During one of Sir Simon’s more ambitious attempts to scare the Otis family, he finds himself face-to-face with a ghost and flees (as he so often does) in terror. Later, after considering that he himself is a ghost, and as such has no need to fear other ghosts, he returns to introduce himself to the specter. He discovers, to his surprise, that the “ghost” from which he fled was little more than a hodgepodge of kitchen utensils and root vegetables, cobbled together by the Otis family as a kind of spectral scarecrow: something far different than what it appeared to be on the surface. Like Sir Simon, readers of The Canterville Ghost would do well to attend to the differences between superficial appearance and reality, as much of the interaction between the Americans and their British cohabitant looks on the surface to be one thing when it is, in fact, another. Such artificiality masquerading as reality, Wilde argues, only serves to create or heighten conflict, as seen especially in the conflict between Sir Simon and the Otis family. Only sincerity, Wilde suggests, can work to resolve conflict, and he shows this in the ultimate outcome of the story.
Sir Simon is, decidedly, an artificial character. He is not only a ghost (which is not a natural being), but he is also somewhat inauthentic in his ghostliness, as he takes on other personas to exaggerate his ghostly characteristics. These personas—including Reckless Rupert, a headless Earl, and Jonas the graveless, a corpse-snatcher—become increasingly theatrical, even as they increasingly fail to terrify the Otis family. More and more, he finds himself resorting to stage props, such as horse-pistols or a rusty dagger, which enhances his association with artificiality and pretense. Sir Simon also constantly undoes the work of Washington Otis by replacing the bloodstain on the floor of Canterville Chase. Sir Simon does this not through supernatural means, but rather through the artifice of Virginia’s paints, which he steals from her. Like his costumes, these bloodstains become increasingly absurd as the conflict escalates. In the end, he even resorts to a ludicrously green-colored blood, as Virginia’s blood-colored paints run out. In both instances, as the artificiality of Simon’s attempts mounts, so too does its transparency. Each attempt becomes increasingly ridiculous and less likely to convince anyone that it is real.
Though more “real” than Sir Simon, the Otis family nevertheless becomes associated with artificiality, too, in the sense that they are superficial. Rather than dealing with Sir Simon directly, they resort to ridiculous products to try to minimalize or undo the work he does to scare them. For example, using the Pinkerton detergent to remove the bloodstains on a daily basis, and using the Tammany lubricant to silence the ghost’s creaking chains, are both examples of the Otis family dealing only with the symptoms of what’s going on around them while refusing to confront the reality that there is a ghost. In other words, the family is shown to be attuned much more to superficial aspects of the haunting than the extraordinary haunting itself—they’re missing the forest for the trees.
Virginia, however, is a model of the sincerity that the story suggests can cut through artificiality and superficiality in order to resolve conflict. From the very start, Virginia realizes that her paints are being used to create the “bloodstain” on the floor. Yet, though she mourns the loss of her supplies, she never mocks or derides Sir Simon until she has a chance to discuss the situation directly with him. Furthermore, Virginia is an artist, who creates good, wholesome art designed to bring about wisdom rather than frighten or enrage. Though she is young, Virginia recognizes that her art ought to seek truth. This is why she gets upset when she sees the green-colored bloodstain; she realizes that, without the color green, she’ll no longer be able to paint realistic (or true) landscapes. By seeking truth instead of visceral reaction, Virginia is also seeking to break the barrier of artificiality and replace it with sincerity. Through this ability, she is able to see that all of Sir Simon’s artificiality is a smokescreen designed to cover up the fact that he is the only one in the story who is afraid. That is, Simon fears that, with the arrival of the Americans who are immune to him, he will become irrelevant. Since he cannot rest, irrelevance would be the greatest possible torment to him. Virginia recognizes this, and through her sincere approach discovers the only possible way to mediate this conflict. By showing him true empathy, and faithfully praying for his salvation, Virginia learns that she can set Sir Simon free.
Interestingly, Wilde seems to have undertaken his own kind of artificiality in writing The Canterville Ghost. The story operates as a comedy most of the time, but underneath it is a tale of morality (one that teaches readers about the value of settling one’s disputes with kindness instead of with easy satire). Just as Sir Simon masks his desire for peace in his biting wit, so too does Wilde mask in satire the true moral of his story, the importance of empathy.
