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The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde is a hilarious and playful look at the spirit world. It takes place in an 1800 British Castle, known as Canterville Chase. Residents in the area think a ghost haunts the castle. The story has an unexpected ending as Mr. Simon’s ghost eventually befriends Virginia, the daughter of the owners of Canterville Chase.
An American minister and his family live at the castle. These people especially the father, Mr. Otis, do not believe in ghosts. The twins play all kinds of funny pranks on the ghost, Mr. Simon, humiliating him to the extent that he almost had a nervous breakdown. One of the main settings is a room where Mr. Simon, as a human, killed his wife because she was plain-looking and lacked culinary skills. On this spot, he leaves a pool of blood that reappears every day, despite being removed with stain remover by Washington. Readers later learn, this is with paint stolen from Virginia.
The ghost calls the family’s tricks – insults. The belittlement began with Mr. Otis offering oil to the ghost to put on his chains. The twins throw pillows at the ghost when he wakes them in the middle of the night and block any of the scary tactics that the he thinks up. They even go so far as to construct a fake ghost which scares Mr. Simon and sends him to his room for a week.
Virginia is very important to the story at the end. At the beginning of the story, she appears to be the only one in the house who is slightly bothered by the ghost’s presence. On feeling pity for the ghost due to the shame he has suffered at the hands of the twins, Virginia expresses sympathy for him. The ghost befriends Virginia and confesses that he has stolen her paints. He also admits to be lonely and unhappy, and waiting for the sweet release of death. A prophecy hanging in the window of the castle talks of a child who can be the only one to make the angel of death have mercy on his soul.
Mr. Simon asks Virginia to be the child that performs this service for him. She must go to the Garden of Death while opposing forces try to prevent her from entering the dark cavern where she would pray for his soul. Virginia agrees to pray for the ghost. She spends most of the afternoon and evening with him alone. When she fails to come to dinner at six o’clock, her family becomes very distressed and begins looking for her.
They search all night but do not find her. Virginia returns to the castle the following morning and delivers a box of jewels that the ghost has given her out of gratitude. She leads the family to the dark cavern where they find his skeleton, and have a funeral for him later on. Her father tries to give the jewels to Lord Canterville, the previous owner of the castle but he refuses to take the box, saying that when he bought the castle everything including what the ghost owned belonged to him.
Years later when Virginia married her childhood beau – the Duke, he asks her about the time spent in the company of the ghost. She tells him that the ghost taught her that Love is stronger than Life or Death.
Themes of the Story –
1) Differentiating between American and British Culture
In “The Canterville Ghost”, Oscar Wilde uses to satire to subtly criticize American Culture. Since the first chapter, he decries and compare it with British Culture. He shows that American people are more connected with progress, technology, the industry and they believe only in the values that this culture produces. They are pragmatic, rational, material and don’t believe in ghosts or the occult. The only constant in their lives is a belief in the power of reason, and money.
This can be observed throughout the book, particularly the first chapter when Mr. Otis buys Canterville Chase. Mr. Otis says, “I come from a modern country, where we have everything that money can buy.” Their sense of entrepreneurship is displayed by the statement that followed where Mr. Otis said, “I reckon that if there was such a thing as a ghost in Europe, we’d have it at home in a very short time in one of our public museums, or on the road as a show.”
The British Culture is vastly different. The people are more connected to other values no present in the American conscience, for example tradition intended both as history and legend, as well as superstition and beliefs. This contrast is made with humor, especially in the case of Washington Otis. His faith in the power of Americans and American products goes to such an extent that he believes they are infallible even when pit against the supernatural. Another flaw of American people that Oscar Wilde tried to subtly identify is their snap judgement and criticism of foreigners. A trait which can be considered as a lack of respect by others.
2) Inverted Ghost Story
The customary elements of a typical ghost story are all present. These include the haunted setting. An old English mansion with a reputation of accidents and problems preceding it, with many inhabitants having witnessed the ghost and been terrified by him. As the Otis family approached the house, christened ‘Canterville Chase’, the sky quickly grew overcast and a flight of rooks passed suddenly over their heads. Before they reached the house, the originally lovely weather changed suddenly and some big drops of rain had fallen too!
