Oscar Wilde wrote at the end of the Victorian period, named for Queen Victoria. This period marked the rise of a growing middle class in Great Britain. This middle class had gained wealth through the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, as well as a result of Britain's expanding empire. The values of this class stood in marked contrast to the values of an older aristocracy. Members of the aristocracy had traditionally depended on land for income and were used to inheriting wealth rather than earning it. The middle class idealized the importance of the family, thrift, and hard work. However, many working-class Victorians lived in poverty and squalor. Government commissions microscopically examined the living conditions of the poor in an attempt to improve everything from sewage systems to education. Mid-Victorian novelists used their art to bring attention to the social problems of the day.
Oscar Wilde was a follower of the Aesthetic— also known as the Decadent Movement—which had developed in France and had been introduced into England in the late 1800s. The Decadents believed that beauty should be valued above all else. Believing in ‘‘art for art's sake,’’ the Decadents shunned the social problem novels that flourished earlier in the Victorian period. As Oscar Wilde wrote in his famous preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray,"No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist...
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The story takes place in an old English castle, Canterville Chase, which has all the accoutrements of a traditional haunted castle. Descriptions of the wainscoting, the library paneled in black oak, and the armor in the hallway characterize the gothic setting and help Wilde clash the Old World with the New. Typical of the style of the English Decadents, the gothic atmosphere reveals the author's fascination with the macabre. Yet he mixes the macabre with comedy, juxtaposing devices from traditional English ghost stories such as creaking floorboards, clanking chains, and ancient prophecies with symbols of modern America. Wilde's gothic setting helps emphasize the contrast between cultures—setting modern Americans in what could arguably be a classic symbol of British history—and underscores the impropriety of the castle's mismatched residents, the Otises.
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"The Canterville Ghost'' is set in the English countryside in the late nineteenth century. Canterville Chase, where most of the story takes place, is described in Gothic terms. It is an old mansion with secret rooms and passageways, long corridors, carved gargoyles, stained glass windows, and oak paneling. Portraits of long-dead Canterville ancestors, ancient tapestries, and a suit of armor add to the medieval-like setting. Frequent thunder and lightning storms also contribute to the gloomy atmosphere. In short, Canterville Chase seems to fit the stereotype of a haunted house.
Oscar Wilde explores several stereotypes in the story. Canterville Chase boasts the comic book attributes of a haunted house and would be immediately recognized as such by its contemporary audience. Similarly Mr. Horace B. Otis, as an outspoken republican who rejects European ascendancy and believes in the power of the American dollar, represents another stereotype. He and his family discuss the superiority of all things American, from accents to actresses. The Otises also embrace scientific rationalism and believe in the solutions promised by ‘‘Pinkerton's Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent’’ and ‘‘Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator.’’
Young Virginia Otis is described as a Puritan believing in the simple differences between right and wrong. American forthrightness is contrasted to the decadence and...
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"The Canterville Ghost" is a study in contrasts. Wilde takes an American family, places them in a British setting, then, through a series of mishaps, pits one culture against the other. He creates stereotypical characters that represent both England and the United States, and he presents each of these characters as comical figures, satirizing both the unrefined tastes of Americans and the determination of the British to guard their traditions. Sir Simon is not a symbol of England, as perhaps Mrs. Umney is, but rather a paragon of British culture. In this sense, he stands in perfect contrast to the Otises. Sir Simon misunderstands the Otises just as they misunderstand him, and, by pitting them against each other, Wilde clearly wishes to emphasize the culture clash between England and the United States.
The story illustrates Wilde's tendency to reverse situations into their opposites as the Otises gain the upper hand and succeed in terrorizing the ghost rather than be terrorized by him. Wilde pairs this reversal of situations with a reversal of perspective. This ghost story is told not from the perspective of the castle occupants, as in traditional tales, but from the perspective of the ghost, Sir Simon. In this sense, Sir Simon could logically be labeled the "protagonist" in this story, as it is he who faces the challenge of overcoming adversity and bettering his "life."
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"The Canterville Ghost" is both a parody of the traditional ghost story and a satire of the American way of life. Wilde obviously intends to satirize American materialism, but he pokes fun at English traditional culture as well. Mrs. Umney, who faints at the sound of the thunder that follows Washington's removal of the bloodstain, is laughable, as are Mr. and Mrs. Otis with their lack of refinement and their reliance on practical solutions and common sense. Wilde satirizes both cultures when, after Lord Canterville warns him about the ghost, Mr. Otis replies, "But there is no such thing, sir, as a ghost, and I guess the laws of Nature are not going to be suspended for the British aristocracy."
