A Serious Poetic Voice in “The Canterville Ghost”

(Written by a Stanford student–JSW.)

The Canterville Ghost is narrated with the typical Wilde-ian humor, and the discourse on cultural differences between American and British culture and conduct allows for plenty of tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, irony, and embedded criticisms elements which are truly Wilde’s forte.  Yet the prose in The Canterville Ghost is not purely comedic, and I could not have been alone in noticing the very specific point in the story when the overall mood transitioned into something deeper, darker, and more poetic, allowing for Wilde to explore two explicitly contrasting styles within the same narrative.
This specific, almost jarring, moment occurs when Virginia and the Canterville Ghost engage in their first private conversation, one which is more intimate and meaningful than any of the previous spoken fragments in the story.  Whereas the sharply written characters of Mr. and Mrs. Otis, the nurse, and the twins lent themselves to shallower, funnier streams of dialogue, the relative depth and seriousness of Virginia’s character serves as a vehicle in which Wilde can delve into the more meaningful aspect of the story as a whole.  This happens almost immediately as Wilde develops the sympathetic aspect of the Ghost’s plight.  Whereas in the earlier chapters, we are able to laugh at the the Ghost’s stubbornness in maintaining the blood spot, his theatricality in approaching his haunting of the family, and his fear of the mischievous twins, now we cannot help but feel sorry for his pathetic state, to feel pity along with Virginia at the knowledge that this Ghost has not slept for three hundred years, that he does not eat, that his rattling through the house is his “only reason for existing” (!96).  Then, when we realize there is a hope for a possible salvation for the Ghost, that he can be released from the imprisonment of the family mansion into the Garden of Death, we find a further tonal shift from the light and humorous to the deep and poetic.  Wilde as the poet overcomes Wilde as the sardonic dramatist as he describes a heavenly death, a death that is not the Edgar Allen Poe-esque graveyard of skeletons and coffins, but a “soft brown earth” where one may “listen in silence” (198).  Suddenly the existence of the ghost is not so funny after all, but rather a thought-provoking study on the meaning of death.  The Ghost is an obvious symbol for death, and yet we as readers do not take seriously the notion of dying until this moment- beforehand, the humor of the Americans making a life in a deeply British household, and the characterization of the Ghost himself prevented us from truly pondering the predicament this creature is in, the dilemma of the dead being caught amongst the living.  Though the Ghost enjoys taunting the residents of the house, he is obviously unhappy, and Wilde must have set The Canterville Ghost up not only to comment on the American personality, but also more importantly, to explore death, a concept which appears to have endlessly provoked Wilde throughout his career as a writer, as it had for Poe, Baudelaire, and so many of the French decadents.

-JSW

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

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