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The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – June 6, 2010

4.5 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author


Ian Duncan is Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.
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Product Details

  • Series: Oxford World's Classics
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; New edition (June 6, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199217955
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199217953
  • Product Dimensions: 7.6 x 1 x 5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #223,226 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By S. Pactor VINE VOICE on June 27, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
One of the aspects that I like about "classic literature" as a cultural product is it's sheer..."know-ability." By "know-ability" I mean the HUGE volume of writing by different groups of intellectuals on the subject, both on individual works and "classic literature" as a group of artistic products. An interested reader can wallow forever in the pools and eddies of the stream of writing issuing forth on, say, 19th century British literature. Like all subjects of knowledge, classic literature has seen a logarithmic explosion of academic, quasi-academic and non-academic writing in the last 50 years, but the debate PRIOR to World War II is relatively easy to get a handle on: A set number of works, a set number of theories.

The real pleasure for me comes in reading a work that I had never heard about prior to reading. One of the primary pleasures of intellectual pursuits is the joy of discovery: finding out something you didn't know before. It's a quiet, private pleasure that doesn't require a group for validation. This was the case for me with James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, originally published in 1824. Private Memoirs is not quite the first serial killer novel, not quite the first historical novel, and certainly not the first novel of the Scottish literary boom of the early 19th century, but it was influenced by all of those literary trends and more besides. Private Memoirs takes the form of two opposed narratives: One by an anonymous Editor, purporting to recount the same series of events the other narrative, the Private Memoirs and Confessions of the title. The Justified Sinner in this case is Robert Wringhim, the bastard son of a Scottish Laird and his over-zealous religious wife.
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Published in 1824, this was a hundred years ahead of its time, and it's just now coming to be appreciated. Is it a gothic novel? A meta-novel? A precursor of magic realism? A warning against religious fanaticism? The book hinges on the extreme Calivinist concept of antinomianism: if you're predestined to be saved, you'll end up in heaven no matter what outrageous sins and crimes you commit. This obviously raises interesting moral dilemmas. Hogg was a contemporary and friend of Sir Walter Scott, but while Scott's prose sometimes puts modern readers to sleep, Hogg is more likely to keep you awake at night!
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When a book is split into two parts, into narratives of two different people, this divided structure can make a statement about the theme of the book itself. This is the case for James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Published anonymously in 1824, the first part of the novel is the narrative of an “editor” about the “justified sinner” the title speaks of, and the second part is a personal narrative from the “sinner”: Robert Wringhim.

This split focus allows two different perspectives on a series of events, namely a murder, which are subjective among the community because no one knows what really happened. Robert acts innocent, and some people believe him, but the two witnesses to the murder campaign against Robert. Not only does it work to reiterate Hogg’s theme that no single account of the truth is wholly truthful, but it also organizes information for readers so we can sort out for ourselves what actually happened in the novel. Such a useful structure plays into the book’s psychological thrill, as well as its gothic nature.

In the Editor’s account of the murders--particularly the murder of Robert Wringhim’s brother, George Colwan--Wringhim is rumored to be the murderer based on the account of two women. These women are suspicious of him and his counterpart, a man who says his name is Gil-Martin. The editor’s narrative gives a perspective that readers can contrast with Wringhim’s narrative.
Religion plays a large role in Private Memoirs because it is connected with greater themes in the novel: good versus evil and subjectivity versus objectivity.
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One of the most difficult aspects of Christian theology is the relation/tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. In this Gothic novel, the protagonist adopts an extreme form of Reformed/Calvinistic theology that essentially denies all human responsibility and results in absolute fatalism. The result is a sort of hyper-Calvinist horror story as a mysterious man (the devil? the personification of the protagonist's total depravity?) further twists the Reformed doctrines of "unconditional election" and "perseverance of the saints" into justification for self-righteously committing multiple murders (among other things).

Some might see this as a diatribe against Reformed theology, but I do not think that is the point (the author claims that this is a radical, aberrant version of Reformed Christianity, and I don't think he was being sarcastic). Instead, this could be seen as a cautionary tale on the dangers of a person using religious sophistry to justify self-serving behavior that they know is unacceptable within their religion/ethics. Or you could just read it as a nice, solid Gothic novel with a well executed unreliable narrator.
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