illustration of a ghost standing behid an iron fence with its arm raised against a large mansion

The Canterville Ghost

by Oscar Wilde

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Student Question

In The Canterville Ghost, what is the main conflict?

Quick answer:

The main conflict in The Canterville Ghost is the conflict between Sir Simon, a ghost and the Otis family. The Otis family continually outsmarts Sir Simon and forces him to retreat.

Expert Answers

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In a story about a ghost, a reader might assume that the main antagonist is going to be the ghost.  That's how "The Canterville Ghost" begins too.  Sir Simon has been haunting the house for generations, and he has been successfully scaring away owner after owner.  That is until the Otis family moves in.  From that point forward, the Otis family is a larger antagonist than Sir Simon is.  The external conflict that exists between Sir Simon the ghost and the Otis family is the main conflict in the story.  Sir Simon continually comes up with new ideas to frighten and bother the Otis family with, but the Otis family repeatedly foils his attempts.  More often than not, the Otis family ends up pestering Sir Simon.  That is most obvious in the case of the twins.  The wreak havoc on Sir Simon, and he actually becomes afraid to reveal himself and continue haunting.  

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What is the conflict in The Canterville Ghost?

One of the basic conflicts in The Canterville Ghost is the collision between modernity and antiquity.  The ghost represents the remnants of the past. The manner in which Sir Simon would easily terrify the servants and other members of the traditional classes is part of the past that is upturned when the Americans move into The Chase.  The American embrace of modernity is where the fundamental conflict lies. The ghost cannot fathom ho little fear they possess.  For each "problem" or "obstacle" that the ghost places in front of the family, there is a modern solution.  Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator, Pinkerton's Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent, or  Dr. Dobell's tincture are the tools that the Americans propose to offset what the ghost places in front of them.  This clash of culture helps to underscore the basic conflict present throughout most of the text.

The youthful approach and complete certainty with which they live provides no room for fear of the ghost, something that becomes evident as Sir Simon speaks to Virginia.  From the collision between past and present, the conflict becomes a desire to transcend one's notion of identity.  The ghost wishes to find peace and the innocence of Virginia to help becomes set against the condition of the rest of the world that sees the ghost as malevolent.  The initial conflict of collision between modernity and antiquity is set aside for a conflict of the condition of what is in light of what can be. The desire for individuals to aspire to an ideal realm, even while being mired in the condition of the temporal becomes the conflict that drives the second half of the work until its conclusion. The ending in which Virginia understands the ghost and refuses to share with anyone what happened in her disappearance helps to provide resolution to this conflict.

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