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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How are the themes of love and death portrayed in "The Canterville Ghost"?

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In "The Canterville Ghost," love and death are intertwined themes. The ghost, Sir Simon, has been haunting for 300 years as punishment for a murder and longs for the peace of death. Virginia, a member of the American Otis family, shows him sympathy, leading Sir Simon to explain that love is stronger than death. Virginia's compassion allows her to intercede for him, enabling Sir Simon to finally rest. The story presents death as peaceful and restful, while love is depicted as a compassionate willingness to assist another.

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The themes of love and death are intertwined in "The Canterville Ghost." Beneath the surface comedy of role reversal, in which the American Otis family frightens the ghost and not vice versa, lurks a more poignant tale: Sir Simon, the ghost, wants very much to die and be at peace. He has been paying for his crime of murder for 300 years by haunting the earth rather than being allowed to go to his final rest. 

The ghost expresses his wishes to Virginia when she shows a sympathetic interest in him. He says to her:

Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one's head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forget life, to be at peace.

 He then explains how love and death are intertwined, saying to Virginia:

You can help me. You can open for me the portals of death's house, for love is always with you, and love is stronger than death is.

He tells her that since he cannot weep or pray, if she can find enough love in her heart to pray and weep for him, the angel of death will have mercy on him and let him die.

Virginia, pure, gentle and courageous, intercedes on behalf of the ghost, and he is able to die. 

At the end, sometime later, after she is married, she tells her husband, Cecil, the Duke of Cheshire that she owes the ghost, Sir Simon, a debt. 

 Poor Sir Simon! I owe him a great deal. Yes, don't laugh, Cecil, I really do. He made me see what Life is, and what Death signifies, and why Love is stronger than both.

We see death in this story described not as something frightening, but as a state of peace and rest. Love is connected to purity, and depicted as the compassionate willingness to help another.

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