The Canterville Ghost | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Canterville Ghost | Symbols


Thunder and Lightning

At a couple of points in "The Canterville Ghost," Oscar Wilde uses the hackneyed gothic convention of thunder and/or lightning as a symbol of supernatural activity. Its first use is no doubt intended in good fun, as an ominously spooky reaction by the ghost to Washington Otis's removal of the bloodstain on the library floor in Chapter 1. The second instance—of thunder alone—in Chapter 6 is more benign, a sort of "goodbye" from Sir Simon as Virginia reappears after having helped him move on to the hereafter.

The Bloodstain

The bloodstain on the library floor first shows up in Chapter 1 of "The Canterville Ghost" when the Otis family moves in and is served tea by Mrs. Umney, the housekeeper. The bloodstain serves as a bit of foreshadowing for the supernatural events to come, particularly when Sir Simon replaces it every time Washington Otis cleans it up.

Apart from that, the spot symbolizes the ongoing conflict between the Otises and the ghost who haunts their new home, as Sir Simon's eventual abandonment of its maintenance signals he is losing that conflict. The stain also comes to represent a bond—though in the beginning an unpleasant one—between Sir Simon and Virginia Otis when the ghost takes to stealing from Virginia's paint box to replace the spot.

An even deeper meaning of the bloodstain involves the notion of the permanence of events. When a spill occurs and stains a surface, no matter how hard an individual tries, that mark cannot be removed. The bloodstain on the sitting room carpet suggests the permanence of the aristocracy and its resistance to its declining power. The constant rubbing out of the stain, by an American aptly named Washington after the first U.S. president George Washington, the "Father of His Country," signifies the historic resistance to British rule by the American colonists and the continuing loss of British tradition to American vulgarity.

The Almond Tree

The almond tree next to the Canterville manor is explicitly identified as a symbol in "The Canterville Ghost." It is first mentioned in the prophecy Virginia recites in Chapter 5. The tree is barren, symbolizing the fact that Canterville Chase is under the sway of Sir Simon. In Chapter 6, after the ghost has gone to his eternal rest, the tree blooms in fulfillment of the prophecy. Its blossoms are spread on Sir Simon's lead coffin during his funeral in Chapter 7, symbolizing his final redemption as his remains are laid to rest.

The existence of an almond tree on Canterville Chase is at most exotic because the tree is native to the Mediterranean where climates are warm and dry and conducive to its growth. So for the almond tree to be barren is really not surprising—the tree can be cultivated anywhere in the world as a potted plant kept under the right conditions. What is surprising, and almost magical, is the fact that it has the potential to suddenly blossom if the prophecy is fulfilled. The mere idea of this suggests that the prophecy is harder to achieve than it looks, and perhaps that is why over the past 300 years there hasn't been a "golden girl" who has tried to fulfill the prophecy. Virginia, finally being the "golden girl" to pray for Sir Simon's release to eternal rest, causes the almond tree to instantly blossom in the moonlight, serving as a symbol of new beginnings—likely more joyful ones—at Canterville Chase.

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