Even the title is a weird conundrum. If a sinner is morally justified then how can he be judged to be a sinner? From the outset this novel challenges the reader to separate the real from the supposed and to accept the notion that facts are only ever a particular version of events as presented from a selected viewpoint. We might be hard pressed to find a novel more relevant to today’s climate of religious fanaticism than this psychological precursor to Jekyll and Hyde.
This is precisely why I love this gritty little novel so much – the intellectual battle that we are forced to suffer as we separate black from white, truth from lies and good from evil. The book is a challenge. Never has there been a novel written that more adeptly demonstrates the dilemma of writing and rewriting history. History is merely a process of revisionism whereby we select a version that we are most comfortable with. As the twisting tale drags the reader through permutations of events we are challenged to adopt moral standpoints – this was an outstanding intellectual achievement for the time.
The scene is set in 18th Century Scotland with the Laird of Dalcastle, George Colwan, marrying Rabina Orde. They have an unhappy marriage where the puritanical Rabina disapproves of her husband‘s drinking and socialising. Rabina gives birth to two boys; the first undoubtedly her husband’s progeny but an implication arises that the second is the offspring of the Calvinist Reverend Wringhim, who becomes the boy’s adoptive father. The couple separate and here lie the bare bones of scandal, moral judgement and supernatural exploration that permeate this extraordinary tale. The brothers live apart, meeting later with dire consequence and explosive energy.
George is raised by his Dad, the Laird of Dalcastle and develops into a popular and social young man. The second brother however, Robert Wringhim, has been raised as a somewhat radical Calvinist. Calvinists were a bit like the Fun Police or the Taleban of Scotland. They believed that everything was fine under God’s Law until Adam and Eve rubbed their little fig leaves together: that gave them the right to bring down misery on all and sundry. Robert tracks his brother though Edinburgh, with undefined evil intent, and is accompanied by a strange enigmatic character by the name of Gil Martin. Who is this character exactly? Is he real, the devil incarnate or merely a figment of Robert’s imagination? Now the magic truly begins as our responses to facts, as presented, begin and we are forced to morally interpret events. Weird things happen and I won’t spoil the reading experience as many reviewers do, by simply mistaking a book review for an expansive and exhaustive plot summary.
The choices are intricate from this point and can be succinctly listed;
- Gil-Martin is a real person and events can be rationally explained if only by the fact that one or more persons have lied.
- Gil Martin is a real being but with supernatural powers and this accounts for the inexplicable events in the story.
- Gil-Martin is a symbolic character. The story is a moral and religious allegory rather than a record of what is real.
- Gil-Martin is a figment of Robert’s deranged and diseased imagination.
- Several different combinations and permutations of the above – for example, that Gil-Martin is at once a real person, also a symbolic link and pointer to other characters and themes in the tale, and is in addition a distorted product of Robert’s fragile mind.
Now does that drive you barmy or what? In reading the book we are subconsciously forced to judge events and this is the novel’s quiet trick. Critics over the years historically arrived at varying perspectives. Douglas Gifford allowed for all four polar possibilities as listed above. His reading of events was a fully ambiguous one; that Gil-Martin is supernatural, real, imagined and symbolic all at the same time. Andre Gide, the French author who in the 1940’s finally brought this work to light as the masterpiece that it is, implies that Gil-Martin is ambiguously supernatural, symbolic and possibly a creation of Robert’s stressed mind. Therefore he is not an actual person. John Carey’s introduction to the Oxford Free Press edition of the work avoids any approach to a purely rational explanation. At the same time he leans to the strongly symbolic qualities of Gil-Martin as devil incarnate, rather than bare psychological evidence. The common factor that they all seem to cite is his symbolic nature. Indeed I could rationally assert that Gil-Martin was not real; that he was not supernatural; or that he was not the figment of somebody’s imagination. I cannot deny his symbolic qualities.
The function of this mysterious character’s ambiguity is clever. He serves to point to the other characters’ ambiguities. Nowhere is this more aptly demonstrated than when Robert, fleeing from himself as it were (you have to read it), is forced to wear Gil-Martin’s clothes. In fact this is a major theme of the novel, our inability to truly know ourselves. Robert is a prime culprit; in one scene he claims he is unarmed, yet his peasant protectors disclose a weapon concealed beneath his devil’s cloak. He deceives himself that he has attacked his brother in a fair fight, whereas in reality he let himself be persuaded of this view. He begins to conceive of himself as two persons, having no remembrance of half his actions and blaming his second self for his downfall.
The Reverend Wringhim also suffers from Robert’s religious miscalculations. He fails to recognise Gil-Martin for what he really is. Hogg displays ironic wit when the Reverend concludes that, since Gil-Martin shares his elitist views, then he must also be one of the “elect”. There is a suggestion that the Reverend is Robert’s father and is therefore a moral hypocrite.
Can you recount a modern day plot with so many delightful permutations? When did the English language novel lose all this psychological subtlety? The grey areas are simply beautiful. This work is positively ancient (first published in 1824) and yet puts many a modern day plot summary to shame. The novel was experimental for its time. Hogg seems to have fully comprehended the problematic nature of this. He realised that his psychological study would not be well received and therefore presented the work anonymously. The work is divided into three sections, each casting an interesting and somewhat revisionary light on events. The first part is a supposedly straightforward account from a local perspective; the next section is recounted by the highly strung Robert Wringhim; finally the last section concerns the unearthing of Wringhim’s remains by a group of writers. Cleverly Hogg somehow inserts himself into this section, perhaps in an effort to conceal his true identity as author of the piece. Writers can learn much from his twisted convolutions and false card shows.
In the end the book is almost a mental exercise. It is not important to resolve all the ambiguities. We are not meant to resolve the conflict but to savour the inconsistencies. The best we can do is to thrash about in the confusion, like Robert caught in his web as he searches for the light.