The many manifestations of master Wilde’s irony in an excerpt of The Canterville Ghost

(Blog Post by a Stanford student–CAN.)

In The Canterville Ghost, many of the scenes are set up to seem like traditional tale scenes. However, it rapidly becomes evident that these scenes are intended as mockeries of the traditional tales and ghost stories, through the excessively clichéd imagery, the presence of pompous and antiquated expressions, and, finally, some highly ironic appositions in the middle of sentences.

The most striking occurrence of this parody is on page 8 of the tale (page 191 in the Collins Edition of the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde). Wilde indeed misses no opportunity to add one of the clichéd elements of the “spooky night” scene to the canvas he paints for the reader. Indeed, from the “palsy-twitching fingers” to the “owl” and the “raven croaking”, as well as the “old yew-tree”, the “wind moaning” and the “moon”, which is portrayed as a woman, in line with tradition, all the elements of the scene are adequately put in place. However, these elements are undermined by the clearly ironic tones which are also circulating throughout this section of the tale. There is an accumulation of archaic expressions, such as “might grabble” in the second line, “he sallied forth” in the second paragraph, “ever and anon”,  and finally “brandishing” towards the middle of the second paragraph. This sprinkling of archaic expressions in the text make them even more noticeable, and one can easily picture the speaker adding a special inflexion to pronounce them and distinguish them from the rest of the writing, to mark the clearly ironic, and near-satiric undertone. Wilde therefore uses diction as one of the mediums through which he conveys the ironic tone of his tale.

Another way through which Wilde creates a parody of the traditional “scary” tale is through appositions, inserted in the middle of sentences, which seem to be serious but in fact serve as bits of wit through which his own voice transpires.  The speaker for example lets the reader know that the ghost enters the twins’ room, and imparts: “the first thing to be done was, of course, to sit upon their chests”. The apposition “of course” is constructed to seem as though the speaker were sharing an important, confidential piece of information, which the reader would be privy to. It also seems to be confirming the ghost’s course of action. In reality, however, it does neither of the two—quite to the contrary. The fact that the words “of course” are locked between two commas indicates the speaker’s intention to signify the exact opposite of what is written on the page: what the ghost is doing should be viewed as an absurd course of action. Similarly, the expression “stand in front of them in the form of a green, icy-cold corpse, till…” marks the speaker’s will to act as though there were no other possible courses of action but to look like a macabre corpse. In this situation, what it seems to imply is that, since Wilde is going with all the possible clichés of what we traditionally consider to be frightening, there obviously has to be an inclusion of a corpse at some point in the description.  Finally, there is a third and final occurrence of an apposition in this first paragraph, when Wilde mentions “ Dumb Daniel, or the suicide skeleton, a rôle in which he had…” This last apposition is ironic because it again relies on a certain connection with the reader. The two commas, which lock the explanation “suicide skeleton”, seem to signify “as you all know” or   “ I am not really teaching you anything”. However, most readers do not in fact know that “Dumb Daniel” is the “suicide skeleton”. By trivializing the explanation “suicide skeleton”, what seems to be implied is that “Dumb Daniel” ’s reputation has preceded him. This is once again humorous because it up-plays the dichotomy between how legitimate the ghost thinks he is, and how legitimate of a ghost any reader would think he is. This is perhaps also why the word “rôle” is written in French and emphasized with italics: it captures ghost’s own voice and explanation of his role, and, in the process, his pride and arrogance as a ghost. The italics however transcribe the speaker’s mocking of this pride, which, as seems to be implied, is not founded on any legitimate claims but on pretense.

Finally, any bit of seriousness and legitimacy the scene may have built through its imagery –“glided like an evil shadow” –or personifications— “the moon hid her face”— comes crashing at the end of the page when, right after having “chuckled to himself”, the ghost lets go of a “piteous wail of terror”, marking his own fear and even cowardice. Wilde seems to imply, in this one page, that despite all of the Canterville ghost’s name-dropping, and despite all his show of solemnity and his fear mongering, he is in fact a rather pathetic figure. His “rusty dagger” is pitiful in the face of the “gleaming steel” in the hands of the “ghost” with which he is confronted. This poses the rather serious question of whether the Canterville ghost is not himself an allegory for the old world, which has relied on a glorious past and tradition, but that may not be ready to compete with the new-world, where technology is being created and the future being taken into active consideration.

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1 Comment

Filed under Week 2 Reviews: Wilde's Poetry and Short Fiction

One response to “The many manifestations of master Wilde’s irony in an excerpt of The Canterville Ghost

  1. I think that you’re right about the allegory between old and new–and I think there is a dimension of play-acting about the ghost which enriches the allegory. In the scene you’re analyzing, he has a rusty dagger. Yes, it is pathetic compared to the gleaming steel. But we don’t expect ghosts to carry gleaming steel–we never expect them to kill us with a blade. The Ghost carries a rusty dagger as a prop, and a rusty old dagger is the appropriate apparatus for a long-dead person/tradition. It doesn’t have to gleam or stab us, its purpose is to scare us to death. The personages he’s invoking, like Dumb Daniel the suicide skeleton, are characters he can play to fulfill his role (or rôle, if we’re feeling French about it) as ghost. And his actions, such as sitting on the boys’ chests, may be absurd, but they are part of the script too, another available action in the role-playing game. Of course he will do it–it’s part of the role. And the idea that the ghost is just play-acting at being terrifying makes the Otis’ reactions make even more sense–just as a play will fail to impress those who adamantly refuse to be impressed, play-acting never works if the audience doesn’t play along. The Brits play along with the allegory, buy into the apparatus of the glorious past and tradition of the old world. The Americans simply don’t. The Americans are a bad audience, and all bad audiences unmask theatre for what it truly is–a sham.
    –LN

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