(Written by a Stanford student–LH.)
One of the chief elements of Oscar Wilde’s characters–specifically, one of the chief elements that makes them so very funny–is that they present themselves as good disciples of pragmatism, but they tend to be extremely particular and shallow about the way in which they go about being pragmatic, until pragmatism grows odd knobs here and there and begins to resemble more closely an eccentric, idiosyncratic moral-aesthetic code, rather than being a system of conduct that emphasizes common sense and sensible procedures founded upon a rational justification.
For example, take the exchange between Lady Bracknell and Jack in Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest. Lady Bracknell is interrogating Jack as a potential candidate for her daughter’s hand, and she asks him his age. A very practical question–that much is self-evident! For purposes of compatibility, of experience, of maturity, of reliability: all of the aforementioned reasons have no doubt motivated this very sensible lady to put such a question to Jack. However, it turns out that (in addition to the aforementioned, presumably), she has very specific ideas about what a man’s age signifies in relation to his marriageability. Indeed, she approves of his answer (29), because “a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing” (368, Complete Wilde). This, of course, is a claim that has the superficial air of premeditation and seriousness, but in fact probably comes more from a mere whim of Lady Bracknell’s, upon which she has bestowed great import because the good lady sees herself as a woman of gravitas, whose every thought is lucid and well-founded. Her opinions are given with finality and vigor, and allow no space for contradiction, even when they are as nonsensical as the claim that “in England…education produces no effect whatsoever. [And even if] it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square” (368, Complete Wilde).
This is the way in which Wilde subtly satirizes people who are self-satisfied (bordering upon the smugly content) in their sound judgment, their upstanding principles, their inviolable ideals, and their practical approach to life in general. The Canterville Ghost is a story that derives most of its humorous quality from this technique. A staunchly American (an adjective that acts as a placeholder for the scientific mindset, stolid and steadfastly in their belief that everything in the world can be explained, solved, and harnessed somehow just by applying a dose of good sense) family–the Otis family–is thrown into the midst of a totally antithetical setting–that of a spectre-ridden, spine-chilling gothic romance. However, the Otises seem to have missed out on Gothic Romance 101, and completely fail to behave in an appropriate manner as occasioned by the setting: that is, they seem not to know that they should actually be swooning and shrieking left and right, and instead apply their hardworking selves to being as pragmatic as possible in their new home, thereby incurring sharp increases to the net comicality of the story.
Their lukewarm reaction to Mrs. Umney’s sudden loss of conscious upon hearing the supernatural peal of lightning (protesting Washington’s removal of of the blood-stain with the trusty Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent) was not due to any callousness on their part, it was merely that–obviously–a house-keeper who has a tendency to faint can be no good. But no fear, for Mr. Otis has a sensible solution to this predicament: each time she faints, it will be treated like a breakage in an electrical circuit and her payment accordingly deducted.
The only character in the story that knows the faintest thing about how gothic romances is Virginia, the blue-eyed daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Otis. This knowledge is branded as “medievalism” by her father, but in any case it is this sort of medievalism that makes the story cleave at all to the arc of the classic gothic narrative: after all, she has a young “curly-haired cavalier” (196) fall quite hopelessly in love with her, she is moved to pity and endures a terrifying trial of self-sacrifice on behalf of the ghost, and thus absolves the locale of an ancient putrescence and lives happily ever after with her true love (even though her republican father cannot quite stomach the notion of losing a daughter to the side of the aristocracy; it doesn’t sit quite well with his firmly-held principles). But even she, being as she a member of the Otis family, is liable to a certain streak of “pragmatism”. She chides the ghost for having stolen her paints in order to engineer his daily blood-stain renewals, and she also recommends very earnestly that the ghost consider emigrating to America, in order that he may take up a respectable occupation as a grandfather-for-hire or even become the official ghost of some municipality or another. She is certain that he will be received with great warmth at the Customs House, for all the officers there are Democrats (who are, quite obviously, veritable paragons of tolerance and virtue).
The story does seem to primarily mock the pragmatism of the Otises, but also it deconstructs the ponderous, turgid quality that suffuses the genre of gothic romance: by introducing the Otises to Canterville chase, and allowing these entities to collide, a spray of comedic sparks are released that mirthfully dissolves the seriousness of both.