The Canterville Ghost | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Canterville Ghost | Themes


Cultural Differences

Oscar Wilde caricatures American and English culture in both broad and subtle ways throughout "The Canterville Ghost," drawing humor from a contrast between the two. This culture clash is most clearly depicted in the conversation about the ghost that opens the story, where Lord Canterville represents the English worldview and Mr. Otis speaks for America. Lord Canterville evokes history, tradition, and authority in asserting the ghost's existence, insisting that Sir Simon has been "well-known" since he first showed up in 1584. The many who have seen the specter according to the lord include "several living members" of the Canterville family and the local rector "who is a fellow of King's College, Cambridge." Otis condescendingly frames his retort in literal Americanism, reminding Lord Canterville that he comes from "a modern country," where it is known that there are no such things as ghosts and adding snarkily that "the laws of nature are not going to be suspended for the British aristocracy." He also makes an appeal (tongue-in-cheek on Wilde's part) to his home country's capitalist economics, arguing that the United States is so wealthy that, if ghosts existed, some American would have bought one by now and put it on display.

The American fetish for practicality is further satirized by the Otis's reliance on household products to solve their difficulties. Washington removes the bloodstain in the library with Pinkerton's Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent. Mr. Otis suggests that Sir Simon oil his noisy chains with Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator, and Mrs. Otis advises the ghost to take Dr. Dobell's tincture for what she believes is his indigestion. Two of these products—the stain remover and the lubricant—are given spoofy American-sounding brand names lifted from a U.S. detective agency and a notorious New York "political machine," respectively. A third product name references Dr. Horace Dobell, a famous English doctor of the time.

Cultural tension between England and the United States likewise largely shapes the ongoing conflict between the Canterville ghost and the Otis family. Sir Simon repeatedly bolsters his nerve by recounting highlights from his successful three-century career as a horrible apparition, name-dropping English aristocracy all along the way. And as he suffers defeat after defeat at the hands of boisterous American children and American grown-ups armed with household products, it is his very English variety of self-esteem, with its reverence for propriety and honor, that proves to be his weak spot.

As incompatible as the two nations' outlooks may seem, however, Wilde closes the story on a note of cultural reconciliation when Virginia Otis, now a young American woman, marries her English "curly-haired cavalier" Cecil, the Duke of Cheshire.

Nature of Sin, Death, and Redemption

In "The Canterville Ghost," Wilde presents death as both something to be feared and something to be desired. Sir Simon's murder of his wife, Lady Eleanore, and his own subsequent execution at the hands of her brothers are horrific deeds, springing from base motives (the first, selfishness; the second, revenge). Yet ironically, their outcome is to make Sir Simon a ghost—an unfortunate being whose punishment for his wickedness is to have death withheld from him. As an aside, the reader might note that the specific nature of Sir Simon's condition is somewhat vaguely presented. Although he complains to Virginia that he has not slept in 300 years, he spends most of his daytime hours reposing in a "comfortable lead coffin." A similar ambiguity extends to Wilde's depiction of the ghost's corporeal status, which permits him to walk through walls and escape through ductwork while at the same time leaving him subject to injury and illness, as well as fatigue.

Over the centuries, Sir Simon has compounded the weight of his guilt with at least one additional murder, choking a victim by shoving a playing card down his throat, and by causing several suicides. Not only has he performed many evil acts, but he also shows no remorse for any of them. When Virginia confronts him with Lady Eleanore's murder, he not only justifies the deed but plays victim, complaining that his wife's brothers were not being very nice when they starved him to death in retribution.

Despite all this, it takes only the prayers and tears of a "golden girl" to gain redemption for the ghost. This plot resolution suggests the Christian notion of grace or unearned divine forgiveness. Virginia states as much when the almond tree blossoms, declaring of Sir Simon that "God has forgiven him."

Empathy, Friendship, and Love

Empathy seems to be a value the Otis parents try to instill in their children, as when Mr. Otis admonishes the twins for throwing pillows at the ghost, calling it impolite "considering the length of time he has been in the house." The quality has taken root most strongly in daughter Virginia, who alone among the Otises refrains from harassing the ghost, even though she knows he has it coming. He has not only committed murder, after all; he has also stolen from her paint box, repeatedly. When she encounters him in the Tapestry Chamber, he is so obviously depressed that instead of fear or anger, she feels pity. While she is not about to let him off the hook for his misdeeds and takes umbrage at his snotty, defensive attitude, her gentle nature leads her to befriend and go off with him—despite the potential danger of being alone with a murderer. It is telling that she alone displays true grief at his funeral.

