James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a highly enlightening work that describes the journey of Robert Wringhim as he gradually disintegrates into fanaticism. The work was deemed controversial when it released in 1824 and even was not considered as an appropriate form of literature. This rendered Hogg to stop his experimentalism and after that, he began writing more conventional works. However, with time, this work gained significance as it still resonates with the manner in which the society works.
Willing to be united with God through repentance, Robert Wringhim continues to commit one mischief and wrongdoing after another. His deeds are unholy, yet his intention is spiritually honest. However, nothing makes him feel that he has truly been forgiven by God, through which, he could attain unity with Him. Everything changes one fine day when he comes across a man who immediately captivates him with his insightful mode of thoughts. This man injects this seed of thought into Wringhim’s mind that he is the chosen one, and as stated by John Calvin’s theory of ‘elected’, the chosen one can do no wrong. It is upon the elected to ensure that no evil can appear before the gates of the Lord. The fact that Calvin also devised punishment for the just if they sinned is completely ignored. Instead, Wringhim interprets this notion in the most lethal way. Driven by the mysterious man’s words, he becomes inclined to believe that everyone he perceives to be evil, is actually evil, and therefore, should not be allowed to exist in front of God. The outcome of this interpretation of the theological driving force is the serial committing of murders. What Wringhim does after arriving at this conclusion and how his life and faith alter, forms the rest of the story.
What is significant in this work, resonating even today, is its understanding of the manner in which we interpret religious tenets and unite them with our own causes, thus making the latter justified. For Wringhim, evil not only means the ones who are not in sync to his own theological notions but also those against whom he has personal grudges. This includes his brother, his actual father, and his father’s mistress. All of these are people who are unworthy before God and incapable of rectification since they are destined to be evil. Therefore, they must be eliminated. This underlying notion articulates how a personal grievance attains more weight when theology can be attached to it.
A less articulated dimension of the work is the mysterious man who comes along into Wringhim’s life. The identity of this person, and how he could change from one external appearance to another, remains a mystery. This mystical individual, who if observed without bias appears fascinating, yet is singularly driven by evil objectives, might symbolize the mysterious manner in which evil drives us. The character signifies the logics that allow us to address our temptations by guarding them with philosophies justifying our misdeeds.
Another admirable aspect of the book is the underlying notion of the writer that one cannot truly empathize with an antagonist. The book has been tactfully divided into two parts. The first part, regarded as the narrative of the editor, narrates the tale through the perspective of individuals who are observing the events only externally. They witness what is happening in front of them, and pass judgments accordingly. The second section, considered the actual book and presented as an autobiography (though that really is not the case), narrates the events entirely through the eyes of the real protagonist, Robert Wringhim. This section has been referred to as a memoir because if an author’s perspective was present describing Wringhim’s actions, then his character would have already appeared judged thus losing the sharp edges.
The Oxford Worlds Classics edition of this book I came across contains an introduction and explanatory notes that articulate the backdrop events of 17th century Scotland within which this story completely sinks its teeth. Robert Wringhim is a symbol of the political and religious conflicts that rendered the emergence of numerous factions striving towards upheaval of the establishment. Parliamentarianism of the Whigs clashed against the Jacobeans who sought to reestablish the Stuarts, while the Covenanters fought to preserve the authority of the Church. Such diverse forms of conflicts form the background of this story and these historical details have been explained quite thoroughly in the explanatory notes. The notes also form the grim realization that Wringhim’s character can indeed be real because many aspects of him are strikingly real. His way of misinterpreting Calvin’s theory is defined as antinomianism. Antinomianism, in fact, was carried out by some people at that time who were then highly criticized by many including Calvin himself.
The historical and philosophical significance of this work makes it an important read for every generation since the underlying themes are forever resonant in human civilization.