for all the sins that he is committed, which drives him to suicide. Hogg shows that this nature of humans is universal, through the preservation of Roberts corpse and the text after so many years: in which it is shown to still be without decay or damage. Perhaps, the novel is a warning that we all have a Gil Martin inside of us, and the only way to overcome it is to admit to ourselves of its existence within and part of us, which Robert fails to do.

Lastly, the novel seems to be a satirical piece on St. Augustine's idea of election and the idea of antinomianism: meaning 'opposition to the law': the belief that religious salvation comes from divine grace rather than adherence to the moral law and therefore the importance of following the inclination of faith. It seems satirical on the belief of predetermined election: in which some are chosen before their birth to be saved, and therefore can not do anything wrong and will necessarily do right and good and remain forever justified in all actions. This belief is adopted by Robert, in which after being told he is one of the elect few, he is above that of state law and however he acts will not only not affect the predestination of his salvation, but also will be just and in the name of God. However, Robert himself does doubt this: "I tried to ascertain, to my own satisfaction, whether or not really had been commissioned of God to perpetrate these crimes in his behalf, for in the eyes, and by the laws of men, they were great and crying transgressions' (108) However, Robert is easily influenced by Gil Martin, who persuades him of this antinomianism: creating the idea of him to be above the law. This dangerous thought not only links the Christian belief of election but extends to universal ideas of morality. It seemed to connect with the idea of Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky's 'Crime and Punishment', who believed he was one of the few was destined for greatness and therefore above the normal moral law of the state. It also links to ideas of conflict created through natural law compared to state law, commonly present in ancient tragedies such as Sophocles' 'Antigone', in which Antigone justifies her action of burying her dead brother through higher, natural laws despite the state law forbidding it. Therefore, it highlights the everlasting hope that individuals have that they are unique from the rest of humanity: and the dangers that come with this. It is not only a warning of religious extremism: specifically on the belief of a predetermined selection of those who receive salvation, and the inferiority of moral actions on earth: but also a warning against individuals pride that they are superior to others, and therefore superior to the laws that the others are subjected to. Therefore, not only is Gil Martin the sense of evil personified, but he is also something more specific: the drive to be superior and unique, and above others of humanity: and by Hogg portraying this through an evil 'other', he suggests the possible jeopardy of this part of human nature.

Overall, the novel by James Hogg is a criticism on religion, humanity and narrative itself. It shows the unreliability of perception and therefore narrative, and creates a more realistic view of narrative within literature through not answering questions and obscurities that are created by both forms of accounts: editorial and first-person subjective account, portraying a question on the nature of truth. The duality of the form of the novel echoes the theme of duality within the plot: through Gil Martin seeming as a double to Robert. The question of whether Robert was formed by Hogg: as a supernatural being or a representation of the psychological damage of Robert and the duality of humanity, or purposely by Robert (through Hogg as the author of the novel) as a deliberate attempt of disconnection between himself and his evil conscience, attempting to reduce and even justify his sinful actions, is up to the reader's decision. Whatever the reader decides on the intention and state of the character of Gil Martin, he remains a symbol of the evil conscience that is within humanity, and more specifically the temptation that taunts all of us in terms of actions and justification: the danger of the belief that one is higher than the rest of humanity. Hogg creates a warning of this state of humanity and shows the result of not admitting and confronting this force that perverts humankind.

Articles I read after reading the novel:

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