Art and Agency in “The Canterville Ghost” and “The Artist”

(Written by a Stanford student- AA.)

How is the ghost of Wilde’s “Canterville Ghost” like his Artist in “The Artist,” if they are similar at all? On the surface, it would seem the two come from vastly different contexts: one is the bumbling, tragically humorous main character from a short story, and another is an allegorical figure of an abstract prose poem. Upon closer examination, however, one can see that the themes of art and artist run consistently between the two texts. But while the Artist of Wilde’s prose poem succeeds in completing a transformative artistic act, the Canterville ghost does not do so by his own agency.

Take Wilde’s Artist first. As an allegorical figure, he should represent not just  an individual artist, but every artist – the ideal artist, even. At the beginning of the poem, we see the onset of “desire” into this Artist’s soul to fashion an image of The Pleasure that abideth for a Moment, which he acts on by going forth into the world. Over the course of the very short poem, we see him take “an image he had fashioned,” “set it in a great furnace,” and “give it fire.” Each scenario displays an example of the Artist’s exercise of personal and creative agency. Notice how Wilde even uses active verbs and straightforward sentences in order to create a sense of ease with which the Artist achieved his goals. There is no formal indication that the Artist ever struggled with the artistic process, and in the end, he realizes his goal of fashioning the image he wants. Given the Artist’s allegorical role, Wilde treads the line between the character as descriptive – this is the way an artist creates – and prescriptive – this is the way an artist should create.

Taken in the prescriptive sense, the Canterville ghost fails to reach the standard of artistic agency set by the Artist. We see the ghost, Sir Simon, primarily as a character who struggles in the short story. More than just the day-to-day struggle to frighten the American family living in his home, the ghost actually struggles with the role of an artist itself. Take, for instance, the constant attempts at playacting. The ghost assumes a character, say, “Dumb Daniel, or the Suicide’s Skelton,” in order to achieve a performative goal. His theatrics, however, never have their desired effects. The American family reacts with pragmatism, scorn, or even abuse instead of with fear, disgust, or horror. The emotional objective of his art, in other words, is never realized. As such, he is frustrated as an artist.

On a more fundamental level, he desires – but cannot achieve – a personal transformation into final death. Perhaps no scene more strongly demonstrates the ghost’s lack of agency than the moment in which he asks Virginia for help. He begs the girl, telling her, “You must weep for me for my sins, because I have no tears, and pray for me for my soul, because I have no faith.” Here, he transfers the burden of action to Virginia, and she bears responsibility for realizing his goals, not him. This is a marked contrast from the active, goal-realizing Artist from Wilde’s poem. In fact, the ghost not only asks Virginia to act on his part, but he presents himself as inherently unable to perform what he needs. Only good, moral character of Virginia can achieve what he himself cannot do. In this respect, then, the ghost – for all his artistic desires and objectives – does not fully become an “artist,” as such. For, according to Wilde’s depiction of the paradigmatic artist in his poem, an Artist is one who can, by his own agency, produce an object that matches his initial desire. The ghost does not, and cannot, achieve this.

Hence, juxtaposing the Artist of Wilde’s poem and the ghost of his short story allows us to see a contrast in agency that gives us better insight into Wilde’s concept of what an artist really is.

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2 Comments

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

2 responses to “Art and Agency in “The Canterville Ghost” and “The Artist”

  1. I like the value you place on the idea of agency. In art and in life, this sense of direct responsibility is so important, and sometimes overlooked. To me, this is exactly what makes the ghost tragic: his dwindling sense of agency throughout the story, culminating in the interaction with Virgina that you mention. I hadn’t thought as much about the role of agency in “The Artist.” I find your thoughts intriguing, and feel that they help to apply this important idea on a broader scale, beyond Wilde’s work. –M.P.

  2. It seems to me that the Canterville Ghost suffers from weakness of will, known philosophically as akrasia. The Ghost lacks the ability to transform his desire into reality, and because of this, remains in misery. In contrast, the Artist acts out of necessity; he cannot suffer any longer the Sorrow that endureth Forever, and, instead, channels his energy into creating the Pleasure that abideth for a Moment. This retroactive reclamation of bad to good is quite Nietzschean in nature. I also find the descriptive/prescriptive aspect A.A. suggests to be interesting—it seems as if there shouldn’t be any one particular way to create art. Perhaps Wilde is suggesting some sort of universal (Form of) artistic motivation? Alcibiades.

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