The novel is often seen as a commentary on religious fanaticism. Set in Scotland during a period of strife regarding church and state, the antinomian strain of Calvinism is depicted as both an understandable development in light of its context but also as an excrescence, a perversion of the truth faith. Fanatics adhere to dogma in the most restrictive, zealous way, claiming that their own interpretation of scripture is the only valid one. This sets fanatics apart from modern society with its emphasis on sublimation of individual impulse in order to promote the collective good. Blanchard's critique of Robert and Gil-Martin is appropriate to reference here, as he notes that the views are extremist, dangerous, and against the spirit of Christianity. Fanatical beliefs, in fact, often lead their adherents to do things that the scriptures would actually forbid. Fanaticism is dangerous for the individual and for society.
The Unreliability of the Narrative
One of the most prevalent themes in the criticism of the novel is that of the unreliability and instability of the narrative. Indeed, even though we essentially have the same story told twice, we are left with more questions than answers at the end. We are in the position of the Editor, forced to say we do not understand the work before us. What happens to Robert is confusing. He tells the story in his own words but admits he cannot account for his actions. Gil-Martin is a mystery, his status as devil or delusion unresolved. The Editor may be the objective voice, but his account is problematic as well. He is relating mostly secondhand information and coming to conclusions about it. He has no way to know certain things, and cannot even provide a satisfactory conclusion to his account. Taken together, the story is still inconclusive and the reader must come to terms with the fact that both objective and subjective accounts have their limitations.
Doubling and Duplication
Hogg is a fan of doubling, of duplication, and of doppelgangers. First, the novel has essentially two narrators, the Editor and Robert; there are two stories for us to juggle. Gil-Martin is a "second self,” a doppelganger, and a shadow of Robert. George sees Robert's double in the haze on Arthur's Seat. There are multiple manifestations of George, of Drummond, and of Robert. The division of a whole into two separate parts undermines unity, closure, and truth. The multiples preclude the discovery of meaning, authenticity, or fulfillment in the text and its characters. Hogg seeks to destabilize the readers as he does his characters.
Relationships between Fathers and Sons
The relationships between fathers and sons in this novel are certainly fraught. Fathers and father figures are oftentimes indifferent (George and his father), or the relationship is characterized by an intense desire to please and to learn (Robert and Wringhim), or a lack of understanding and uncertainty (Robert's relationship with the ultimate Father, God). The sons are looking for guidance and to please, but fathers rarely provide that. In particular, Robert hates his natural father, admires and wants to emulate Wringhim, and agonizes over whether God will save him; later, he wonders whether God will forgive him. Robert becomes unmoored partly because he lacks a solid foundation with a father figure; his embrace of Gil-Martin is a way to fill that hole.
The Fallibility of the Senses
When Arabella and Bell set out to figure out the truth behind George's murder, Arabella remarks that they only have their senses to go by. Adam Gordon told George before he died that the apparition he claimed to see was misleading, and that the supernatural is not an answer for perceiving something strange. Despite these assurances that one's senses must be trusted, Hogg consistently undermines that. Gil-Martin's mutability, the horrible cries and fiendish creatures that beset Robert, the apparition of Arthur's Seat, and the reports of the devil are all allowed to exist without ever being adequately explained away. The things the characters hear and observe are misleading and are contradictory, even when there is both an objective and subjective account of the same event.
One of the great ambiguities in the text is whether or not Robert is mad or if he is being plagued by the devil. There is certainly evidence to suggest the former, especially as madness permeates the text in many capacities. Madness is present in the religious fanaticism of many characters, although they do not go to the same lengths as Robert does. Even a rational character like George starts to crack with the pressures of being hunted. Robert, though, may be actually mentally ill, as well as twisted by his upbringing. He may be imagining Gil-Martin and allowing him to serve as a proxy through which to carry out his deepest desires. His madness manifests itself in murder, in blackouts, in depression and despair, and in an antipathy toward human relations; it even eventually kills him. Of course, Hogg is not clear on whether or not Robert is actually mad, and thee are certainly bits of evidence to the contrary, but it is a valid theme. Madness and religion are revealed to go hand-in-hand.
One of the possible allegorical elements of the text is the idea that one is persecuted and haunted by one's sins. This is certainly visible in Robert, who is persecuted by Gil-Martin to an unbearable extent. He tries to break away first in terms of the impact Gil-Martin's counsel has on him, and then in a more physical way by actually fleeing his tormentor. He realizes he will never escape in the sublunary world, however, and commits suicide. Unfortunately, if Robert's suicide damns him and he goes to hell, he may very well encounter Gil-Martin as the devil or as a mental manifestation; this would mean that his persecution is eternal. For a time, Robert was also the persecutor in that he dogged the steps of George; and other characters, such as Rabina, Bell, and Arabella, watch, follow, haunt, plot, and condemn those around them.
Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.