Discovering James Hogg

It should be a crime how little appreciated James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinnersis (1824) is in Gothic literature.

James Hogg’s novel is a unique take on the subject of the material and spiritual world, in that it offers the reader both perspectives through two rivaling narratives of a single event. The first, “The Editor’s Narrative,” gives a strictly materialistic view of the seemingly supernatural events and characters. Unlike the second narrative (titled “The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner”, and told from the point of view of the main character Robert Wringhim Cowan), the Editor’s suspiciously does not give much focus to Hogg’s devil-character, Gil-Martin. Instead, the few scenes in which Robert is shown conversing with the yet-unnamed character, any unnatural occurrence observed are immediately brushed off and rationalized by the secondary characters, “It is a fantasy of our disturbed imaginations, therefore let us compose ourselves till we investigate this matter farther.”[1] This serves to set a mood in this part of Hogg’s novel, where the prose recognizes the presence of something perplexing in the atmosphere, but is unable to acknowledge the extraordinary source behind it. This has the effect of suggesting to the reader that it makes no difference whether or not one chooses to believe that demonic forces are among us (and the Editor giving the first account appears not to), as our inability to perceive the supernatural has no binding effect on its ability to manipulate this world.

Although, the devil-character, Gil-Martin, is admittedly incomprehensible in his demeanor and appearance to the characters that observe him,[2] there is no indication in the narrative that he has any restrictions on his ability to freely interact with those around him; moreover it can be deduced that because he apparently transcends any physical form (this will become clearer in the second narrative), his existence is in no way shaped or bound by the material world. Thus, rather than being merely a religious concept, residing solely within the minds of convinced believers, Hogg’s devil is an agent operating entirely independent of our limited sensory and mental faculties.

The second narrative, structured as the personal memoir of Robert Wringhim Cowan as he unknowingly becomes an agent of Gil-Martin, gives a much more satisfying account of the devil, simply because Robert has no apprehensions about identifying his experiences with the spiritual realm. This is shown by his first encounter with Gil-Martin, whom he initially perceives to be his personal angel because of their uncanny resemblance[3]; this tendency of Robert to identify everything he encounters with his Christian faith serves as a major tool by which the devil comes to manipulate the young man’s actions. 

At one point, Gil-Martin himself explains the peculiarity of his changing facial features later to Robert, “If I contemplate a man’s features seriously, mine own gradually assume the very same appearance and character.”[4] The basic message Hogg is telling the reader here is that the devil has no true face of his own, meaning that at any given moment he could take the form of anyone, and essentially be everywhere. Attaining someone’s likeness also gives Gil-Martin the ability to know that person’s mind, possess his thoughts and secrets, implying that the metamorphosis is entirely emotion driven, and inaccessible to rationality.

Gil-Martin is completely aware that he is an anomaly to observers, and in devilish fashion toys and winks on occasion to suspicious laypeople as an affirmation to how, indeed, you are seeing me as a wholly unnatural part of this natural world, and try as you may, you are incapable of explaining me by any empirically logical standard. An example of this is shown in his coy salute to Mrs. Calvert and Mrs. Logan,[5] both of whom are completely ignorant of his true identity, but nevertheless sense something irregular about the faux-man. All of this points to the notion that Gil-Martin as an entity, is in no way dependent on anyone’s belief in his person for survival, because he knows that he exists independent of any mind’s perception of him; he is his own mind. 

He even occasionally gives hints to Robert as to his demonic identity, such as his explanation, “I have no parents save one, whom I do not acknowledge,”[6] an obvious reference to Lucifer’s fall from God’s grace. Here, Gil-Martin could simply be relying on the fact that even a person as spiritually inclined as Robert will not possess the ability to cope with the logical conclusion of his statement, and will instead rationalize it and then conform it with his already presupposed religious convictions. But it also reflects on his nonchalant attitude towards keeping his demonic character hidden. Certainly when it comes to Robert, Gil-Martin uses the young man’s strong Calvinist faith in predestination to corrupt his mind, and get him to surrender his free will, but at no point is it insinuated that the devil needs Robert to believe him to be a man in order to carry out his sinister plot (and at times Robert seems to question this very notion). If anything, it is Robert who thoroughly goes mad by surrendering his identity to this devious doppelganger that is gaining more and more control of his mental and physical recesses: “But the most singular instance of this wonderful man’s power over my mind was, that he had as complete influence over me by day as by night.”[7]

To James Hogg, the devil is a real agent operating in the material world. Although, Gil-Martin’s face is defined by the individual observer, his identity is clearly not. One can even argue that besides giving him a means to enter the thoughts of those whose features he adopts, Gil-Martin’s metamorphosis also acts as a way to disarm those he seeks to manipulate by letting them believe that they themselves are the dominant personality between the two (since, after all, he is adopting their face), blinding them to the reality that the devil is subduing their very person.

Hogg’s devil-character is implied to be everywhere, manipulating people at any given times, his presence has no bearing on whether or not his influence is recognized as demonic or not, the end result will ultimately still be the same (as can be seen by the unexplainable political fight stirred up in the Editor’s narrative, and the ease by which Robert can be rhetorically swayed to commit one sin after another; both examples credited directly or indirectly back to Gil-Martin as the causal source).

Standing as a precursor to later Gothic novels to follow in the same century, James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinners is certainly a dark genre read well worth looking into to get a feel for the earlier incarnation of the transition from Romantic to Gothic literature, and the various literary elements explored therein.

[1] Hogg, James.  The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, p. 110.

[2] Hogg, p. 107, and p. 109.

[3] Hogg, p. 133.

[4] Hogg, p. 137.

[5] Hogg, p. 108.

[6] Hogg, P. 141.

[7] Hogg, p. 144.

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