Hogg’s oft-neglected novel was first published in 1824 and quickly faded into obscurity, where it remained until the second half of the twentieth century. Justified Sinner details the life of Robert, likely an illegitimate child, rejected by his mother’s husband and raised by Reverend Wringham, a radical autonomian Calvinist. He is indoctrinated with the belief that he will attain heaven regardless of his earthly actions, and sets out on a bloody life, destroying those he considers unholy. He is egged on by a mysterious doppelgänger who goes by the name of Gil-Martin and whose influence eventually becomes too much to bear.
We are presented with two unreliable narratives – that of the editor who provides details he would not possibly know without being omnipresent, and Robert’s own confession, which paints his story in a rather more sympathetic light. He shows himself to feel regret at others taking the blame for his wrongdoing and his initial reluctance to commit murder. He is also accused of crimes he has no recollection of – whether this is a symptom of his fractured mind or simply Gil-Martin acting in his place is never clarified, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions. Despite his failings, it is difficult not to pity Robert as his world becomes increasingly claustrophobic, Gil-Martin an unwelcome present in his life.
Often cited as laying the foundations for popular tales such as The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, this is both an interesting dissection of one man’s psychology, and a satire of Calvinism and the effects of extremist beliefs. The confused state of Robert’s mind is reflected in the structure of the storytelling, making it a challenging read. What initially feels almost a comedy quickly turns much darker, and the refusal to give a solid answer to the many questions raised ensures continued intrigue. This feels like the kind of book that would benefit from a second reading, allowing time for the ideas to settle and develop.