Lauren Smith's Reviews > The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
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Oct 08, 09

bookshelves: classic, ebook, religion, reading-challenge, horror, historical
Recommended to Lauren by: Luxx (LibraryThing)
Read in September, 2009

** spoiler alert ** I read this novel for an “I’ll Read Yours if You Read Mine” challenge. It was chosen for me because I normally avoid classics. Nevertheless, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner had many of the features I enjoy in fiction – conflicting perspectives on the same events, a close psychological study of a tortured character, torment and seduction by a devil, and a criticism of strict religious doctrine. Consequently, I quite enjoyed it (which I often do, with classics, when I take the time and patience to read them).

My feelings about the main character, Robert, were unusual. As much as I disliked him and was angered by the injustice of his actions in the Editor’s narrative, I found Robert’s narrative to be the most interesting. The first part of the story reveals him to be a grossly self-righteous, cruel, petty little man. This is no less obvious in his own story, but Robert’s memoir allows you to understand him, without condoning any of his beliefs or behaviour. Usually, if I enjoy the narrative of such an unfavourable character, there is at least something I admire about him/her, but not so with Robert.

Through Robert, Hogg illustrates one of the things I dislike about religion – the way it can encourage people to put dogma above compassion. From ruining a boy's reputation with lies to committing murder, Robert justifies his sins with the excuse that he is doing God's work. His 'divine' motives thus cause him to be cruel to others. Another problem is that Robert sticks to religious doctrine rather than thinking for himself. I think this is one of the reasons he's so susceptible to Gil-Martin's influences - initially he can't see past Gil-Martin's religious pretences, and when he finally does it is too late for him to resist. Robert is also unable to see all the logical flaws in his beliefs. I felt that the torment he suffered as the devil's follower was, in a way, the logical conclusion of his irrational beliefs. His suffering was as much a consequence of trying to cling to such extreme, illogical beliefs as of his relationship with the devil.

About Gil-Martin - I liked how he assumed the looks and ideas of whoever he was thinking about or focussed on. A nice touch, and pretty creepy. I'm wondering if it was some kind of twisted version of the idea of being made in God's image? Instead the devil shapes himself according to human images, and as a result is more grotesque and scary.

The narrative as a whole is beset with doubt. The editor’s narrative is a factual account of the novel’s events, but as the editor did not experience anything personally, he must rely on other sources. Robert’s narrative differs from the editor’s at certain points, giving a slightly more favourable account of himself in some situations. Robert’s narrative also has a supernatural element which the editor refuses to accept. And of course there's Hogg's letter, which is revealed to contain a few odd lies. I think the story’s uncertainties are a suitable counterpoint to Robert’s unquestioned religious beliefs. The reader, unsure of the truth, should have more reason to criticise Robert, Wringham and Lady Colwan’s assumptions about their acceptance into heaven. If the editor, and thus the reader, can’t be sure of history, how can anyone be sure of God’s mind?

My only real problem with the book was the Scottish brogue. Normally I adapt to accents fairly easily, but I found this frustrating, especially since there were many colloquial terms and pronunciations I had to try and figure out. Language is actually one of the main reasons I tend avoid classics. While I don't mind taking my time to appreciate the nuances of an author's writing, I have less patience for taking my time merely to understand what is going on, which is often the case with older styles of writing. However, with the exception of the Scottish accent, I found this to be a relatively easy read. Overall, my half of the reading challenge proved to be a worthwhile one, and although I probably won’t seek out many more classics in future, it sparked my interest in gothic literature.

Read more reviews on my blog Violin in a Void
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