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Themes in The Canterville Ghost

‘Old World’ England vs. ‘New World’ America: Oscar Wilde’s novella is a parody of a traditional ghost story. The major motivating force of this parody is the difference between English and American culture. While the ghost of Sir Simon has been successfully scaring English aristocracy for years, he is unable to frighten the Otis family. Sir Simon expresses his frustration by declaring the Otis family “wretched modern Americans.” The Canterville Chase, along with its ghost, is associated with an antiquated, decaying Europe that is now being purchased by Americans. Far from being scared by Sir Simon, the American family see the ghost as a problem to be solved.

Art and Aesthetics: Oscar Wilde was a member of the Decadents, a group of artists and writers that prided themselves on ‘art for art’s sake.’ Both Sir Simon and Virginia are presented as artistic figures. While Sir Simon wants to perfect the art of his ghostly ‘performance,’ Virginia wants to paint bold and vivid sunsets.

Forgiveness: Virginia embodies the narrative’s theme of forgiveness. In order for Sir Simon to pass over into the “Garden of Death,” Virginia must pray for the atonement of his soul. Virginia accompanies Sir Simon into the otherworldly realm in order to ensure his safe passage into the afterlife. While the narrative is full of comedy, the tone of forgiveness and love creates a more serious message.

Themes Examples in The Canterville Ghost:

Chapter I.

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"I guess the old country is so overpopulated that they have not enough decent weather for everybody..."   (Chapter I.)

Another theme that Wilde explores in this short story is related to aesthetics and how the different characters relate to the ghost's "art" of Gothic horror. Mr. Otis fails to make the connection between the thunder and the haunted, Gothic mansion after his son cleans up the blood, preferring to provide a different explanation rather than appreciate or fear the aesthetics of the haunted mansion.

"That is all nonsense..."   (Chapter I.)

Mrs. Umney uses the blood stain to provide a classic setup for the ghost story. However, the pragmatic Washington immediately seeks to discredit the story by solving the "problem" with a modern convenience, reinforcing the culture clash between the Old World English and the Americans.

"Canterville Chase..."   (Chapter I.)

Wilde set "The Canterville Ghost'' in the English countryside in the late 19th century. To best highlight the conflicts present in his tale, Wilde has the story primarily take place in Canterville Chase, an old, large mansion described in Gothic terms. However, Wilde mixes the elements of horror with comedy, juxtaposing traditional English ghost stories with symbols of the modern United States.

"I reckon that if there were such a thing as a ghost in Europe..."   (Chapter I.)

One of the themes Wilde explores in this short tale is the culture clash between the English Old World and the American New World. Mr. Otis establishes this early by suggesting that ghosts are not real nor part of American sensibilities because they lack worth and therefore substance. This contrasts with the European view of worth, which is based on time and tradition.

"All his great achievements came back to him again..."   (Chapter II.)

Notice that in recalling his "great achievements" and relishing in his artful performances as a ghost, Sir Simon doesn't express any sympathy or remorse for his victims. In addition to killing his wife, Sir Simon is responsible for several other deaths as well. He apparently has not sought atonement or forgiveness since his death.

"I really must insist on your oiling those chains..."   (Chapter II.)

Similar to his son Washington's approach with the detergent, Mr. Otis also provides a chemical solution to the "problem" of the ghost. He fails to appreciate or recognize the ghost's efforts to scare him, highlighting the differences in how the ghost and the Otises value and understand aesthetics. For the ghost, rattling chains is part of the art of being a ghost, but for Mr. Otis, the rattling chains are problems meant to be solved.

"The subjects discussed..."   (Chapter II.)

Notice that the following lists of items discussed all represent the American family's stereotypical belief that all things American, from accents to actresses, are superior to their European counterparts. This not only highlights the contrast between American and European culture, but it also shows how the family has practically no interest in discussing the ghost.

"If it is indigestion, you will find it a most excellent remedy..."   (Chapter III.)

Mrs. Otis's offer of medicine for the ghost's laugh further emphasizes the lack of appreciation or recognition the family has for the ghost's aesthetics and the divide between their world views. In this instance, however, Mrs. Otis even fails to see the ghost as a dead thing, referring to him possibly having indigestion, a problem that only living being possess.

"material plane of existence..."   (Chapter IV.)

By "material plane of existence" Sir Simon means that the Americans have no appreciation for spiritual matters (and therefore aesthetics). Wilde possibly also used "material" here to also contrast how the Americans appreciate and value material goods but fail to appreciate "the symbolic value of sensuous phenomena."

"I am not afraid..."   (Chapter V.)

Virginia fearlessly resolves to help Sir Simon. Her actions serve as point of reconciliation between American and British values because Virginia has accepted the aesthetics of the ghost and combined them with her own American practicality and hope for a better future. Wilde uses her as a character open to the past and present, one who can atone for ancient sins and represent a optimistic future.

"Have you ever read the old prophecy on the library window?..."   (Chapter V.)

Virginia initially doesn't accept Sir Simon's version of events, but she eventually comes to pity him. While Wilde treats the other themes of culture class and aesthetics more comically in this story, this section marks a transition to his more serious theme of atonement and forgiveness.

"and could only do moonlight scenes..."   (Chapter V.)

This line reveals that Virginia, like Sir Simon, is an artist and more understanding of his understanding of aesthetics. Even as Sir Simon stole her paints, she continued her art, working with the materials she had available even if it compelled her to paint gloomy, depressing scenes.

"He had been very wicked, but he was really sorry for all that he had done..."   (Chapter VI.)

Wilde follows traditional ghost stories in this regard to examine the issues of atonement and forgiveness. While the story is mostly humorous, Wilde clearly conveys a message through Virginia. She says that Sir Simon showed her the significance of life and death, and why love is stronger than both. Her love allows Sir Simon to be forgiven, and in the end, Sir Simon de Canterville can rest in peace.

"would be completely out of place among those who have been brought up on the severe, and I believe immortal, principles of Republican..."   (Chapter VII.)

Mr. Otis's statement reinforces the culture clash between American and English values. Wilde satirically portrays Mr. Otis as someone who cares little for "such vain gauds and toys" and believes that they are something that should only belong to the British aristocracy. Further irony in this statement is found in Mr. Otis's declaration that he and his family believe in the "principles of Republican simplicity"; while professing to not need gaudy jewels, Mr. Otis lives in a massive mansion with servants.

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