The Canterville Ghost Questions and Answers
by Oscar Wilde

The Canterville Ghost book cover
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Comment on the contrast between American and British culture in "The Canterville Ghost."

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Olen Bruce eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In "The Canterville Ghost," the Cantervilles, who are British lords, believe in the ghost that haunts their estate as part of their storied history. Lord Canterville tells the American Minister Hiram B. Otis, who buys the estate:

"The ghost has been seen by several living members of my family, as well as by the rector of the parish, the Rev. Augustus Dampier, who is a Fellow of King's College, Cambridge."

The ghost has a fine pedigree, as it has been seen by such well-respected people, and the Lord does not doubt its existence. In fact, Lord Canterville seems to delight in the legend of the ghost that accompanies his house.

Mr. Otis, on the other hand, is dubious about the ghost from the moment he buys the estate. Showing the American tendency toward the practical, he says that if ghosts really existed, there would be some ghosts in American museums. Mr. Otis makes it clear that Americans can buy anything in Britain that they want, so just as he is buying the British estate, Americans could have bought ghosts and brought them back to America if they had been interested in doing so. 

As an American, Otis and his family are practical and commonsensical and have little use for the legends about the ghost. For example, when they see a blood stain, they don't care about its storied history but instead apply stain remover. They attack problems using science or play tricks on the ghost and do not accept the past as predictive of the future (as the British characters do).

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Thomas Mccord eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The contrast between British and American culture is a central theme in "The Canterville Ghost" and is prevalent from the opening paragraph. In the conversation between Lord Canterville and Mr Otis, for instance, Wilde establishes this culture clash as the two men share their differing beliefs in the supernatural.

Once the Otis family take possession of the house, American beliefs and values are pitted against those of the British Canterville ghost. Relying on tradition and his historical reputation to scare the family, the Canterville ghost represents the world of the British aristocracy. In contrast, the Otis family are unmoved by the ghost's attempts to scare them and, in this way, they symbolise the rational and modern American family. We see this clearly through their repeated removal of the blood-stain in the library with Pinkerton's and the offer of Tammany Sun Rising Lubricator so that the ghost can oil his rattling chains.

Ultimately, Wilde favours neither the British nor American way of life in "The Canterville Ghost." Instead, he advocates the coming-together of these two cultures for mutual benefit. This is demonstrated through the partnering of the ghost and Virginia in Chapter Five when she helps the ghost to atone for his sins. In addition, Virginia's marriage to the Duke at the end of the story suggests that these opposing cultures can work together and, in doing so, create happiness and prosperity for everyone.

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