In making empathy one of Virginia's defining traits, Wilde presents it as a feature of her feminine, creative temperament. Sir Simon's pilfering of Virginia's paints for what is actually an art project of his own strikes a chord within the girl. The two are in a very real sense kindred spirits, despite the fact that she channels her creativity into painting while he puts his to effort into terrifying people. This identification with him leads her to keep her knowledge of his thievery to herself and, when the occasion arises, to help him find the eternal peace he longs for.

Virginia is also the most striking personification of love in "The Canterville Ghost." Her chaste, budding romance with Cecil, the young Duke of Cheshire, is noted early in the story and develops throughout amid the supernatural goings-on. It is also significant that Sir Simon successfully appeals for her aid by speaking of love. The story ends, in fact, on a note both romantic and cryptic, with Virginia and Cecil planning a future together even as she declines to tell him what the ghost taught her about "what Life is, and what Death signifies, and why Love is stronger than both."

Homosexuality and Disapproval

The careful reader of "The Canterville Ghost" might discern an identification on Wilde's part with the character of Sir Simon de Canterville, one that likely reflects Wilde's own homosexuality. The ghost is tucked away in a secret chamber, he comes out under cover of the night, and he employs different personae. In other words, the ghost remains masked. Fear of same-sex relations was deeply rooted in 1880s English society—being a homosexual male was seen as a failure of manhood at the most basic level and an outrage against what it meant to be English. Homosexuality was not openly spoken of, and homosexual males lived in constant fear of blackmail or worse. In the story, once the ghost's masks are lifted—the Otises are not as frightened of his antics as they should be—he must struggle with the notion that there is nothing more left for him. Wilde's homosexuality—which he kept hidden to the point of marrying and fathering two sons—would have given him insight into being just such an "outsider."

Apart from the social taboo, homosexuality was also illegal. A conviction for "gross indecency"—the euphemism of the time—frequently brought with it both prison time and hard labor, as indeed later came to be the case with Wilde. Oscar Wilde's 1895 "gross indecency" conviction was obtained under the Labouchere Amendment of England's Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885, which read:

Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures, or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and being convicted thereof, shall be liable at the discretion of the Court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour.

Wilde received two years of imprisonment and "hard labour." In other words, he was given the maximum sentence permissible. Although his fame guaranteed that news of his fate was widely publicized, the taboo against male homosexuality ensured that, as a general rule, the topic was rarely broached in Victorian society. (Conversely, lesbianism was at no point illegal in England. The reasons why are still debated by historians, but the anecdote claiming that it was because Queen Victoria believed that "women do not do such things" is almost certainly false.) Unlike other European nations during this period, even English medical journals avoided any public discussion of the phenomenon.

While it can certainly be argued that Sir Simon, unlike Wilde, has brought his troubles upon himself by murdering his wife and terrifying people for three centuries, the depiction of the harassment he endures—particularly at the hands of the twins, who at one point revel in their torment of Sir Simon by replying to a prohibition on practical jokes with "Except on the ghost! Except on the ghost!"—emits an emotional resonance. Much of the story's plot, in fact, centers on the ghost's persecution in reaction to his "otherness" until he is an emotional shell who loses interest in his own existence. Yet, despite his wickedness, a subtle plea emerges for empathy for him. And it is telling that Virginia's display of this empathy is what brings the ghost his final peace.

Wilde also imbues Sir Simon with characteristics that would by many today be regarded as hallmarks of a "gay sensibility" or at least the classic "artistic temperament." The ghost is fastidious and theatrical in the way he approaches his hauntings, taking great pride in the artistic nature of his work. The Otises' complete dismissal of his efforts—they cannot even do him the courtesy of being frightened until their daughter disappears, and even then, they suspect others—is an affront to his sensitive, creative nature and, by extension, his self-worth. If he is disparaged by everyone for being who he is, there is no point in even trying. Thus does Wilde, at the very least, subconsciously, elicit a comparison between Sir Simon and those for whom, as one Wilde commentator has said, "being gay in a homophobic society was like living an undead, shadowy, non-existence, like being a ghost!"

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