Around 1850, a new method for manufacturing paper made paper both cheaper to produce and cheaper to buy. In turn, books (which were previously luxury items) became much more accessible to everyday people, which led to booming book sales and made companies want to advertise in them. When The Canterville Ghost was printed, it was common for popular books to contain product advertisements tipped into the beginning or end, and sometimes even woven into the pages of the book itself. Wilde mimics this advertising in The Canterville Ghost by having his American characters use imaginary products in a way that suggests that they’re promoting them—it’s as though he envisions the advertisements spreading from the physical book to the fictional space of the story itself. Similarly, Wilde imagines commercialism spreading from its own separate sphere into the realm of American politics. Through the products in The Canterville Ghost, and their use by an American politician and his family, Wilde suggests that everything has been put up for sale in American politics: even its grand dream of equality for all.
To critique American politics, Wilde invents two products with symbolic names. The first is Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent, which Washington Otis uses to remove the centuries-old bloodstain from the floor near the Canterville Chase fireplace. Though it’s perhaps not immediately obvious to modern readers, the word “Pinkerton” would have been familiar to Wilde’s contemporaries as the name of a security firm that used violence and manipulation to suppress organized labor, a movement that fought for the humane treatment of workers. The firm was notorious for its use of violence in breaking strikes and for its use of intimidation tactics to stop workers from forming unions in the first place. When the Pinkertons broke a strike, even if they did so violently, many people saw it as a “clean” action, since the Pinkertons were seen as a legitimate organization dealing with an illegitimate labor movement. Therefore, the Pinkertons’ involvement in strikes concealed from the public the legitimate and even sympathetic demands of abused workers and helped to maintain an abusive status quo in which laborers lacked power over their lives and livelihoods.
The second product is Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator, a lubricating oil that Mr. Otis recommends to Sir Simon as a way of getting the ghost’s chains to stop creaking at night. “Tammany” refers to Tammany Hall, which was, at the time of the book’s writing, a powerful New York City political machine. (Political machines aren’t machines in the mechanical sense—instead, they are hierarchical organizations of people who wield political power through the organization and mobilization of large groups of voters.) The head of a political machine is called its boss, and because the boss controls so many votes, he often has more power than the officials his political machine gets elected. Tammany Hall helped Irish Americans gain political power in New York (the Irish were always an important topic for Wilde, who was himself Irish), but it was also marred by corruption. While political machines had the capability of giving voice to marginalized groups, they were also often mired in backroom politics and an economy of favors.
Both of these products operate in ways parallel to the political organizations for which they’re named. The bloodstain that Washington Otis removes with the Pinkerton detergent is evidence of Sir Simon’s murder of his wife, and the Pinkertons were often called in to assist company bosses in cleaning up messes, often with bloody results. The Tammany Hall lubricating oil conceals the noise of Sir Simon’s chains. Tammany Hall greased the wheels for its political appointees, making it possible for them to win office, meet their political goals, and advance the objectives of the party.
In this way, Wilde paints a portrait of the multiple avenues available for everyday people in America to gain political power and equality being commercialized, literally turned into products for politicians to use. The labor movement, which might have allowed the working class to gain power, was violently cut off (or “cleaned up”) by the Pinkertons, a commercial firm. Likewise, the power of the popular vote, which might have empowered everyday people, was sometimes cut off through by the corruption of political machines, which could easily be bought. In other words, the “squeaky wheels” of marginalized people were quieted through Tammany lubricant.
It’s interesting that Wilde offers no equal critique of Britain in his carefully constructed evaluation of the failure of American democracy in the face of capitalism. Such a critique, however, might rightly fall on Sir Simon, who spends his days reliving the glories of his past hauntings. In this sense, the aristocracy becomes just a dead thing with no promise of a future whatsoever—and certainly not one that would grant people equal rights—though it continues to haunt the castles and lands of the English countryside.
Commercialism and Politics ThemeTracker
Commercialism and Politics Quotes in The Canterville Ghost
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.