The Canterville Ghost was written in 1887, during England’s Victorian era. This was a period when the English aristocracy began to see its long-held power in society diminish as the new middle class gained wealth and status. While many writers of the period imagined the aristocracy falling to the rising British middle class, The Canterville Ghost depicts irrelevant and powerless aristocrats succumbing to an even worse fate: ceding their place in society to Americans, the group they considered most vulgar. Wilde pokes fun both at the pearl-clutching stuffiness of English aristocrats, and at the tasteless practicality of Americans, satirizing the very premise of class warfare by ridiculing both groups equally and showing them engaged in an absurd tussle over a decaying manor.
Critiquing both sides equally, Wilde reduces Americans and English aristocrats to absurd stereotypes. Using the Otis family as an embodiment of all Americans, Wilde portrays Americans as grotesquely vulgar and mindlessly practical. For example, the Americans are so practical that they hardly react to the presence of a ghost in the house. Instead, they mock Sir Simon, clean up the evidence of his existence, and remain immune to being frightened. This blasé attitude towards the presence of a frightening ghost is meant to suggest the ignorance and arrogance of American indifference to the aristocracy, which the British considered to be almost sacred. On the other hand, Wilde shows the aristocracy, as represented by Sir Simon, to be stuffy, irrelevant, conceited, and even pathetic. Sir Simon, whose tricks have terrified generations of English residents of Canterville Chase, cannot manage to scare the Americans. While Sir Simon is used to being feared and respected simply because he is a ghost, the Otis family treats him as a minor annoyance, which wounds him deeply. He sinks into a depression and then makes furious (though ineffective) plans for revenge, which shows the aristocracy’s inability to cope with its declining power and relevance in the Victorian era.
Although Wilde mocks both British aristocrats and Americans, he clearly believes that Americans have the upper hand, and that the decline of the British aristocracy is inevitable. Sir Simon has been stuck as a ghost for hundreds of years as a punishment for killing his wife, and he longs to be released into the next world. Since Sir Simon represents the aristocracy, Wilde seems to suggest that the aristocracy, too, is in limbo. Aristocrats lack the power and prestige they once had, but their class has not been dismantled entirely. As such, they live in a painful state of trying to stave off the humiliation of decline by denying the obvious: their power is unsuited to contemporary life. On the other hand, Wilde shows that while the Otis family’s practicality and refusal to be frightened or offended is perhaps uncultured, it is also an effective way to live. Sir Simon has ruled Canterville Chase for centuries, and the Americans are the first residents who are able to live normally in the house, which shows their ascendant power. Despite that Sir Simon cannot frighten the family, the Otis twins succeed in terrifying Sir Simon with a prank, which shows that American-style power has currency in the contemporary world.
While Wilde believes that the vulgarity and practicality embodied by Americans is the way of the future, he suggests that the struggle between aristocrats and Americans is foolish. Wilde’s most evocative critique of class struggle is the Otis family’s conflict with Sir Simon about the centuries-old bloodstain from Sir Simon’s wife’s murder. Immediately after moving into Canterville Chase, Mrs. Otis sees the bloodstain on the carpet, but cannot tell what it is. Once the housekeeper, Mrs. Umney, has told her, Mrs. Otis orders for it to be removed, since she doesn’t “care for blood-stains in a sitting room.” The irreverence of her reaction—her lack of concern for how the blood might have gotten there—ridicules the overwhelming practicality of Mrs. Otis’s relationship to the house. Mrs. Umney’s reaction, however, is no less absurd. Protective of British tradition and history (no matter how grisly or irrelevant), she argues that the stain should not be removed because it’s historic and it is “much admired by tourists and others.” To leave a bloodstain in the living room of a private home simply because it’s historic—and to admire a relic of violence simply because it’s tradition—shows that the aristocracy is stuck in the past to a morbid extent.
Wilde’s critique of both British aristocrats and Americans shows his ambivalence about what he saw as the inevitable trend of English society. He deeply loved the decorum and ornate belongings of the aristocracy, but he hated the oppressive nature of living within a rigid class hierarchy, and he understood the foolishness of clinging blindly to the past. Nonetheless, even as Wilde consigns Sir Simon and the British aristocracy to history, he tries to endow Sir Simon with some dignity. Sir Simon is the most charming and well-mannered character in The Canterville Ghost, and by allowing him to finally pass on graciously to the next life, Wilde seems to commemorate a moment in time that was once glorious but no longer has a place in the world.
The British Aristocracy vs. American Vulgarity ThemeTracker
The British Aristocracy vs. American Vulgarity 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.
Indeed, in many respects, she was quite English, and was an excellent example of the fact that we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.
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.
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.
“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."
Under these circumstances, Lord Canterville, I feel sure that you will recognize how impossible it would be for me to allow them to remain in the possession of any member of my family; and, indeed, all such vain gauds and toys, however suitable or necessary to the dignity of the British aristocracy, would be completely out of place among those who have been brought up on the severe, and I believe immortal, principles of Republican simplicity.