Empiricism, the "philosophical doctrine which regards experience as the only source of knowledge" follows, "not from theory, but from close observation and experiment, emphasizing inductive rather than deductive processes of thought" (David Cody, "Empiricism")." The sickness-induced religious doubts of Bessy Higgins in North and South and the lack of belief in friendship of the Chancery prisoner in Pickwick Papers both explore the validity of the notion of empiricism.
In Cody's brief article on empiricism, he states that in literary criticism, "empiric" is a term usually used to describe an uninformed judgment, mostly because a purely experiential assessment does not take into account any broader theories. In accordance with these terms, Elizabeth Gaskell, by way of Bessy Higgins, denies empiricism. Charles Dickens, on the other hand, affirms empiric beliefs. To prove the validity of their respective opinions on empiricism, both authors rely on disinterested logic and its opposite — stark raving madness.
As Bessy approaches death, her beliefs in God are cast into doubt. She has had few, if any, positive experiences in her life, save for reading the Bible, rare happy times with her father, and visits by Margaret. In addition, her father is a staunch empiricist, as evinced by the passage:
I believe what I see, and no more...I don't believe all I hear — no not by a big deal...hoo's welcome, as long as hoo'll keep from preaching on what hoo know's nought about...when I see the world going all wrong at this time o' day, bothering itself with things it knows nought about, and leaving undone all the things that lie in disorder close at its hand — why, I say, leave a' this talk about religion alone, and set to work on what yo' see and know (133).
Under such conditions, Bessy's blind faith is sorely tried, and begins to break down, "I don't believe him a bit by day, yet by night — when I'm in a fever, half-asleep and half-awake — it comes back upon me..."
Yet even as Bessy's case against empiricism begins to break down, Gaskell's picks up steam. If this young invalid can hold a sweet disposition and a strong belief in God under such pressure, save for some faltering when she is under the most stress from her father and her illness, there must be something in that disposition and faith. When Bessy swoons, bemoaning her troubles over the course of a passage, or rather, a rant, which is really only one long, twelve-line sentence, it only reinforces the case that she could only possibly accept the non-existence of God and an afterlife while in a state of insanity.
Immediately after Bessy's delusional speech, all that is required to return her to her to her previous belief is the simple, sure, and decisive statement by Margaret that God exists in Heaven (145). The final cap on Gaskell's case is Bessy's quick response to Margaret, "I know it I know it (146)." There is no ambiguity in this final exchange Ð under severe illness and pressure from Nicholas, Bessy does not believe implicitly or suppose because of hearsay, but truly knows that God exists.
Dickens makes much shorter work of the question than does Gaskell. While in the Fleet, Mr. Pickwick rents a room from a Chancery prisoner who has lived in the stronghold for over twenty years. Out of his own good nature, and his innocent belief that a man's friends would come to visit, should that man be imprisoned, Pickwick offers his landlord the use of the room for the entertainment of such visitors. To this statement, and its concomitant supposition, the man replies:
Friends...If I lay dead at the bottom of the deepest mine in the world; tight screwed down and soldered in my coffin; rotting in the dark and filthy ditch that drags its slime along, beneath the foundations of this prison; I could not be more forgotten and unheeded than I am here. I am a dead man; dead to society, without the pity they bestow on those whose should have passed to judgment. Friends to see me My God I have sunk from the prime of life into old age, in this place, and there is not one to raise his hand above my bed when I lie dead upon it, and say, "It is a blessing he is gone" (685)
This statement, based solely on the extensive experience of the unfortunate man, flies in the face of the moral beliefs which Pickwick upheld previous to their meeting. Neither the guard, nor Pickwick, nor even Sam Weller can say anything that could contradict the prisoner's empirical testimony and give him back even an inkling of faith.
Last modified 1996