Serious Comedy? Finding Meaning in The Canterville Ghost
Many critics of Oscar Wilde's ‘‘The Canterville Ghost’’ find dark and profound meanings beneath what Philip K. Cohen calls in The Moral Vision of Oscar Wilde ‘‘the camouflage of hilarity.’’ Cohen argues that this seemingly light ghost story ‘‘faithfully renders Wilde's life during the mid 1880s,’’ a time when Wilde, by necessity was leading a double life. By 1886, he was involved in a homosexual relationship with Robert Ross and had also been married for two years. Both his marriage and the social mores of late Victorian England demanded that Wilde hide his affair.
In ‘‘The Canterville Ghost,’’ Cohen finds Wilde almost confessional, condemning the wearing of masks and the ‘‘radical discrepancy between the self—or, more accurately, selves—he paraded before the public ... and his private self.’’ Lydia Reinbeck Wilburn in ‘‘Oscar Wilde's 'The Canterville Ghost': The Power of an Audience,’’ reads the story as a reflection of Wilde's aesthetic vision, if not his moral vision. Wilburn sees Wilde grappling with questions about the function of audience. How important is the audience to an artist? How important should an audience be? Wilburn notes that Wilde addressed similar issues in his essays and criticism. However, in "The Canterville Ghost,'' she finds Wilde more receptive than he was in his critical works to the idea that an artist needs an appreciative audience to successfully perform. Though Wilburn and Cohen reach different conclusions in their studies, both fundamentally see "The Canterville Ghost'' as an essay on performance and mask-wearing, and both extract a serious interpretation from the work.
That "The Canterville Ghost'' is about masks and performance is easy to concede. The Ghost, Sir Simon, studies the art of haunting. He constantly prepares for his role as a ghost. The narrator shows him reflecting upon his past successes when first rebuffed by the Otis family: "With the enthusiastic egotism of the true artist he went over his most celebrated performances, and smiled bitterly to himself as he recalled to mind his last appearance as the 'Red Reuben, or the Strangled Babe,' his debut as 'Gaunt Gideon, the Blood-sucker of Bexley Moor,' and the furore he had excited one lovely June evening by merely playing ninepins with his own bones upon the lawn-tennis ground.’’
Sir Simon uses a theatrical vocabulary to describe his past roles. "Debut'' and "furore'' indicate both his performance and the audience for whom he plays. Actors debut new roles to audiences, and a furore is caused when a play is a smash hit. Even when not performing, the Ghost exhibits the stereotypical affectations of actors and dandies—men who gave exaggerated attention to their appearance. Sir Simon has created a dandyism for ghosts. This is not unlike Oscar Wilde who, adorned in velvet breeches and with a green carnation in his buttonhole presented himself as a brilliant dandy to London society. Similarly, the narrative emphasizes Sir Simon's attention to clothes: ‘‘He was simply but neatly clad in a long shroud, spotted with churchyard mould.'' Sir Simon pays as much attention to his gruesome attire as any dandy. Indeed, it can take the Ghost up to three hours to don an appropriate costume.
Despite the Ghost's dedication to his role, the American Otis family proves a most unreceptive audience. When the Ghost rattles his chains, Mr. Horace B. Otis suggests that Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator would stop the clanking. When the Ghost effects "his celebrated peal of demoniac laughter,'' Mrs. Otis offers Dr. Dobell's tincture as a cure for indigestion. Disgusted by the "gross materialism'' of the Otises, Sir Simon eventually abandons his art and holes himself up in a secret room. The Ghost views his failure to scare the Otises as tragedy, and Wilburn and Cohen use his failure as a jumping off point in their criticism.
However, the comic tone of the story belies any attempt to read pathos into the Ghost's...
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