Though Wilde tells a humorous tale, it appears that he also has a message, and he uses fifteen-year-old Virginia to convey it. Virginia says that the ghost helped her see the significance of life and death, and why love is stronger than both. This is certainly not the first time an author has used the traditional ghost story and the theme of life and death to examine the issue of forgiveness; ghosts, after all, presumably remain in this realm because, for some reason, they are unable to move on. Wilde's ghost, Sir Simon, "had been very wicked," Virginia tells her father after she returns to the castle. "But he was really sorry for all that he had done." God has forgiven him, Virginia tells her father, and because of that forgiveness, in the end, Sir Simon de...
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Compare and Contrast
1880s: Homosexuality is considered a moral outrage and perversion punishable by jail. Homosexual relationships are hidden from societal view.
1990s: Although homosexuality is more accepted, many states still have laws against homosexual acts. Many people consider the homosexual lifestyle as opposed to religious doctrine. Legislation to sanction gay marriages and gays in the military has failed. Many states have passed anti-discrimination laws in response to vicious hate crimes that target homosexuals.
1880s: Nineteenth-century Europe and America are enamored with such practices as phrenology, the belief that a person's character traits are apparent in the shape of his or her skull. Some Victorians also believed in Mesmerism, developed earlier in the century by Franz Anton Mesmer. He suggested the possibility of mind control through hypnosis.
1990s: The practice of alternative medicine is on the rise, as many people turn away from technological advances and the complicated health care system. Instead, they use massage techniques, yoga, acupuncture, and other techniques to address serious health issues.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Why do you suppose Virginia is the person Wilde chose to put Sir Simon to rest?
2. What is the meaning of the subtitle "A Hylo-Idealistic Romance?"
3. Who are the strongest characters in the story? What contribution does this choice make to the story's meaning?
4. How does Mrs. Otis represent the "ugly American?"
5. What do you suppose Wilde means by the sentence "In many respects, [Mrs. Otis] was quite English, and was an excellent example of the fact that we have really everything in common with America nowadays?"
6. What makes "The Canterville Ghost" a parody? What makes it a satire? What is the point Wilde wants to achieve through parody and satire?
7. Suppose a British family moved into a haunted house in the United States; what kind of house in the States might be suitable as a haunted house? How do you think the British would handle a haunting?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Contrast Sir Simon and Mr. Otis and the English way of life with the American way of life.
2. Discuss the benefits of having the unconventional point of view in the story be that of the ghost. What does Wilde accomplish by telling the story from Sir Simon's point of view?
3. Write a character analysis of Mrs. Otis.
4. Elaborate on the ways in which Wilde satirizes Americans.
5. Wilde employs a reversal of opposites in some of his short fiction as a literary device. Discuss how he uses this device in "The Canterville Ghost" and in one of the other stories published in the short story collection Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories.
6. Write a paper on the literary movement termed "Decadence." Discuss how "The Canterville Ghost" conforms to the movement's credo "Art for art's sake."
7. Look up the definition of parody, and discuss how "The Canterville Ghost" fits this definition.
8. Though "The Canterville Ghost" was well received, it was criticized because it "begins as a social satire, continues as a pure burlesque, and closes in an atmosphere of romantic sentiment." Discuss the change of tone that occurs during the course of the story, and elaborate on its effectiveness.
9. Research the history of British castles. What was life like during the time when the castles were built? Why do you suppose castles are often used as places where ghosts reside?...
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Topics for Further Study
Investigate the Society for Psychical Research, founded in 1882. You may want to consult the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research; the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research; The Founders of Psychical Research, by A. Gauld (1968); or Psychical Research: A Guide to its History, Principles and Practices, edited by I. Grattan-Guinness (1982). Who were the "ghostbusters'' of the Victorian era? How widespread was the belief in ghosts? Compare real life attitudes to ghosts to the attitudes held by the characters in "The Canterville Ghost.’’
Research the Aesthetic Movement, also known as the Decadent Movement. You may want to consult literary anthologies as well as the following books: Elizabeth Aslin's The Aesthetic Movement: Prelude to Art Nouveau (Frederick A. Praeger, 1969); Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890s: An Anthology of British Poetry and Prose (Vintage Books: 1966), edited by Karl Beckson; and The ‘‘Yellow Book’’: Quintessence of the Nineties (Anchor Books, 1964), edited by Stanley Weintraub. What were the goals of this movement? What did the artists and authors involved believe? How does ‘‘The Canterville Ghost'' fit into this movement?
The Otis family uses ‘‘Pinkerton's Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent’’ to remove the Ghost's blood stains, and offers "Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator'' and "Dr. Dobell’ s Tincture’’ for the ghost's...
