Theme and Style of The Canterville Ghost

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      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 wainscotting, 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 imitates the typical style and language of the well-known English Gothic novelists like Hugh Walpole. The sinister and the macabre have a special appeal for the author. 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 modern thinking of the Otises, who are incompatible as residents with the old mansion’s ambiance.

     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.

      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 gets 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 wainscotting and reappears through a wall-paneling, with jewels!). 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.

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