The simplest, and perhaps most prosaic, way to describe The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg (1770-1835) is to refer to it as a psychological tale of a young man, Robert Wringhim, whose religious conviction justifies committing murder. Of course, this description does not do justice to the writer's talent in highlighting the conundrums posed by the possible motives/causes behind the young man's murderous actions. As the narrative progresses, readers are likely to find themselves unable to determine whether the young man is merely under the spell of a psychotic delusion or is following a conviction based on assumed supernatural directives. Likewise, indoctrination through parental influences seems to provide a robust justification for the young man's life of crime, at least initially. As the facts of the young man's life, including murder and all malevolent actions and thoughts that precede and follow it, are revealed with meticulous precision, a multitude of questions may come to readers' minds, including whether parental influences can be so far reaching as to offer a rationale for a career as a serial murderer. Can a young man's belief that he is one of 'the chosen' for salvation by God, which was inculcated in him by an overzealous adopted father, be preserved in adulthood where the potential for independence and free choice is stronger? To complicate the answer to the latter question is the character of Gil-Martin, a stranger who encourages and supports Robert's murderous activities. Is Gil-Martin an imaginary character sought by a mind whose motives for murder demand support, a real person whose wickedness is unmatched, or an entity that embodies evil? If the latter is true, what exactly is 'evil'?
Perhaps what makes the novel an engaging read even nowadays is that, bizarrely, each answer appears as partial or unsatisfactory as the alternatives, thereby forcing readers to scrutinize meticulously and repeatedly the information offered by the narrator. As scrutiny progresses, the main character, Robert, preserves his appalling qualities while his psychological complexity and the intricacy of his experiences blossom into an ever-expanding enigma. Hence, the most engaging task that James Hogg offers readers is that of understanding not only the mind of a serial murderer, which is both human, suggesting cognitions that can be comprehended, and so dreadful to be foreign, but also the experiences that can shape such a mind and the behavior it determines.
The relevance of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner to a twenty-first century readership is undeniable. One has only to consider the multitude of characters, some more harmful than others, who, after having committed unspeakable actions in the name of an alleged mandate from God, have become popular media figures. Others might have committed similar actions in the name of an alleged mandate from otherwise powerful entities, perhaps less divine, but equally lethal. It is often the case that interviews of such figures do not appear to add much to the comprehension of their actions, but rather serve to reinforce pre-existing labels of madness or wickedness as well as reaffirm the 'sanity' of the stupefied audience. Hence, such figures can become 'celebrities' in the 24/7 media outlets with most coverage converging on one possible motive or interpretation. A notable example of the rather unidirectional and superficial treatment of 'evil' in the media may be the recent CNN coverage of Jim Jones' actions on the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, coverage that did nothing but remind us of the unbearable pain of the survivors, a fact we could all have envisioned without CNN's help.
Regretfully, other characters appear periodically in the media for their claims that natural disasters and other adversities can be explained as the actions of a God who punishes 'sinners'. These so called 'blame-the-victim' media personages claim to talk and listen to a supernatural being who has chosen them for their impeccable moral qualities and their ability to pursue his wishes. Of course, at times, media scrutiny generates so much outrage that they may be forced to express a public apology; but more often than not, they simply remain silent for a time, reappearing unfazed immediately after another disaster with similar revelations.
In contrast to the usual media coverage of the abnormal and abhorrent, content of the novel by James Hogg illustrates a deeper, more complex coverage of a mind whose thoughts and corresponding actions may be as appalling and foreign as those paraded by more contemporary criminal figures. The public can hope that the media will adopt a similarly deep and thoughtful analysis with the goal of understanding such minds and hopefully of preventing the re-appearance of the actions they initiate.
Other valuable uses for The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner are available besides becoming a required read for providers of news (including those whose salaries grow exponentially as the quality of their performance degrades to readers of news wires). For instance, the novel may be considered as required reading in psychopathology courses where too often the desire to classify (i.e., place individuals into pre-determined categories of mental illness) is so potent and appealing to students and instructors alike to undermine the desire to know. I would certainly rely on this novel as a pedagogical tool for illustrating the case study method, albeit some of its contents may be literary curiosities.
Of course, several aspects of the novel can be informative to readers interested in a variety of topics, including religious fanaticism, folklore, and writing styles. With respect to religious fanaticism, important to note is that although James Hogg took some liberties with his portrayal of Calvinist theology, his narrative of Robert's actions pertains to 'fanaticism', not religion per se. Regarding writing style, James Hogg's novel remains, even centuries after its first appearance, superb in its narrative structure. Although Scotch dialect punctuates some of the text and its cultural/social framework pertains to times long past, the novel is not difficult to comprehend. If in need, the carefully crafted introduction and the copious explanatory notes and glossary at the end of the book, all compiled by Ian Duncan, can be quite useful. Overall, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a timeless read, appealing to the many fancies of its readers.
© 2010 Maura Pilotti
Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Hunter College, New York