Wilde’s Gothic Parody

In “The Canterville Ghost”, Oscar Wilde parodies a number of conventions that characterize Gothic novels popular at the turn of the 19th century. By employing recognizable characteristics, Wilde is better able to transform what appears to be a traditional gothic tale into a farce. He begins by establishing the setting of a large castle whose previous inhabitant leaves because of a ghost’s haunting. Mr. Otis, an American minister, possesses pragmatism that staunchly opposes the superstition of Lord Canterville. In fact, the pragmatism of Mr. Otis and his family allows Wilde an outlet to mock Americans’ objective perspective. The rural castle recalls similar Gothic settings of The Castle of Otranto and Northanger Abbey, among other popular Gothic novels. Many Gothic novels, including The Monk and The Italian, feature a morally reprehensible religious character. In “The Canterville Ghost”, Mr. Otis fulfills this religious role, but instead of moral weakness, he displays a lack of understanding of cultural customs and history. His insensitivity is evident in his unwillingness to take Lord Canterville’s word about his haunted castle and in his attempt to return Virginia’s necklace to the family. He becomes a bumbling religious figure imprisoned by his pragmatism. He does not scream upon seeing the ghost; he offers him Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator. In “The Canterville Ghost”, Oscar Wilde jettisons the terrifying aspect of the sublime in favor of a supernatural character deserving of pity. The ghost never horrifies or frightens the family; instead, he appears to run from them. Their lack of understanding of his role renders him a pathetic character, instead of the murderer he himself admits to being. The ghost’s rather meager existence is compounded by the narrator’s close third-person narration (which is debatable after the interjection of first person in section four), which brings the reader inside the supposed villain’s mind; his wish for death removes most ill feeling toward him. Wilde relies heavily on the conventions of Gothic literature, including setting, stereotypical characters, and supernatural elements to transform his ghostly story into a farce in which the villain becomes victim.  -KJO

1 Comment

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

One response to “Wilde’s Gothic Parody

  1. One thing that was constantly nagging in the back of my mind while reading “The Canterville Ghost:” was Oscar Wilde consistently disparaging of American culture and society throughout the story? Indeed, as you say, Wilde takes pleasure in “mock[ing] Americans’ objective perspective”… the obsession over material “cures” with embarrassingly American names, the dismissal of traditional ways of running a household, the staunch disrespect of the ghost, all point to an American persona which is highly unlikeable. But then there is the fact that the American family is clever enough to outsmart the ghost, to prevent him from running the household, to brighten and “de-spook” a mansion which had been haunted for centuries. And Virginia, the specifically American daughter, manages to bring the ghost through his desired journey to death. The Americans in the story, though silly and, yes, deeply “pragmatic,” seem to be treated by Wilde in an almost endearing manner… while many of the British characters, such as the housemaid and the ghost himself, are often characterized as highly superstitious and almost ridiculous. I wonder if anyone else might comment with evidence in the text in which Wilde’s speaker handles the Americans in a more positive manner… while of course I believe Wilde might have had some prejudices and irritations against the Americans, I think it would be valuable to look at it from another light.

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