What Do You Do When Petrarch’s Ghost is Haunting Your Gothic Novel?

In Avery Gordon’s article titled, “Ghostly Metters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination” they argue, “In haunting, organized forces and systematic structures that appear removed from us make their impact felt in everyday life.” Though there are literal ghosts in Great Expectations, there are also remnants of English poetics that haunt Dickens’ novel. 

The relationship between Pip and Estella very closely resembles the Petrarchan casting of Phillip Sidney’s characters in his sonnet sequence, Astrophil and Stella,“star-lover” and “star.” Sidney’s male narrator is infatuated with the lady beloved, praising her graces, and fixating particularly on her heart and eyes. Unfortunately, the beloved is cold, distant and unattainable. This same relationship exists between Pip and Estella, influenced by Miss Havisham. By her insistence, Pip focuses entirely on Estella, praising her beauty aloud to a completely unreceptive audience. Contemplating in silence, he is often completely convinced that they are destined. In his obsessive thoughts, Pip too is a Petrarchan solitary wanderer, “Of all [his] thoughts hath neither stop nor start / But only [Es]Stella’s eyes and [Es]Stella’s heart” (Sidney 350). 

In Great Expectations, there are many examples of Pip’s growing infatuation, but what is most interesting is that Estella herself informs Pip of her heart’s condition. She says, “‘You must know’…condescending to me as a brilliant and beautiful woman might, ‘that I have no heart – if that has anything to do with memory…I have no softness there” (Dickens 237). While Estella tries to inform Pip that her heart is unavailable, Pip is once again distracted by her beauty. His interjection, “brilliant and beautiful,” once again recalls the same praise present in Sidney’s lovers: Estella’s beauty shines brilliantly star-like at the center of his attention.  

The mention of memory and the heart is also interesting. Petrarch, who is the model for Sidney’s sonnets, is particularly concerned with the heart because during his age, scientific literature conflated the heart with the brain’s functions. If Estella is convinced that her heart holds no capacity for softness and memory, then she casts herself as the distant beloved. Pip, on the other hand, as the lover, does remember and remains obsessively warm towards her. In another of Sidney’s sonnets, his speaker ponders, “But she, most fair, most cold, made him therein take his flight / To my close heart, where while come firebrands he did lay, / He burnt unawares his wings, and cannot fly away” (Sidney 350). Despite the beloved’s rejection of love, he flies to the lover’s heart and memory to be kept safe.  

However, in love’s flight to the heart, he burns his wings on the lover’s infatuation with the beloved and is imprisoned. The same is true for Pip: his obsession with Estella despite her repeated rejections is dangerous to him emotionally but only makes his love stronger. Because injured love cannot leave Pip’s heart, he too, is untraditionally haunted. Dickens’ novel is concerned with types of literacy, so it is only appropriate that his Gothic fiction should be haunted by his literary predecessor’s legacy.