Ghost as Art in “The Canterville Ghost”

Interpreted as a personification of art, the ghost in Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost,” relates to Pater’s idea of “the love of art for its own sake,” and delves into the threats and creators of art.

The ghost’s existence appears to serve little purpose.  He feels it is his duty to haunt Canterville and he takes pride in scaring people to the point of madness.  Yet he has no ultimate goal in scaring people, and not much motivation to harm them; that is simply what he does.  Pater speaks of a “fruit of a quickened, multiplied consciousness,” and it seems that the ghost is able to give his victims a darkened version of this heightened intensity of feeling – he drove Lady Barbara Modish to die of a broken heart and gave Madame de Tremouillac “brain fever.”  The ghost does not have an explicit utility, yet through him, people seem to be deeply disturbed.

The ghost as art serves as a critique for incessant practicality embodied by members of the Otis family.  Mrs. Otis, unaffected by the ghost – unaffected by art – proffers a “bottle of Dr. Dobell’s tincture…[for] indigestion.”  This absurd insult demonstrates how people can completely miss out on the experience of art when they focus too much on utility.  This scene also portrays an attack on creativity.  The ghost, through demonic laughter and plans to transform into a “large black dog,” represents creativity, which is ignored – unseen by those focused on materialistic products.

The ghost had haunted Canterville for centuries, yet it was this family that killed his spirit and made him wish for the Garden of Death.  The obsession with practicality and utility killed art.  It is interesting to note, of course, the ghost was already a dead human, suggesting that perhaps art transcends life – it can be felt, like the fear of those the ghost scares, but it exists outside of normal human existence.  This observation also connects with Wilde’s poem “The Artist,” in which the artist reforms “The Sorrow that endureth for Ever” into “The Pleasure that abideth for a Moment.”  The ghost is condemned to a prolonged and lonely living-dead experience, yet at the same time finds pleasure in his haunting skills.  Ultimately, however, he wishes to escape from both and die completely.  Perhaps art unrecognized can neither give nor retain pleasure.

Finally, this story with the ghost as art indicates that art draws from those who can appreciate it, and that perhaps the relationship between the viewer and the art is the true art.  The ghost uses Virginia’s paints for the fake blood.  She helps him enter the Garden of Death.  He leaves her with fantastic jewels, and helped her see “what Life is, and what Death signifies, and why Love is stronger than both.”  His death was artful, for it was an interplay between the two characters, each giving and taking.  In the ghost’s hopeless attempt to battle the materialistic and utility-centered focus of the Otis family, he stole paints and left Virginia only with colors for depressing moonlit scenes, not to mention that he also demonstrated materialism in his need for props.  But when he stopped attempting to battle the pettiness, he and Virgina worked more as a team, and she was left with beautiful jewels.

The jewels, the artful remains of an art driven to death by those unappreciative of art for the sake of art were “the universal theme of admiration” when put on show at Virginia’s marriage.  This image of the jewels, buried in a paragraph of pettiness and social politics, was in short the story of the ghost and the sad fate of art.      -YG


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

2 responses to “Ghost as Art in “The Canterville Ghost”

  1. At first I saw the ghost as merely theatrical, but after reading your post I agree completely that he can stand in for art in general. I liked how you incorporated Pater into your observations and the idea of “art for art’s sake” certainly came to my mind as well. If there is no one there to appreciate the art, does it exist? Without a real audience it seems like the ghost’s art form is lost yet he continues any way.I also really like your comment on the fact that it is a ghost that stands for art which could be a comment on art transcending life. My next thought would be whether the ghost is still considered human. Can human’s be art? And if so, can they also transcend life in this way? IPN

    • I had a very similar reaction to this post, but I will address some other concerns that I had. I agree with the notion of the Ghost acting as a model of “l’art pour l’art”—in this way, I found the argument offered in “Toward a Pater-ian Reading of “The Remarkable Rocket”” to be comparable. Essentially, the protagonists (the Ghost and the Rocket, respectively) lack agency or usefulness, and instead serve as examples for creating an aesthetic existence. I’m also interested in the idea that art needs to be appreciated to be relevant. This seems rather like a “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” kind of question, but I’d have to argue that the process of creating the art is as (if not, more) important than the end result. To address IPN’s comment, if the art’s existence transcends the life of the artist, it does indeed seem as if the artist—through their work—has become eternal. This, in turn, appears to have Marxist implications, primarily that the agent is inextricably linked to (and should not be alienated from) their labor and its products. Alcibiades.

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