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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 27, 2011
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.

Wringhim is what you call a "serial killer" and his activity takes place against the background of what today we would call "psychotic episodes" and what they then called "being haunted by the Devil." The Devil in this case is the affable "Gill-Martin." He's a charmer, and a shape shifter, and maybe a figment of Wringhim's imagination, and maybe not. The knowledge that this book was written in the early 1820s is interesting too contemplate. While Hogg was not drawing on terra incognita in his Gil Martin figure (Goethe's Faust had appeared in Scottish periodicals prior to this book being written, the overall combination of the doubling/visit by the devil/serial killer/scottish historical novel styles of 19th century literature is an intoxicating blend. Private Memoirs doesn't go on for 500 pages, either- it's readable in a weekend afternoon.

Before reading the book, I was surprised to read Ian Duncan's claim that this is now the most popular 19th century Scottish novel, but after finishing, it makes perfect sense. Sharp, scary, funny and downright weird, Private Memoirs is a novel that holds up waaaayyyyyyyyy after it was published.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 31, 2011
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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on February 3, 2014
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. Hogg sets up an intriguing relationship between the hyper-religious, predestination-fanatic tendencies of Robert Wringhim and his adoptive father and the relaxed attitude or skepticism of Calvinism that George Colwan and his father possess.

This relationship is important as the novel continues into Robert’s narrative. A quick analysis of the title shows Robert’s perspective on himself: he is justified in all of his actions, including the things others perceive as sin, because he is a member of God’s elect. Robert’s narrative parades his self-righteous nature and heightens the psychological thrill of the novel.

Readers get a look inside Robert’s mind, and in the end, almost feel sympathetic toward Robert. Although he is self-righteous at the beginning, as he develops, he realizes that the slanted perspectives on the world and religion presented to him by his adoptive father and Gil-Martin have duped him. The split structure of the novel allows readers to get a well-rounded look at the story and how individual perspectives twist the truth to support their own worldviews.

In Robert’s narrative, a shepherd tells him a story with heavy Biblical imagery that leads him to question the nature of his companion, Gil-Martin. In the Editor’s narrative, the general feeling about Gil-Martin is that he is destructive, even evil. Hogg uses the imagery and allusion to the devil in the shepherd’s story to make Robert question Gil-Martin’s motives--as well as his own judgment.

Private Memoirs would not be whole without Hogg’s use of religion and without splitting the narratives to examine different perspectives of the same events. Robert’s views on religion shaped his misconstrued understanding of what is just. He believes he is justified, even through his sin, because he is one of God’s elect. This drives his narrative. However, the more secular view that does not support predestination drives the Editor’s narrative. These different religious views contrast one another and provide different perspectives on the plot.

Such elements truly make the story, and because the structure itself supports the themes of the story, Hogg creates a collection of accounts that readers can use to decide for themselves what actually happened, even if we can’t trust the individual accounts within.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 30, 2011
AN AMAZING BOOK. How can this book be over looked so long? Don't let it continue! Read this book from 1824 and be blown away. THE PRIVATE MEMOIRS AND CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER is classified as Scottish Romanticism...what it is is a dark tale of a serial killer, dark and modern in its creepiness. I think you will greatly enjoy the book.
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on January 1, 2015
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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on November 1, 2014
James Hogg's classic, but little known, work is an extremely intriguing gothic commentary on the dangers of fanaticism. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is the terrifying story of a young Protestant man named Robert Wringhim who is led to believe that, because he is one of the Elect of God, he is unable to be turned away from heaven. He falls in with bad company (actually, the devil, to be more precise), and begins to carry out horrible murders, justifying each act with his fanaticism. Hogg's mastery of writing and unique writing style will keep you enthralled and mystified for the entire tale. I will not tell you how the book ends, but it does not end happily.

I would most certainly recommend this to any person looking to read a relatively obscure Gothic novel that has elements of the supernatural. The entire book has an underlying theme of corrupted Christianity and showcases quite terrifyingly the horrible abilities of Robert's devilish companion, Gil-Martin. It was a controversial and incendiary book in it's own time, and today, still is.

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on March 23, 2015
Part Romantic novel, part anti-Calvinist screed, part horror story, and part Gothic spiraling of betrayal, murder, guilt, madness, and misery, the thing that amazed me most about this book — and there were many things — is I'd never heard of it before now. It may be one of the few books I read again, a reminder of what separates literature from popular fiction. Highly recommended.
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on April 7, 2014
The novel begins with an "editor's introduction" that tells of a Scots family in the early 18th century. A fun-loving laird unwisely takes a puritanical young bride. The couple never reconcile their differences and eventually separate, but not before the birth of two sons. The elder, George, is a fine and cheerful lad, the image of his doting father. The younger, Robert, bears his mother's dour temperament (and a close resemblance to her Calvinist minister). The two boys are raised separately, finally coming into contact as young men. Their meeting is followed by a series of tragic murders, disappearances, and mysterious phenomena.

After this framing narrative comes the body of the work, the "sinner's" memoir, which tells the story over again from the perspective of one of its characters.

Key to the work is the Calvinist idea of predestination, which holds that divine grace rather than good works is the key to salvation. The author, without delving into theological concepts, deplores the self-righteousness of those who deem themselves among the saved and think this gives them license to despise others.

The Confessions is a gothic novel in its use of mystery, suspense and the supernatural. It is quite gripping at times, and very entertaining. It's also quite refreshing to find an author of that era who, instead of deploring the dissolute lifestyle of the libertine, prefers it to the priggish arrogance of the self-righteous.
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on May 17, 2013
Oxford's edition does not disappoint. A well written introduction and minimal mediation of the text - which Hogg would surely have loved. If you are the casual reader, this classic text is an excellent novel.
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on November 17, 2014
Towering 'mystery' novel reveals how dangerous it is to mix Calvinism and Old Scratch.
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