Sense, conscience, and soul : the hybrid epistemology of natural science and Unitarian faith in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Cameron L. Ratliff (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Anne Wallace

Abstract: Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton presents a tangle of social and relational issues whose persistence suggest epistemological underpinnings that, according to the text, should be considered in her contemporary society because of their implication for the efficacy of the social reform with which the novel is associated. An examination of the novel in the light of John F. W. Herschel’s scientific philosophy and of Unitarian thinkers Francis Newman and James Martineau’s theologies reveals that the problem for individuals of achieving clear, unbiased insight is at the heart of the issues with which the novel grapples. The field which these theorists each, for their own purposes, call natural history – with its emphasis on accurate sense observation and analysis – provides processes for understanding the natural world which can also be applied to human society. But humans’ search for knowledge is often taken off course by errors in judgment which scientific thinking based on external observation cannot correct by itself. In Mary Barton, individuals too often fail to reason correctly from empirical observation; only characters who manage to integrate their thinking with processes of conscience and faith are able to navigate away from tragic outcomes. Placing Mary Barton, the first of Gaskell’s realist novels, in juxtaposition with one of her later Gothic tales, “Lois the Witch,” yields further ground for considering Gaskell’s fiction from this perspective. Gaskell’s fiction, I argue, thus promotes an epistemology that unifies the sense-perceptible discovery valued by natural history with another knowledge process—an understanding developed through faith into a kind of loving-knowing that relies on a reciprocity of the physical senses and other, non-physical “organs” of conscience and soul.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2021
Epistemology, Gaskell, Elizabeth, Mary Barton, Natural Science, Social Reform, Unitarian
Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn, $d 1810-1865. $t Mary Barton
Knowledge, Theory of
Natural history
Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn, $d 1810-1865. $t Lois the witch

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