American Culture in The Canterville Ghost

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In what ways does Oscar Wilde try to establish American culture and viewpoints as totally dissimilar to British ones?


      The Canterville Ghost is a study in societal contrasts. Wilde chooses an American family, sets it up in a British setting, and then, through a series of strange incidents, deliberately cooked up by the Otis family members, sets one culture in opposition to the other. He creates typical characters representing either England or America, and presents each of these characters as comical figures. He satirizes the crude and rough tastes of Americans, as well as the doggedness of Englishmen to guard their venerable, hoary traditions. Sir Simon Canterville is not a symbol of England (rather Mrs. Umney is), but a prime example of true British culture, which upholds personal bravery and a sense of ethics as major characteristics that make a man. In this sense, he stands in perfect contrast to the Otises. Sir Simon misunderstands the Otises just as they misunderstand him. By setting them up against each other, Wilde clearly appears to call attention to the cultural clash between England and America.

      It is true that the pioneering fathers of America were English migrants who landed on the east coast, named their state Virginia after their Virgin Queen Elizabeth I and coined half-British place names like New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire and even New England. But the culture that gradually took shape in the New World was totally alien, with very little traces of Anglicanism. Even the English language, the pride and glory of every Englishman, blatantly changed, its pronunciations and spellings of words altered inexorably. The earthy practicality of the Americans is sneered at by most of the children of Brittania for whom style and fine taste combined with a romantic approach to life constitutes the essence of British culture.

      Wilde, an Irishman, does not spare the self-styled superior beings who consider themselves a cut above the other races of the world. The clash starts from the very first chapter where Hiram Otis declares proudly, “I have come from a modern country where we have everything that money can buy.” Wilde upholds this thoroughly materialistic image of the American and pits it against the stiff-upper-lipped island imperialists who mock Americans as being very natural, the last word standing for crudity and coarseness of culture and character.

      At the same time, in true American fashion, Hiram Otis strongly disapproves of the life of idle luxury practiced by British aristocrats, and is initially against the marriage of his daughter Virginia with the Duke of Cheshire, fearing that the union would weaken, even spoil, Virginia’s virtuous character.

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