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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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1608

Aestheticism vs. Science and Materialism as Theme: The philosophy of aestheticism is illustrated through the characterization of the Ghost, while the belief in science and the values of materialism are illustrated through Mr. and Mrs. Otis, especially through the character of Horace Otis. 

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  • For discussion: Point out that the Ghost lives to perform his art—that of terrifying whoever inhabits Canterville Chase at any given time. How has the Ghost worked to perfect his art over the centuries? What does he recall as having been some of his finer performances? How does he feel about them? 
  • For discussion: How does the Ghost feel when he realizes he is unable to terrorize the Otises? How does the realization affect his behavior? 
  • For discussion: Why do Mr. and Mrs. Otis initially reject the existence of ghosts? When they must acknowledge that a ghost is haunting Canterville Chase, how to they respond? How do they deal with the Ghost when he haunts them? 
  • For discussion: What do Mr. and Mrs. Otis value? How does Horace Otis especially demonstrate their values? 

Sin and Redemption as Theme: The theme of sin and redemption is developed through the relationship between the Ghost and Virginia Otis, and it is underscored by the motif of saint and sinner that is introduced in chapter 1. 

  • For discussion: Point out that the saint and sinner motif is established through the characters of the Ghost and Virginia Otis. How is Sir Simon Canterville cast as a sinner in chapter 1? How is the Ghost’s sinful nature subsequently emphasized through his thinking and behavior? 
  • For discussion: How is Virginia characterized in contrast to the Ghost? How does she demonstrate qualities associated with saintliness? 
  • For discussion: What must occur before the Ghost can rest in the Garden of Death? How does the Ghost find peace through forgiveness of his sins? 

The Ghost as a Dynamic Character: The themes of aestheticism and spiritual redemption are developed through the dynamic character of the Ghost. The Ghost changes significantly by the conclusion of the story. 

  • For discussion: Point out that with the arrival of the Otis family at Canterville Chase, the Ghost sets out with enthusiasm to practice his art in terrorizing them. How does his initial attempt to frighten Mr. Otis fail? How does the Ghost respond to his encounter with Mr. Otis? 
  • For discussion: What is the attitude of the Otis twins regarding the Ghost? How do they harass him? Which of their tricks is especially effective? 
  • For discussion: How do the Ghost’s continued failures in haunting the Otises change his behavior? How does he feel when he can no longer practice his art? What is his condition when Virginia meets him for the first time? What does he now seek, and how does he achieve it? 

Additional Discussion Questions: 

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  • Ask students to consider these questions related to themes in the story:
Which chapters primarily develop aestheticism vs. materialism as a theme? Which chapters primarily develop the theme of sin and redemption? 
How does the tone of the story change in chapter 5? How is the change of tone related to theme development? 
What are the words of the prophecy written on the library window? How do they relate to atonement and forgiveness? 
How might Virginia’s revelation to the duke at the end of the story be interpreted? 
  • How does Virginia serve as a foil for the Ghost? Which of her traits specifically emphasize opposite traits in the Ghost? What does the story suggest about their opposing character traits? 
  • How does Virginia’s character illustrate a balance between aestheticism and materialism? How does she demonstrate the sensibilities of an artist? How does she feel about the fine jewels given to her by the Ghost? 
  • How are Horace Otis, an American, and Lord Canterville, a member of the British aristocracy, both shown to be good men? What does this similarity between them suggest? 


Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

Wilde’s Diction Is Unfamiliar: Since Wilde uses the vocabulary of a highly educated 19th-century British writer, many words in the text may be unfamiliar to students. Learning the words that are new to them will help students understand his intent and recognize the humor in many passages. 

  • What to do: Before teaching the story, have students complete a vocabulary study of the more challenging words they will encounter in each chapter. Rather than giving students a list of vocabulary words, give them a handout with phrases from the text that contain the words, thus placing the words in context. Highlight or underline the vocabulary word in each phrase. 
  • What to do: If a vocabulary word has strong connotative meaning, discuss what the word implies and how the connotations enhance the meaning of the passage. 

Wilde’s Allusions are Unfamiliar: Before teaching the story, review the definition of an allusion. Explain that when readers recognize an unexplained reference in a passage of text, their understanding of what the writer is communicating is clarified and enhanced. 

