The Canterville Ghost Themes
by Oscar Wilde

The Canterville Ghost book cover
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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.

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(Short Stories for Students)

Culture Clash

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...

(The entire section is 718 words.)