Set in early eighteenth-century Scotland, the novel recounts the corruption of a boy of strict Calvinist parentage by a mysterious stranger under whose influence he commits a series of murders. The stranger assures the boy that no sin can affect the salvation of an elect person. The reader, while recognizing the stranger as Satan, is prevented by the subtlety of the novel’s structure from finally deciding whether, for all his vividness and wit, he is more than a figment of the boy’s imagination.
I’ve been taking part in the 2016 Classics Challenge, hosted by Stacey of The Pretty Books. So far this year I’ve read:
This month, I reread James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.
I’m using the Classics Challenge to explore Gothic classics — read more about that here.
WHEN I discovered this classic
I first read Private Memoirs in uni for a Gothic Fiction module (my favourite module, unsurprisingly!). I hadn’t heard of it before then, and haven’t heard of it many times since — it’s not the most famous of classics.
WHY I chose to read it
I remembered really liking it the first time around, and that it had some interesting ideas about religion and good vs evil.
Private Memoirs is the fictional memoir of a young man who holds extreme Calvinist beliefs, thinking he’s predestined for heaven regardless of what he does in life. He thinks he’s better than almost everyone else and can do no wrong, so he’s pretty obnoxious to begin with. The story kicks off when he meets an odd character, who the reader guesses is Satan (though it’s also hinted that he could just be a fragment of the main character’s mind). This new ‘friend’ plays on his religious beliefs to lead him further and further down the route of evil and murder.
WHAT makes it a classic?
Private Memoirs has an interesting structure, with an editor’s narrative framing the actual memoir. It’s a cleverly written story. As a Gothic text, it’s got all the psychological ‘is the evil real or in his mind?’ twists and turns you’d expect.
But what makes Private Memoirs a classic for me is the strong message that religious and self-righteous beliefs, when taken to extremes, can form the basis of some of the most evil deeds. It’s a message that’s unfortunately still relevant to the world today.
WHAT I thought of this classic
I was surprised by how much I’d forgotten of the story, so it was worth the re-read. I can’t see myself reading it for a third time in future, but I’d recommend it to first-time readers.
WILL it stay a classic?
I think so.
WHO I’d recommend it to
Private Memoirs isn’t a Gothic scare-fest, but it will definitely make you think, so if that sounds like your kind of thing, give it a go!
For August’s classic, I’ll be rereading Wuthering Heights. I might make it September’s classic too, as I have a lot of other books I want to read, but we’ll see!
Have you read The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner? What did you think?