Appearance, Reality, and Sincerity ThemeTracker
Appearance, Reality, and Sincerity Quotes in The Canterville Ghost
I have come from a modern country, where we have everything that money can buy […] I reckon that if there were such a thing as a ghost in Europe, we’d have it at home in a very short time in one of our public museums, or on the road as a show.
On reaching a small secret chamber in the left wing, he leaned up against a moonbeam to recover his breath, and began to try and realize his position. Never in a brilliant and uninterrupted career of three hundred years, had he been so grossly insulted.
And after all this some wretched Americans were to come and offer him the Rising Sun Lubricator, and throw pillows at his head! It was quite unbearable. Besides, no ghost in history had ever been treated in this manner. Accordingly, he determined to have vengeance, and remained till daylight in an attitude of deep thought.
I have no wish […] to do the ghost any personal injury, and I must say that, considering the length of time he has been in the house, I don’t think it is at all polite to throw pillows at him[…] [u]pon the other hand […] if he really does decline to use the Rising Sun Lubricator, we shall have to take his chains from him.
Right in front of him was standing a horrible spectre, motionless as a carven image, and monstrous as a madman’s dream! Its head was bald and burnished; its face round, and fat, and white; and hideous laughter seemed to have writhed its features into an eternal grin. From the eyes streamed rays of scarlet light, the mouth was a wide well of fire, and a hideous garment, like to his own, swathed with its silent snows the Titan form. On its breast was a placard with strange writing in antique characters, some scroll of shame it seemed, some record of wild sins, some awful calendar of crime, and, with its right hand, it bore aloft a falchion of gleaming steel.
He had not appeared in this disguise for more than seventy years; in fact, not since he had so frightened pretty Lady Barbara Modish by means of it, that she suddenly broke off her engagement with the present Lord Canterville's grandfather, and ran away to Gretna Green with handsome Jack Castletown,
declaring that nothing in the world would induce her to marry into a family that allowed such a horrible phantom to walk up and down the terrace at twilight. Poor Jack was afterwards shot in a duel by Lord Canterville on Wandsworth Common, and Lady Barbara died of a broken heart at Tunbridge Wells before the year was out. So, in every way, it had been a great success.
“It is absurd asking me to behave myself,” he answered looking round in astonishment at the pretty little girl who had ventured to address him, "quite absurd. I must rattle my chains, and groan through keyholes, and walk about at night, if that is what you mean. It is my only reason for existing.”
"It is no reason at all for existing, and you know you have been very wicked. Mrs. Umney told us, the first day we arrived here, that you had killed your wife."
"Well, I quite admit it," said the Ghost, petulantly, "but it was a purely family matter, and concerned no one else."
"It is very wrong to kill any one," said Virginia, who at times had a sweet puritan gravity, caught from some old New England ancestor.
"I don't think I should like America."
"I suppose because we have no ruins and no curiosities,"
said Virginia, satirically.
"No ruins no curiosities!" answered the Ghost; "you have
your navy and your manners."
"Good evening; I will go and ask papa to get the twins an extra week's holiday."
"Please don't go, Miss Virginia," he cried; “I am so lonely and so unhappy, and I really don't know what to do. I want to go to sleep and I cannot."
When a golden girl can win
Prayer from out the lips of sin,
When the barren almond bears,
And a little child gives away its tears,
Then shall all the house be still,
And peace come to Canterville
Imbedded in the wall was a huge iron ring, and chained to it was a gaunt skeleton, that was stretched out at full length on the stone floor, and seemed to be trying to grasp with its long fleshless fingers an old-fashioned trencher and ewer, that were placed just out of its reach. The jug had evidently been once filled with water, as it was covered inside with green mould. There was nothing on the trencher but a pile of dust. Virginia knelt down beside the skeleton, and, folding her little hands together, began to pray silently, while the rest of the party looked on in wonder at the terrible tragedy whose secret was now disclosed to them.
“Hallo!” suddenly exclaimed one of the twins, who had been looking out of the window to try and discover in what wing of the house the room was situated. “Hallo! The old withered almond-tree has blossomed. I can see the flowers quite plainly in the moonlight.”