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Oscar Wilde's short stories can be divided into periods. "The Canterville Ghost" was the first of his stories published, which appeared in a collection of short stories entitled Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories. In addition to the title story, other stories in this collection include "The Sphinx Without a Secret" and "The Model Millionaire."
Wilde's fairy tales may be of interest to anyone wishing to explore this author's fascination with the supernatural. These include "The Fisherman and His Soul," "The Young King and the Star-Child," "The Selfish Giant," "The Nightingale and the Rose," "The Devoted Friend," "The Remarkable Rocket," and "The Birthday of the Infanta."
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"The Canterville Ghost’’ was loosely adapted into a film by the same name in 1944. In this version, set in World War II, Charles Laughton plays a cowardly ghost who meets a cowardly descendent played by Robert Young. Directed by Jules Dassin, released by MGM, the film is available from MGM/United Artists Home Entertainment.
A 1991 production of ‘‘The Canterville Ghost’’ from "Wonderworks" features a ghost who must haunt an old manor house until he learns to conquer his fears. Produced by Helios Productions, the film is available through Public Media Video.
An animated version was produced in 1986 by Orkin-Flaum Productions.
NBC broadcast The Canterville Ghost, adapted for television by Bell System Family Theatre, in 1975.
Patrick Stewart stars as Sir Simon, and Neve Campbell as Virginia in the 1996 Hallmark production of The Canterville Ghost, directed by Syd Macartney.
The Saturday Evening Ghost was the title of a 1936 stage adaptation by Samuel French.
Darwin R. Payne wrote a 1963 stage version of ‘‘The Canterville Ghost.’’
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What Do I Read Next?
The Turn of the Screw, expatriate American writer Henry James's 1898 short novel, is a densely symbolic ghost story. A young governess tries to save her charges from the ghosts of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint. But do the ghosts exist only in her mind?
An earlier Henry James novel, The Portrait of a Lady (1881), tells the story of Isabel Archer, an independent American woman. Her adventures in Europe demonstrate the differences between American and European society. Isabel must navigate these differences at her own risk.
Oscar Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), examines in detail the moral problems of living a double life. The title character, despite his depravity, remains ever youthful while his portrait grotesquely ages and shows outward signs of Dorian's grave sins.
Northanger Abbey (1818) is English novelist Jane Austen's parody of the Gothic genre so popular in the early eighteenth century.
Praised by Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater's essay on William Morris's poetry, ‘‘Aesthetic Poetry’’ (1868), helped influence the Decadence movement of the late Victorian period.
James Walvin, a contemporary historian, presents a compelling overview of the Victorians in Victorian Values (1987). Walvin offers a view of nineteenth-century England that cuts through recent stereotypes of this era.
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For Further Reference
Belford, Barbara. Oscar Wilde: A Certain Genius. New York: Random House, 2000. A biography of Wilde that highlights his eccentricity and artistic genius as well as discusses his homosexuality in light of the political and culture environment of the times. Includes historical photographs and excerpts from his works.
Foldy, Michael S. The Trials of Oscar Wilde: Deviance, Morality and Late Victorian Society. Yale University Press, 1997. An analysis of Wilde's trial and the attempts to chastise him for sexual deviance. Offers a discussion of the social and moral issues of concern in England in the late 1800s.
Mason, Stuart. Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Movement. Haskell House Publisher, 1970. A discussion of Wilde's style and his involvement in the Decadent movement and its credo "Art for art's sake."
"Oscar Wilde." Dictionary of Literary Biography Online. Gale Group, 2001. Discusses Wilde's personal life, his career, and his writings and provides a list of sources for further study.
Raby, Peter, ed. Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde. Cambridge University Press, 1997. Places Wilde's work in its historical context and discusses his predominant themes and the personal viewpoints that influenced them. Includes an introductory essay by Merlin Holland, Wilde's grandson.
Sammells, Neil. Wilde Style: The Plays and Prose of Oscar Wilde. Studies in Eighteenth and Nineteenth...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Shewan, Rodney."Fiction as Ingratiation—First Attempts at a Social Pastoral: 'Lord Arthur Savile's Crime,"The Canterville Ghost,"LadyAlroy,"TheModel Millionaire,'’’ in his Oscar Wilde: Art and Egotism, Macmillan, 1977, pp. 32-5.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891. Reprint. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.
Ellmann, Richard. "Introduction," in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Other Writings, Bantam Books, 1982, pp. ix—xix.
Ellmann gives an overview of the themes found in Wilde's major works.
Raby, Peter. Oscar Wilde, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 1-11,54-6.
Raby offers a brief analysis of the significance of Wilde's life to his works, and explores the various influences on ‘‘The Canterville Ghost.’’
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