The Canterville Ghost


Oscar Wilde

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Themes and Colors
The British Aristocracy vs. American Vulgarity Theme Icon
Commercialism and Politics Theme Icon
Mercy and Empathy Theme Icon
Appearance, Reality, and Sincerity Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Canterville Ghost, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Mercy and Empathy Theme Icon

In a biting exchange between Sir Simon and Virginia Otis, the ghost tells the girl that he doubts that he would enjoy living in America. Virginia suspects that this is because America lacks the ruins and curiosities of England, but Sir Simon admonishes her: “No ruins! No curiosities! [Y]ou have your navy and your manners.” While the audience is surely tickled by this bit of humor, Virginia is insulted by it and makes to leave immediately afterwards. This, Wilde suggests, is at the heart of the problem between the English and the Americans. They are so mired in attacking one another that they can’t come to any kind of real, productive conversation. In the end, when Virginia shows both empathy and mercy to Sir Simon, he is rewarded with the eternal rest he’s sought for so long, and she is rewarded with wisdom about life, love, and death, as well as a handsome cache of jewels. Thus, Wilde shows mercy and empathy as the only potential escape from the cynical cycle of mutual sniping between the decaying British Aristocracy and the vulgar Americans.

Most of the time, both the Otis family and Sir Simon behave horribly to one another. Sir Simon instantly begins an attack on the Otis family, practically the moment they arrive. He waits until they’ve gone to sleep and then attempts to scare them through a combination of loud moans and dragging long, rusted chains. So, too, do the Otis family begin an attack on Sir Simon. This is true physically, in the sense of the Otis twins throwing pillows at and laying traps for him. But it is also true metaphorically, as with Washington Otis’ removal of the bloodstain, which had stood as a kind of historical landmark for centuries, and their general breaking down of Sir Simon’s will through their immunity to his efforts at scaring them. A perfect example of this occurs when Mrs. Otis offers stomach medicine to Sir Simon after he’s just unleashed his most demonical laugh.

Importantly, both sides engage in this behavior because it’s what they’ve always done, which hinders their ability to understand one another. Sir Simon’s haunting, for example, is what the British have always expected of their ghosts, and he has excelled at it for centuries. As such, when the Americans find him distasteful and disruptive, Sir Simon redoubles his efforts, rather than considering how he might adjust his behavior to accommodate the new residents. Because he refuses to see their side of things, he cannot understand why they don’t fear him the way that generations of Cantervilles always have. The Otis family, conversely, takes no account whatsoever of Sir Simon’s long history of haunting or even of what’s expected of him. They simply consider themselves the owners of Canterville Chase, and expect that it should run as they see it, regardless of how things have always been. Like Sir Simon, the Americans fail to understand the deep history and tradition that underlie Sir Simon’s behavior. This relationship mirrors the relationship between Britain and America at that time: as the American nation rose in power and prestige, the British empire fell. Yet, both had to continue to exist in the world together. Just as the British were alarmed by the ascendance of what they saw as vulgar American culture, so too were the Americans perturbed by the persistence of British tradition. Neither side, Wilde suggests, wanted to resolve these issues. That is, they both lacked empathy for the position of the other.

The ending of The Canterville Ghost, however, is surprisingly kind, in contrast to the raucous satire contained in most of the text. Exhausted by his efforts to terrify the Otis family, Sir Simon enters into conversation with Virginia, initiating the story’s first productive dialogue. The conversation is marked by Virginia’s concern for Sir Simon. She shows empathy for his situation and real distress over the idea that he hasn’t eaten or slept in centuries. This genuine anxiety about his condition softens Sir Simon, who is then able to let down his guard and talk earnestly with Virginia about his struggles and fears. This conversation ultimately leads to Sir Simon being released from torment, and it also rewards Virginia with personal growth and wealth.

Importantly, the six lines of prophecy written in the Canterville library, which predict that Sir Simon will be released from his torment through a show of empathy, predict that it will be a child who shows him this compassion. This suggests that what Sir Simon truly had to wait for was a new generation of children that wasn’t invested in the traditional sniping between Brits and Americans but instead was able to look past the superficial stylings of that conflict and see the pain and suffering that Sir Simon’s long purgatory had caused him. Such a reading is compelling, because it is precisely a lack of empathy that led to Sir Simon becoming a ghost in the first place, both on his part (because he killed his wife) and on the part of his in-laws who murdered him as revenge. 

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Mercy and Empathy Quotes in The Canterville Ghost

Below you will find the important quotes in The Canterville Ghost related to the theme of Mercy and Empathy.
Chapter 2  Quotes

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.

Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

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.

Related Symbols: Canterville Chase
Page Number: 19
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4  Quotes

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.

Related Symbols: Canterville Chase
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

He now gave up all hope of ever frightening this rude American family, and contented himself, as a rule, with creeping about the passages in list slippers, with a thick red muffler round his throat for fear of draughts, and a small arquebuse, in case he should be attacked by the twins.

Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

“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.

Related Characters: Sir Simon de Canterville (speaker), Virginia E. Otis (speaker), Mrs. Umney
Related Symbols: Canterville Chase
Page Number: 41-42
Explanation and Analysis:

"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."

Page Number: 45-46
Explanation and Analysis:

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

Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6  Quotes

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.

Related Symbols: Canterville Chase
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

“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.”

Related Characters: The Otis Twins (speaker), Sir Simon de Canterville, Virginia E. Otis
Related Symbols: The Almond Tree
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis: