Friday, December 13, 2002

now i am done with this semester

woo-hoo! now i am going to go turn in this miriam wallace paper. and am kind of done with the semester, except that john moore is the nicest man ever and is giving me an incomplete in greek so i can retake the final and not fail the course (and my contract).

Genre Hybridity and Narrative (Un)Reliablity in James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

In Hogg’s Confessions, the actual confession of the eponymous hero, Robert Wringhim, is bookended by two sections of what purports to be an Editor’s narrative, essentially allowing for two tellings of the same story. One of them is an “Editor’s narrative,” this one is told first and dramatically colors the reading of the succeeding narrative, that of Wringhim’s confession. What this then causes is a questioning of narrative reliability, of which story is closer to the truth, if either of them, and what this says about the nature of a text in general. Through the contradictions between the historical narrative of the Editor and the personal one of Robert, the reader is privy to witnessing what biases the storyteller possesses that might otherwise not be so obvious. But in contrasting Robert’s narrative with that of the editor’s and vice versa, the whole nature of what a story means and why it is told is called into question. The two narratives are not only distinct with respect to their details, but they are also, and even more importantly, distinct in the style that each is written. The Editor’s Narrative is a history written under the guise of objectivity; written with “the editor” presuming that his story is closer to the truth than that of the Confession, which is more autobiographical and more concerned with the personal and the psychological to such an extent that it becomes emblematic of the Gothic genre.

Confessions sets itself up as duel between these two narrative genres, between which is more truthful, and then as this paper shows, it resolves this duel not by declaring one genre superior to the other or by deeming one more truthful, but instead declares that both are the losers, and because of this, they are both also the winners. The novel destabilizes the meaning of the narrative in its broadest sense. It does not identify one type of narrative that is unreliable, but instead says that both are, that in fact, all forms of narrative are unreliable, but that this is not a bad thing. And here’s where both come out winners in this duel: Both are necessary to get at a more reliable accounting - that this is the nature of the novel. Through a presence of many voices, of many truths, it is easier to arrive at what the truth is. Here is Bakhtin’s heteroglossia literalized with the explicitly dialogic juxtaposition of narrative voices seen in the positioning of the Editor’s narrative and Robert’s confession. And as this paper shows, the necessity of multiple forms of narrative within a text demands a more active role of the reader, since the reader must sort out what is reliable and what is not, and the reader must then construct their own interpretation. There is no such thing as “Just the facts, Joe.” Every fact in Hogg’s novel is a subjective account, up for contestation, and this is the point being made, by him and by this paper – that the “historical” account of the Editor’s narrative is just as subjective and self-interested as that of Robert’s confession.

From the get-go, right in the very first line of the novel, we learn from what angle the Editor’s Narrative is coming from and where the editor’s biases lay:

It appears from tradition, as well as some parish registers that the lands of Dalcastle were possessed by a family of the name of Colwan ... and this being all I can gather of the family from history, to tradition I must appeal for the remainder of the motley adventures of that house. But of the matter furnished by the latter of these powerful monitors, I have no reason to complain: It has been handed down to the world in unlimited abundance; and I am certain, that in recording the hideous events which follow, I am only relating to the greater part of the inhabitants of four counties of Scotland, matters of which they were perfectly well informed. (49)

The editor’s biases lay in the parish registers, in the belief that historical accounts are reliable ones. There is a failure to recognize that these are biases. Instead, these historical accounts, even those of tradition, “the latter of these powerful monitors” are looked upon as reliable. These are not “stories” or “rumors” of “which they were perfectly well informed,” rather these are “matters of which they were perfectly well informed.” Matter has the connotation of something that is definite, an event that has occurred. And these matters, which the editor relates in his narrative, are used to put the succeeding Confession in context for the reader.