The house also has an old housekeeper who explains the story behind the haunting of Canterville Chase and even points out the blood stain at the exact spot where Lady Eleanore was murdered by her husband, Lord Simon. The house is quaint, old-fashioned and eerie with a fine Tudor hall, and a library paneled in black oak at the end of which was a stained glass window. The ghost himself was undoubtedly frightening with eyes as red burning coals, long grey hair falling over his shoulders in matted coils, ragged and soiled garments of an antique cut as well as manacles hanging from his wrists and ankles.
He was even capable of assuming many equally terrifying disguises such as The Headless Earl, The Strangled Babe, The Blood Sucker of Bexley Moor and Jonas the Graveless. Despite containing all these elements, the presence of this stubborn and cynical American family helps ‘The Canterville Ghost’ make the shift to a comic story. Instead of the displaying the usual reaction to the presence of a ghost in their house which is along the lines of screaming and running away, the Otis family of practicality and quick remedies engage the ghost in a battle of wits.
On seeing the re-appearing blood stain in the library, they decide to use Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover rather than be alarmed. When the manacles around the ghost’s wrists and ankles wake Mr. Otis up, he gives him a tube of Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator. The angry ghost tries every ploy that has worked well for him in the past on the family, but each backfires.
The twins especially terrify the ghost, rather than it being the other way around, with their various pranks and antics targeted at him till the point when the reader is even driven to feel pity for Lord Simon. Another aspect of comedy is added to this story by the behavior of the ghost. Rather than being truly evil, he is more arrogant and haughty given the many decades of successfully haunting the Canterville family. He is like an actor, offended by the audience not being impressed by his well thought-out roles. On faced with constant rejection and ridicule, he is upset and is forced to slink around the house so as not to run into the twins and be humiliated further.
Character Analysis –
1) Hiram B. Otis
He is the head of the Otis Family. Mr. Otis is a middle-aged, American minister; he is determined, inflexible in his opinions, of rational thought and symbolizes “the true American.” Although being of the opinion that the ghost doesn’t exist since the very beginning, he changes his mind after meeting him personally, but remains indifferent preferring to concentrate on more important things like his work.
2) Lucretia Otis
Mrs. Otis is a handsome, middle-aged woman with fine eyes and a superb profile. She had a magnificent constitution and a wonderful amount of animal spirits. She is also shown to be considerate towards the ghost and even asked him if he would like a remedy for an upset stomach.
3) Washington Otis
Christened Washington by his parents in a moment of patriotism, he was a fair-haired, rather good-looking young man. Gardenias and peerage were his only weaknesses. He was a true believer in the power of American products, and proved to be quite shocked when his trusted Pinkerton’s Stain Remover failed to keep the blood stain away for more than a day; even writing a letter on the Permanence of Sanguineous Stains to Misters Myers and Podmore.
4) Virginia Otis
She was a little girl of fiteen, lithe and lovely as a fawn, and with a freedom in her large blue eyes. Miss Otis was highly spirited and had won a horse race against Lord Bilton. She was the only one who was slightly nervous about the presence of the ghost, but was shown to be a compassionate human being, allowing the ghost to steal her paints to keep up the “blood stain” in the library. Virginia also consented to step into unknown territory and take huge risks to fulfill the prophecy that would secure release and absolution for the ghost, thus displaying courage.
5) The Otis twins
Also called “The Star and Stripes” as they were always getting caned due to their antics. True Republicans with an indomitable belief in the power of the people. They were not scared of the ghost one bit, and rather set out on a mission to ensure the ghost was terrified of them. Their pranks, including keeping a water jug on top of the door which fell on the ghost, as well as tricking him into thinking that there is another ghost with the help of a window brush and a bed sheet.
They succeed in reducing the ghost into a nervous wreck, who began sneaking around the house just to avoid them. They begin to appear to be slightly insensitive, and readers are driven to feel compassion for the poor ghost.
6) The Canterville Ghost
Originally malicious and cruel Lord Simon Canterville who murdered his wife just for being plain-looking and a poor cook, he was cursed to atone for this sin by becoming a ghost and haunting the mansion till the prophecy of the “golden girl helping him achieve absolution” comes true. He appears to be more egotistical rather than evil and is more concerned for his reputation as a frightening ghost.
He preens himself on his acting skills and assumes many forms to try and torment the Otis Family. He is completely humiliated by the twins and he becomes a pitiable character, sulking around the corridors, careful not to get caught by the twins. He has a soft corner for Virginia Otis, as she is the only one who has not engaged in a battle of wits with him. When she helps fulfill the prophecy, he atones for his sins and gives her a box of priceless jewels to express his gratitude.