The Hogg Blog: ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’

Welcome to the complex, schizophrenic, and even (dare I say it) metafictional world of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. This is a world where nothing is exactly as it first appears, and it continues to puzzle new readers just as much as it’s contemporary nineteenth century ones. Is the text based around the religious pamphlet written by the Sinner Robert Wringhim and discovered by the self-titled Editor, or is it a multi-layered, fictional creation of celebrated Scottish poet, James Hogg? Who exactly is the Ettrick Shepherd we encounter in the final pages of the novel, and how does a Shepherd fit into the Gothic tradition? And, perhaps most perplexingly, who is Gil-Martin – the Devil? or someone (something) else?

When I first read Confessions it immediately became one of my favourites, but it can be very perplexing at times, especially for first-time readers. You may find yourself asking similar questions to those above as you read the book, and these may be answered at the end of the novel (disclaimer: probably not). What adds to the perplexing nature of the novel is its complex relationship with religion, specifically Calvinism. However, this makes it a perfect text to feature as part of Sheffield Gothic’s semester on religious Gothic, and, in my opinion, this is what makes it one of my favourite Gothic texts.

James Hogg – aka the Ettrick Shepherd

So, to start with, lets talk about what you need to know about Calvinism (disclaimer 2: this will not be an in depth exploration of Calvinism, but a very basic overview). Dating back to the Reformation era in the sixteenth century, Calvinism falls under the Protestant branch of Christianity. The religion is also known as the ‘Reformed tradition’ or ‘Reformed faith,’ which marks its theological break from Roman Catholicism. It soon spread throughout Europe, eventually becoming a major Christian denomination in Scotland.

There are several key theological distinctions within Calvinism, including the notion of Revelation, and the concept of predestination. Calvinist doctrine divides all humans into the categories of the elect or the damned, and each identity is designated with a predetermined end. Predestination posits the idea that the elect will be awarded with eternal salvation while the damned will literally be damned to hell. Importantly, these identities have already been decided by God, and therefore, unlike other Christian denominations, good works are not an important factor in salvation. Moreover, through the revelation of scripture, certain individuals can be given the knowledge of these identities, and whether they, and others around them, are elect or damned.

Ok, so I know what you’re thinking – how does Calvinism fit into Confessions, and where does the Devil fit in all of this? (and is it Gothic?). As the title suggests, the primary focus of the novel is the ‘Confessions’ of Robert Wringhim, literally found by the Editor and presented to the reader without alteration, ‘there being a curse pronounced by the writer on him that should dare to alter or amend, I have let it stand as it is’ (188). About half of the book is comprised of Wringhim’s ‘Confessions,’ detailing his life as a Sinner, and justifying his Sins. Wringhim views himself as one of the elect, and as a result he believes that any sins he commits in this life will not affect his future salvation.


‘Did I leave the oven on?’
(Gustave Doré’s depiction of Milton’s Satan)
Part of Wringhim’s narrative justifying his sins (which include the possibility that he committed several murders) revolves around the curious character of Gil Martin. Gil Martin seems to confirm Wringhim’s belief that he is one of the elect, and he further appears to encourage Wringhim’s criminal acts. On the other hand, Gil Martin could also be the Devil tempting Wringhim into a life of sin in order to ensure his eternal damnation. Wringhim’s own narrative certainly allows for this reading of Gil-Martin as the Devil, perhaps as it further justifies his own sins. Wringhim’s ‘Confessions,’ and even the Editor’s own narrative, are full of literary, Gothic, and biblical references to the Devil, including the Faust myth, Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, Lewis’ The Monk, Dacre’s Zofloya, and continual references that Gil Martin stood on ‘my left side’ (116) and owned what ‘seemed a Bible…all intersected with red lines.’ (94).

Another reading of Gil-Martin is that he is entirely imagined by Wringhim, and the text also allows for this reading in which Wringhim manifests his own anxieties as an externalised persona. This particular reading, in which Wringhim appears to be experiencing what we would now call schizophrenia, is also supported by his ‘Confessions,’ although it could perhaps be an example the psychological affects of fanatical religious beliefs. In particular how such extreme beliefs can cause a childhood trauma that endures into adulthood. From a young age, Wringhim is exposed to a very extreme version of Calvinism, emphasising the horrific fate of the damned: ‘My heart quaked with terror, when I thought of being still living in a state of reprobation, subjected to the awful issues of death, judgment, and eternal misery’ (77).

So who exactly is Gil Martin? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

Works Cited:
Hogg, James, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)

Mary Going is a postgraduate researcher studying the Wandering Jew in Gothic Literature at the University of Sheffield.  She’s all about #CrazyCalvinists and is our go-to expert on religious Gothic.  She didn’t think there’d be so many vampires on campus, but she’s handling it pretty well.


One thought on “The Hogg Blog: ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’

  1. Hogg himself was a Calvinist – although not a hyper-Calvinist like Robert. The book reads like a very accurate account of psychosis – albeit a “worst case scenario”. (All risk factors, no support, no treatment, Murder – which is rare, suicide – a bit more common) I'd go so far as to say it's SO accurate he must be basing this on first hand experience. The emphasis is NOT on the outward signs of bizarre behaviour or strange comments. Instead he focusses on the correctly ordered events: risk factors, long term stress, isolation, trigger, sudden onset of hallucinations, hallucinations as a “coping mechanism” for isolation, delusions – partly to rationalise the hallucinations, dream period, gradual withdrawal into the internal world, nightmare period, paranoia, religious themes throughout, increasingly extreme good/evil interpretation of events, more rapidly changing interpretation, confusion, total exhaustion. I doubt if even a close friendship with a sufferer would inform Hogg so well. My suspicion would be that he had a psychotic break himself – probably during or just after his time in Dumfries (?) Obviously he fictionalises the story and solves the question of ending, by suicide. It's also a story of how flawed beliefs taken to their logical conclusion lead to death. And a story of how suicide may not be the unforgivable crime it has often been seen as but rather a tragedy. It's a story not just of “shall we yet sin, that grace may abound?” but also of “there but for the grace of God go any of us”.


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