This post was written by Stanford University student- MG
There is a strong sense of contrast between aspects of life and death, English and American culture, and humor and terror in Oscar Wilde’s “the Canterville Ghost”. This heavily satirical short story is laden with references to American consumerism along with English tradition. The contrast becomes apparent when Sir Simon, a symbol of death, loneliness, and English culture, repeatedly tries and fails to understand the Otis family, who serve as symbols of life, gaiety, and American culture. The Otis family in turn (with Virginia as an exception) tries and fails to understand the Canterville ghost. Humorously, the Otis family does not seem to be scared by the idea of a ghost in the house, despite Sir Simon’s most earnest attempts. Rather, Sir Simon seems to be perturbed by the family’s presence himself, when it should really be the other way around. There are no clear sides in the story; Wilde spares no one in his witty merrymaking, though Sir Simon becomes the closest thing to a protagonist as the story progresses. We as readers see him in a variety of lights; he can be vulnerable, vindictive, grieving, or happy, but he is consistently misunderstood.
While this could cast a serious shadow on the story as a whole, this is definitely not the case. Humor in “the Canterville Ghost” first serves to eliminate some of the dark and scary atmosphere that typically accompanies ghost stories. For example, the persistent bloodstain is treated with detergent briskly and without comment; the twin brothers “scare” the ghost when really that should be his job, and Mr. Otis offers him some lubricant to quiet his clanking chains. Humor is clearly a major tool here, because Wilde also uses it to effectively yet tactfully bring to light some major clashes of the era, namely the one between British and American culture. It was not clear to me whether or not “the Canterville Ghost” carried one universal, specific meaning or lesson, but it at least could help me understand, as the character Virginia said, “what Life is, what Death signifies, and why Love is stronger than both.”