Style of Story Telling in The Canterville Ghost

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Comment on Oscar Wilde’s unique style of story-telling, his wit and humour and his perception of human characters. Support your answer with illustrations from the story.


      The events described in The Canterville Ghost take place in an old English country mansion called ‘Canterville Chase’, which has all the paraphernalia of a traditional haunted house. The setting is Gothic — the supernatural and the horrific, the gruesome and the ghastly together constitute the nucleus of the story. Wilde describes in detail the wainscoting, the library paneled in black oak, the old suit of armor in the hallway, the corridors enveloped in semi-darkness — all these typify the Gothic setting and make it easier for Wilde to highlight the main theme of the story: the conflict of values and the general discord that irreversibly colors the relation between the Old World and the New. Wilde deliberately imitates at places the typical style and language of well-known English Gothic novelists like Hugh Walpole. The sinister and the macabre have a special appeal to him. But he cleverly combines the macabre and the comic, and puts devices from traditional English ghost stories such as creaking floorboards, clanking chains, and ancient prophecies side by side with symbols of modern American consumerism. Wilde’s Gothic setting helps emphasize the contrast between the two cultures — setting modern Americans in what could arguably be a classic symbol of British history — and accentuates the modem thinking of the Otises, who are incompatible as residents with the old mansion’s ambiance because of their total lack of romantic consciousness.

      Wilde uses humour as a balancing factor against the sinister and forbidding ambiance that usually pervades a typical ghost story. All the weird and frightening devices of a standard ghostly theme are present in this story also - but the author treats each element comically, in an outlandish manner. He brings in the comical requisites by turning matters on their heads. The Otises, with the exception of Virginia, are all utterly down-to-earth individuals who appear to lack the imagination necessary to grasp the idea of something beyond the typically normal or usual. They are denizens of the terrestrial world which they can experience with their five senses only. In short, they are not Romantics even in the basic sense of the term.

      That is why the persistent blood stain is wiped with Pinkerton’s Stain Remover, Mr. Otis scolds the ghost and offers him Lubricator to oil his chains, and when the Ghost laughs his demonic laughter, Mrs. Otis accuses him of suffering from indigestion and offers him a tincture. The frustrated Ghost appears in a miserable state that shocks no one. He feels duty bound and says, “I must rattle my chains, groan through keyholes, walk about at night.” He means to say that being a phantom, he must play the role of a phantom and do the things expected of a phantom!

      Oscar Wilde refuses to ascribe any seriousness even to a gruesome murder. Sir Simon murdered his wife because she was not a good cook and also did know anything about repairing things! Mrs. Otis does not pretend to be sick as part of ‘European Refinement’, she is ‘handsome’. The ghost becomes frustrated because the Otises are incapable of appreciating the symbolic value of apparitions, blood stains, development of astral bodies and do not attach any importance to his ghostly duty to haunt the castle. All the tricks played on the ghost are funny, the best being his encounter with another so-called ‘ghost’ - actually a contraption made from household objects by the naughty twins - which scares the hell out of the Canterville Ghost because, though a ghost himself, he has never before seen another ghost!

      Wilde thus adopts the classic approach in the creation of humour and comical fun — he brings in the unanticipated and the unexpected in place of the normal and the usual. When a baby slips on a banana skin and falls, nobody laughs; but when the same happens to a grown man, our first instinctive reaction is to laugh out loud at the sight. Instead of being scared, the Otises treat the Ghost as if he is merely a freak of Nature and is to be treated with disdain! They do not give him the special importance that he demands. Hence the Ghost is also bewildered, frustrated and ultimately admits unconditional and outright defeat. The whole scenario evokes laughter because the reader enjoys a situation in which a ghost is pinned down and forced back into a corner by a family of earthy individuals. Instead of shivering in fear at the horrible guises of the Ghost, they find those comical and ludicrous!

      Wilde’s style changes almost imperceptibly in the latter half of the story, when he endorses the empathy and compassion in the character of Virginia, who had so long been in the background. In the earlier half of the story he makes deliberate and calculated attempts to invoke fun and laughter at the Ghost’s expense by making him appear a silly gent and makes a mockery of his attempts to frighten the unimaginative Americans with his typical stock-in-trade scary tricks. But after making the Ghost thoroughly overpowered and subjugated by the earthy pragmatism of the Otis couple and the tricks of their three sons, Wilde skilfully steers the readers’ sympathy towards the Ghost and turns him into Sir Simon of the old era, a representative of the long standing, and sadly long forgotten, deep-rooted British traditions. By bringing him in close contact with Virginia, he transforms the evil ghost into the lost soul of a grand old man who erred and sinned, and has been punished by Death who has forsaken him, condemning him to suffer a shadowy existence, universally hated and feared by humankind. What is unique in the story is the character of the Ghost itself. Our popular notion of a ghost /phantom / specter is that it is a shadowy non-being driven by paranormal energy that haunts particular places to which it used to be attached while alive as a human being. Wilde’s Ghost broadly fits this description, but with one crucial difference - it acts, behaves, reacts and even suffers injuries like a human being of flesh and blood!

      Though the Ghost seeks it, yet he cannot get a release from his duties— ‘"I must rattle my chains, groan through keyholes, walk about at night,” he states pathetically, making it clear to us that he is compelled by a superior, all-powerful force to go on doing these duties, performing ghoulish pranks ad infinitum, much against his will. With the compassionate Virginia helping him, and even accompanying him to the world of Death to pray for him, he ultimately attains his salvation.

      The realm of the supernatural thus assumes a new dimension under Wilde’s wonderful penmanship, in which a fifteen year old kind-hearted girl is allowed to accompany a three-century-old dead soul to journey to the nether world for a good cause (she goes through a wainscoting and reappears through a wall-panel, with jewels gifted to her by the Ghost!). This is the triumph of Wilde’s imagination, his very own, which soon led him to create such wonderful gems as The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant. Viewed thus, he emerges as one of the major pioneers of fantasy as a significant literary genre and The Canterville Ghost may be seen as a precursor to 20th. century classics such as, The Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz and, of course, the Harry Potter series. Note: This answer is actually a detailed critical essay, meant for deeper and better comprehension of the topic. It is a combination of three different answers on three related, but at the same time different, topics.

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