The Canterville Ghost Themes
The main themes in "The Canterville Ghost" are culture clash, aesthetics, and atonement and forgiveness.
- Culture clash: The differences between the traditional British upper class and modern Americans is comically highlighted through the unflappable Otis family's response to the ghost.
- Aesthetics: With the exception of Virginia, the Otis family is not sensitive to the aesthetic or artistic impulses of Sir Simon, and they remain unshaken by his attempts at creating a spooky atmosphere.
- Atonement and forgiveness: Virginia's American belief in starting fresh allows her to help Sir Simon atone for his crimes and move forward to find peace in the afterlife.
From the beginning of "The Canterville Ghost,'' Wilde compares the behavior of the American Otises with that of the British upper classes. Lord Canterville warns Mr. Horace B. Otis that the presence of a ghost has made Canterville Chase uninhabitable. Mr. Otis, however, remains a skeptic. If there were any ghosts in Europe, he reasons, Americans would have bought them along with all that is old and venerable in Europe. Europe is for sale, and Americans are buying, which is why the Otises can purchase Canterville Chase in the first place.
Even the Otises, who espouse American superiority, cannot deny the Ghost's existence after he appears to them in chains. But the Ghost, who has been scaring the wits out of the English aristocracy for three hundred years, cannot produce a scream from a single Otis. They counter his chains with lubricant, his bloodstains with Pinkerton's detergent, and his ghostly laugh with cough syrup. As Americans, they refuse to accept the dismal English weather, much less a noisy ghost.
In many ways, the Ghost represents all that is rotten and decaying in Europe. A murderer, he relishes choosing identities that will provoke particular horror in his victims. His many costume changes, from "The Headless Earl'' to "The Bloodsucker of Bexley Moor,’’ reveal his underlying shallowness. The Ghost plays a part, but there is no substance to him, or for that matter to the class he represents. Pitting the New World against the old, the Otises and their can-do attitude shake up tradition.
The Otises do not understand the aesthetics of the Ghost. Mr. Otis believes that bad English weather is due to overcrowding, that there is not enough good weather to go around. But he fails to make the connection between crashing thunder and lightening and a haunted, Gothic mansion. Likewise, when Mr. Otis offers Sir Simon (the Ghost) Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator to oil his chains, Mr. Otis fails to appreciate the ghostliness of clanking metal. Sir Simon's artistry, be it his laugh or his chains, is overlooked by the Otises, who see the Ghost's attributes as problems to be solved.
But Sir Simon is a careful artist who longs for an understanding audience. Virginia Otis, the fifteen-year old daughter of the Minister, is also an artist. However, she longs to paint sunsets, and, as the Ghost has stolen her bright colors to refurbish his bloodstain, she is compelled to paint gloomy midnight scenes. Thus she enters into the Ghost's aesthetics and eventually follows him (temporarily) into his world. Decadence lies behind the Ghost's artistry; he seeks no moral objective other than perfecting his art. Wilde, one of the English Decadents, believed in ‘‘art for art's sake,’’ much like Sir Simon.
Atonement and Forgiveness
While the Ghost's aesthetics and the culture clash between Americans and the British are treated comically in the story, the theme of atonement and forgiveness takes on a more serious tone. When Sir Simon first begins to speak with Virginia, he feels more victim than victimizer. After all, he has only murdered his wife, an ugly woman and a bad cook, while the Otis clan humiliates him at every turn. Virginia will not accept his version of events, but eventually pities him.
Sir Simon has not been able to sleep since his wife's brothers starved him to death three hundred years before. He seeks peace, but cannot find it on his own. Virginia must pray for him if he is ever truly to rest. By forgiving the Ghost, Virginia can fulfill the prophecy: "When a golden girl can win / Prayer from...
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out the lips of sin, / When the barren almond bears, / And a little child gives away its tears, / Then shall all the house be still / And Peace come to Canterville.'' Pure of heart and unafraid in her innocence, Virginia consents to help the Ghost.
In doing so, Virginia also reconciles American and British values. She has accepted the tradition of the Ghost and melds it with her American sense of hope for a better future. She is rewarded with a casket of valuable jewels and, eventually, marriage to the young Duke of Cheshire. In Virginia, Wilde creates a fairy-tale princess who, open to both past and present, can atone for ancient sins and represent a hopeful future.