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 is an unpardonable mannerism of style.'' In other words, Wilde thought that moral judgments devalued the artistry of paintings and literature. Most Decadents also deviated from the moral values of their time period, experimenting with sex and drugs. Critics have noted that in ‘‘The Canterville Ghost’’ Sir Simon exhibits Decadent sensibilities.
In ‘‘The Canterville Ghost,’’ Mr. Horace B. Otis declares that"the laws of Nature are not going to be suspended for the British aristocracy.’’ The nineteenth century saw many advances in science. Charles Darwin had presented his theory of evolution in The Origin of Species in 1859. The opening of the Natural History Museum in London in 1881 allowed for the greater spread of recent scientific knowledge. Advances were made in medicine, as vaccines were found for such diseases as rabies and anthrax. Scientists were better able to interpret the natural world as they discovered the size of atoms and the physical makeup of the sun. Also, in 1882, Viennese physician Joseph Breuer began using hypnosis to cure hysteria, marking the early beginnings of modern psychoanalysis.
Many nineteenth-century Europeans and Americans also sought answers in the more questionable sciences that flourished in their day. Phrenology, the belief that a person's character traits are apparent in the shape of his or her skull, is one example of a Victorian pseudo-science. Some Victorians also believed in Mesmerism, developed earlier in the century by Franz Anton Mesmer. He suggested the possibility of mind control through hypnosis. The Society for Psychical Research was established in 1882 to prove the existence of ghosts. Oscar Wilde refers to this society in ‘‘The Canterville Ghost.’’ Mrs. Otis, a rational American, announces her intention of joining the society. The Otises' inability to distinguish between science and pseudo-science parodies Victorian faith in science.
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...
(The entire section is 2,479 words.)