The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde

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Teaching Approaches

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. 

  • 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: 

  • 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...

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