Beginning the Editor’s Narrative with an accounting of the history of the Dalcastle estate firmly establishes this narrative in the tradition of historical accounts, where it is not the individual that matters so much as their role in the flow of history. The Dalcastle estate is arguably the subject of this section. The Editor’s Narrative focuses on whoever is the current occupant of Dalcastle. Dalcastle, which serves the same role as the State in historical accounts, is either the site of action where events occur or it is the object whose fate is at risk in a scene. For example, scenes where George Colwan’s life is put at risk occur away from the Dalcastle estate, but their outcome will determine the future of Dalcastle.

For the most part, the Editor’s Narrative is written in the 3rd person. There are of course, plenty of instances in which the editor makes his presence known to the reader, particularly at the end and the beginning of the Editor’s narrative with sentences written in the 1st person. However, the general tone of this narrative is that of a historical accounting written in an omniscient 3rd person. The focus of the narrative is not on the interior thoughts of individuals, but is a more superficial description of social relations that allows for the group to take on an importance not seen in the Confession where heightened individualism is the dominant focus. The scenes were George is with his comrades exhibit this distinction clearly, where the group is portrayed as an entity.

The day arrived—the party of young noblemen and gentlemen met, and were as happy and jovial as men could be. George was never seen so brilliant, or so full of spirits; and exulting to see so many gallant young chiefs and gentlemen about him, who all gloried in the same principles of loyalty. (86)

The focus on group dynamics in the Editor’s narrative is a distinction that marks this imitative historical account from the personal Gothic tale that follows. This focus on the collective action involved in history also exhibits itself explicitly in the riot scene on High Street (70-71). In that scene, a riot erupts after the brouhaha that occurs between Robert and George spills out of control. The personal is conflated with the historical here, which is one of the distinguishing features of historical fiction, such as Scott’s Waverley. Here too, we have a bumbling hero (George Colwan) stumbling into a historical setting, and erupting latent tensions between competing Scottish political groups.

Another aspect that marks this section as historical fiction are the courtroom scenes, and the long sections of what are supposedly dialogue from the judiciary records. The editor, continuing his usage of “tradition” and “history,” uses these courtroom scenes as further historical evidence of his tale. Mrs. Logan (and the reader) sit and listen to long testimony on the stand. The public record of the transcriptions of these courtroom scenes becomes narrative here. The public and the personal are thus collapsed even more, with the personal narrative literarily becoming through its transcription, a public narrative and an historical one. The public domain of the courtroom establishes it as a space where these issues of historicity can play themselves out. It is the domain of the State that the court embodies, and it is for this reason that court dialogue is featured so prominently in this section, the Editor’s Narrative, which is supposed to be emblematic of the historical fiction genre. The sources that the editor draw his information from are never considered suspect, rather the editor takes them as reliable and presents them as so. At the end of his first narrative, the editor concludes by saying, “and this is all with which history, justiciary records, and tradition, furnish me relating to these matters,” (116). The editor very subtly acknowledges here that his narrative is confined by limitations and that with having recounted these three sources already, he has reached the limit of how far his historical narrative can go. And it is at this point, that the reader receives the personal narrative, the Confession of Robert Wringhim to account for the lacunae in the Editor’s narrative, that both are necessary to understand what really occurred, or to at least to come to a better understanding.

It is in contrast with Robert’s confession that most of these differences are witnessed. The blatant subjectivity of Robert’s autobiography allows for the reader to call into question the “objectivity” of the Editor’s Narrative; allows for the reader to call into question the very notion that there can be such a thing as an “objective” narrative. Through Robert’s narrative, the reader is privileged to see many of the biases of not only the Editor’s narrative, but of historical accounts in general.

Robert’s confession is continually written in the 1st person, and is concerned with the interior thoughts of Robert and his spiritual crises. Robert’s confession is the found text that the Editor’s Narrative tries to put in perspective, but the result is that by the time the reader starts the actual Confession, the reader is already under the impression that George is possibly insane, and so a reading of his text is invariably colored by the preceding one that describes him in such non-flattering terms that make him sound psychotic.

From the beginning of his narrative, Robert is already deemed suspect – the reader has already been told that Robert is the probable killer of his brother, George. And with his Confession, with each thing he says, the reader’s suspicions are confirmed in a way that they probably would not have been, had these suspicions not been created in the Editor’s Narrative. The narrative of the editor casts suspicion on the reliability of Robert’s narrative, thus allowing for the entrance of meta-narrative concerns within this novel.