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Latest answer posted February 27, 2016, 9:17 pm (UTC)

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  • What to do: Point out that many of Wilde’s allusions would be especially familiar to British readers because they reference historical persons in English history, historical places in Great Britain, and well-known English locales, while other allusions reference literature and American culture. 
  • What to do: As students read the story, have them list the allusions in each chapter that are unfamiliar to them. Explain the allusions, using Significant Allusions in the Teaching Guide for reference. 

The Structure of British Aristocracy is Unfamiliar: Although students most likely know that England was ruled for centuries by kings and queens and that the royal family is still very much a part of British society, they may be unfamiliar with the structure of British aristocracy in general and the inheritance of great ancestral estates. 

  • What to do: Before teaching the story, briefly explain the social class hierarchy in Britain’s aristocracy as it exists below the rank of royalty. 
  • What to do: Show students pictures of some great ancestral estates in Britain that have been handed down for centuries from one generation of a family to the next. 
  • What to do: Point out that some of the characters in the story are members of the aristocracy (Sir Simon Canterville, the current Lord Canterville, the Duke of Cheshire, and Virginia as the Duchess of Cheshire) and that Wilde alludes to others who have aristocratic titles. Also, point out that Canterville Chase is an ancestral estate dating back to the 1500s. 


Alternative Approaches to Teaching The Canterville Ghost

To have students consider the story from an alternative perspective, focus on the following in teaching the text: 

Focus on satire in Wilde’s depiction of American culture and British culture. Wilde humorously satirizes both cultures through the American Otis family and their interactions with the story’s British characters; the text also features witty commentary and observations about American attitudes and politics and the genteel manners and staid traditions of the British.

  • Horace Otis venerates the “republicanism” of America; he is not impressed by British titles, evident in his initial relationship with the young Duke of Cheshire. Lord Canterville finds Horace’s views puzzling and sometimes amusing, but ever polite, he does not challenge them. The story’s conclusion offers a final, gently satirical view of American culture when Horace happily walks Virginia down the aisle to marry her young duke and become the Duchess of Cheshire, soon to be received by the Queen: “there was not a prouder man in the whole length and breadth of England.” 

Focus on the story as a parody of gothic literature that developed as a literary genre in the 1800s. Many of the conventional elements of a gothic tale are present in the story: an ancestral haunted mansion with dark shadows, creaking floorboards, and a mysterious prophecy; a housekeeper dressed in black who holds special knowledge of the mansion and its frightening history; dark, stormy nights punctuated with lightning and thunder; blood, murder, and horrifying revenge; supernatural events that defy explanation. Wilde parodies the gothic genre, however, through the Ghost’s character and the Otises’ reactions to him; the Ghost is a frustrated and eventually demoralized aesthete who fails to terrify the Otis family and is instead terrorized by their mischievous little boys. 

Focus on fairy-tale conventions in the story. Wilde employs elements of a fairy tale to amplify the beautiful, mystical qualities of his story. Critics have likened Virginia to the princess in the Grimm brothers story, “The Frog Prince.” In the fairy tale, the protagonist, a princess, overcomes her aversion to frogs, kisses the titular frog in a leap of faith, and thus breaks a spell, transforming him into a prince. Similarly, Virginia overcomes her initial fear of the Ghost and takes his hand to be led into an unearthly, spiritual dimension where she saves his soul. Virginia is not a princess, but she is rewarded with a casket of valuable jewels and eventually becomes a duchess, entitled to wear a coronet. The fairy-tale conventions in The Canterville Ghost underscore the story’s more serious themes. 

Focus on Wilde’s writing style and shifts in tone. While much of the narrative features a conversational tone often punctuated by satirical comments and witty observations, numerous descriptive passages in chapters 5, 6, and 7 demonstrate the vivid imagery of romanticism; the beauty of nature, a core tenet of romanticism, is frequently highlighted in the passages. Of special note are Wilde’s descriptions of the Garden of Death, of finding the Ghost’s remains in the hidden chamber, and of the Ghost’s funeral when Sir Simon’s remains are laid to rest. The tone in these passages is solemn and reverent. 

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