Old World and New World in The Canterville Ghost

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Summarise the arguments and counter-arguments proffered by Lord Canterville and Hiram B. Otis respectively, while the latter was in the process of buying Canterville Chase. Briefly explain how the conversation reflects the differences between the cultures and beliefs of the ‘Old World’ and the ‘New World’.


      Lord Canterville warned his prospective American buyer Mr. Hiram B. Otis that the house was haunted by the three hundred year old ghost of one of his ancestors. He said that his grand aunt was horribly terrorized by the ghost and that many had seen it, including the Rector. He and his family stopped living in Canterville Chase because the ghost disturbed his wife’s sleep by making strange noises at night in the corridor and the library.

      The American minister’s rejoinder was that he was ready to pay for the house with its furniture as well as the ghost. He reminded the Lord that he came from a modern country where they had everything money could buy. He then declared that since spirited American youths were carrying away English actors and actresses to America, so if they could get hold of a ghost anywhere in Europe, they would take it to America and keep it in a museum or display it in road shows.

      Lord Canterville retorted that the ghost was very much real. It had been haunting the house since 1584 and always appeared when anyone in the family was about to die. Mr. Otis’ rejoinder was that the family physician also appeared by the deathbed of dying persons. He doggedly persisted that the laws of Nature did not permit the existence of a ghost. So, however much might English aristocrats insist, Nature’s laws would not be put on hold in order to please them, i.e. Nature would not create ghosts because the English aristocracy believed in ghosts.

      The meaning of the last sardonic remark was not clear to Lord Canterville and he replied mockingly that the people of America were very natural, by which he meant that Americans were unrefined simpletons lacking in the finer senses. He concluded by remarking that if Mr. Otis did not mind the presence of a ghost in his house, then it was his concern, but he must never say that Lord Canterville did not give him any warning about the ghost. Mr. Otis’ response was typically American. He refused to attach any importance whatsoever to Lord Canterville’s warning and swiftly completed the purchase of the house.

      The dissimilarities between the British and the American cultures and ways of life are clearly evident in the conversation. The Lord seems to harbor a barely concealed sense of pride at having a 300 year old household ghost! The age of the ghost reflects his venerable, long-standing lineage - an old aristocratic family is positively revered in England. He describes in detail the ghost’s hideous antics that have had dire effects on a number of his relatives and guests. He does not forget to mention the year 1584 since which time the ghost has been actively terrorizing people. He seems to regard Mr. Otis as an upstart without tradition, though it is obvious that his financial situation is tight and he is compelled to meet his considerable expenses befitting a Lord by selling the ancestral property. But, in England, “old is gold”! Even an impoverished Lord commands considerable respect in English society. His social status is very high, especially if he belongs to an old family with a solid tradition behind it.

      Hiram B. Otis has scant regard for tradition, which he considers archaic and outdated. In America, money talks! It is a country of migrant settlers who have built the land and their financial fortune through hard labor and pragmatic endeavor. “I have come from a modern country,” he self-righteously declares, throwing a broad hint that in his opinion, British society is neither progressive nor forward-looking. His outlook is thoroughly materialistic. He is obviously a self-made man and does not depend on the exploits of his ancestors for establishing himself in society. He scoffs at the ghostly tales and brandishes his monetary clout by offering to buy the ghost along with all the furniture in the house. It is a somewhat arrogant attitude which most self-made and self-confident people like to flaunt. He speaks about the British aristocracy in an irreverent fashion when he asserts that there is nothing in Nature called a ghost, and English Lords could not change her laws. Mr. Otis has grown up in democratic USA where ‘high birth’ and ‘blue blood’ are meaningless terms. American society judges a person by his/her work and the kind of life the person leads. It is a new society made up of people of diverse races, and therefore, its customs and culture have been formed on a different basis from Europe.

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