The nature of the psychological novel is called into question by the historical narrative that the reader is first given. The power that a Gothic novel may have had seems tempered by the Editor’s Narrative, with its historicism mediating the intent of the Confession. The genres dominating this novel represent not only a split between methods of narrative, over what details are important – but also at the root of all of this are dueling masculinities. The two narrative genres competing in the confines of this novel are also emblematic of two dueling masculinities. Both the narratives and masculinities are essentially fighting over what details are important. The version of masculinity that we get in the Editor’s Narrative establishes George Colwan as the masculine ideal, he is “one of the roughs,” possessing a Whitmanic love of nature and interest in the fraternity of males.

Historical fiction in this novel is the embodiment of the masculine ideal with a hero that is not self-obsessed, but instead sees the utility of group action. Whereas in the Confessions, which represent the Gothic genre with its doppelgangers and paranoid narrative pace, the reader is presented with someone that is too concerned over things, concerned to the point of paranoia and fanaticism. If the historical novel is to serve as the model of masculinity, than the gothic novel is the warning of how not to model one’s masculinity. The gothic narrative is essentially emasculated in this novel by the editor with his brusque descriptions of the differences between George and Robert, essentially the difference between historical fiction and gothic fiction.

[Robert] was an acute boy, an excellent learner, had ardent and ungovernable passions, and withal, a sternness of demeanour from which other boys shrunk … and was fond of writing essays on controverted points of theology … George was much behind him in scholastic acquirements, but greatly his superior in physical prowess, form, feature, and all that constitutes gentility in deportment and appearance. (62)

George, the historical novel, is actively living what the novel clearly sees as a positive life, especially in contrast to Robert’s. The historical novel is involved in physical activities, plays tennis and cricket with a buoyant spirit, while the gothic novel looks jealously on from the sidelines with a bloody nose.

The placement of the two narratives within the same novel invites this type of questioning and comparison between the two genres. And this type of analysis is all the more called for with the entrance of Gil-Martin into the text, whose use of language is comparable to that of a storyteller. Perhaps storytelling is the devil’s art here. Narrative reliability is thoroughly destabilized by this novel with each narrative having its own distinct methods and biases, and then we have the entrance of Gil-Martin into the equation, who with language convinces Robert what to do. Gil-Martin is capable with mere words of persuading Robert to kill his brother, George.

“I will not reason with you on this head, mighty potentate,” said I, “for whenever I do so it is but to be put down. I shall only express my determination, not to take vengeance out of the Lord’s hand in this instance. It availeth not ... Let them perish in their sins; for they shall not be meddled with by me.”
“How preposterously you talk, my dear friend!” said he. “These people are your greatest enemies...”
... I did consider it... till at length I began to have a longing to kill my brother, in particular. Should any man ever read this scroll, he will wonder at this confession and deem it savage and unnatural. So it appeared to me at first, but a constant thinking of an event changes every one of its features. (152-3)

Just from listening to Gil-Martin’s narrative is Robert convinced to commit fratricide. Language is a powerful force in this novel. The techniques of Gil-Martin are not very different from those employed by the other narrators in this novel. The Editor and Robert Wringhim are not all that distinct from the devil, and that is the point Hogg is trying to make: that narratives should not be passively accepted and trusted to be reliable. Rather that they can be dangerous things if not read properly, and this is a call for a more active, conscious reading. Readers must distinguish their reading of this text from that of Robert’s reading of Gil-Martin, otherwise we have seen the result of what happened to Robert. Language is not necessarily a good thing. It can be, and often is deceptive in this novel. The hybridization of genres within this novel, combining the historical with the gothic with the autobiographical makes this deceptiveness even more apparent, with each of these genres having their own subjective biases that they subject the reader to.

Works Cited
Hogg, James. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Ontario: Broadview Press Ltd., 2001.

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