Youth and Old Age in “The Canterville Ghost”

(Written by a Stanford student–ER.)

In Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost,” Americans think Europe’s nations being older than America spill over to European people such that they depict themselves as young and Europeans as old. When describing the various family members, Wilde contrasts Lucretia with many American ladies, who “on leaving their native land adopt an appearance of chronic ill-health, under the impression that it is a form of European refinement” (Wilde, 184-5). American women assume Europeans value “ill-health,” as they think Europeans think it a sign of “refinement and so think the hallmark of European femininity is the “chronic ill-health” associated with old age. That the Americans must “adopt an appearance” foregrounds that they otherwise look young but must masquerade as the elderly to adapt to the cultures they think they travel to. In “The Canterville Ghost,” Americans assume Europe values old-women, as if the ideal of European femininity were elderly, female nobles.

While Lucretia just describes women, Mr. Otis echoes the notion that Europe is old in regard to men. In his first discussion with Lord Canterville, Otis says “I have come from a modern country … [with] spry young fellows painting the Old World red, and carrying off your best actors and prima-donnas” (Wilde, 184). Mr. Otis’ description of his country as “modern” extends to his depiction of American men as “spry young fellows,” both of which Otis contrasts with Europe (“the Old World”). If American men are “spry” enough to paint Europe red, then, by contrast, European men are old, lethargic geriatrics. Otis reinforces this idea by emphasizing that American men sleep with Europe’s “best,” which implies most attractive, “actors and prima-donnas,” as if European men are too old, perhaps even impotent, to satisfy their beautiful women. In elevating America as a modern country, Mr. Otis devalues Europe, particularly European masculinity, because he associates it with old-age.

For Wilde, this old-age creates an atmosphere in which the gothic can more likely arise than a younger country. Throughout the story, the ghost highlights that he has a long lasting family conflict with the Cantervilles by mentioning family members predating the American Revolution. By emphasizing that America is much younger than England, Wilde foregrounds that the conflict, and relationship based on this feud, has less opportunity to exist in America. In other words, it lacks the age to develop this gothic atmosphere. In Virginia’s discussion with the ghost, she claims that American families would pay for ghosts, emphasizing that recruiting a ghost in America is so difficult that families would pay for them (Wilde, 197). The lack of ghosts and the relative age highlights a cultural discrepancy between this story’s picture of America and Europe that sets the stage for a culture clash between the young American pragmatism and the older British gothic. -ER

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2 Comments

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

2 responses to “Youth and Old Age in “The Canterville Ghost”

  1. It is easy to overlook the theme of age in this work, for it somehow rather puts it out of the question (or at least out of the boundaries of credibility) by introducing a character–namely, the Canterville ghost himself–who is beyond age. But in fact, the distinctive characteristics of the two worlds that clash in this story can be neatly brought under the interpretive aegis of “age”: it is the old, the decaying, the derelict, that characterizes Gothic Europe, and it is the youth of the American nation that lends it optimism and indefatigable energy. In short, I thought that this was a good insight. -LH

  2. I agree that Wilde paints America as being much younger than Europe both literally as a country and in its character in general. I wonder how you would incorporate the “little Duke of Cheshire” into your argument. Wilde seems to always describe him as young and naive yet he is still English. Maybe he represents a new wave of English culture encapsulated in its youth? Maybe he is a symbol of England becoming Americanized and therefore more youthful. He is in love with an American girl after all. Maybe their marriage has some significance along this vein. IPN

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