illustration of a ghost standing behid an iron fence with its arm raised against a large mansion

The Canterville Ghost

by Oscar Wilde
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What is a character sketch of the ghost in "The Canterville Ghost"?  

A character sketch of the ghost in "The Canterville Ghost" can include that the ghost is proud of his history, enjoys frightening people, and is theatrical. When he cannot frighten the Otis family, he becomes angry and dejected, and wishes to be released into death.

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Sir Simon de Canterville of Oscar Wilde's delightful story “The Canterville Ghost” is a ghostly actor extraordinaire. He has a strong theatrical streak that makes him take great pleasure in scaring people, yet he must do so in exactly the right way for each circumstance. He dresses each part meticulously, whether he is “The Vampire Monk, or the Bloodless Benedictine,” “Jonas the Graveless, or the Corpse-Snatcher of Chertsey Barn,” or “Reckless Rupert, or the Headless Earl.” To him, the show is a success if his frightful tactics make someone's wig turn white or a woman faint in horror. Of course, sometimes Sir Simon's antics take a graver mien, and he has actually scared many people literally to death.

That said, however, Sir Simon is not especially malicious. He was wicked in life, to be sure, for he killed his own wife in 1575, an act that lead to his own death at the hands of her family in 1584. Admittedly, too, he does find his most frightful hauntings to be his greatest successes. Yet Sir Simon has a soft spot in his character, even a weakness, and this reveals itself when he cannot scare the Otis family. No matter how hard he tries (and he tries very hard), he always ends up looking ridiculous rather than frightening. What's more, the twins even manage to give him several frights that take the ghostly wind out of his sails and send him into a deep depression. What good is a ghost who cannot scare people?

This is the state in which Virginia finds Sir Simon in the Tapestry Chamber. He is forlorn and filled with melancholy, and even more, he longs for peace. Virginia is probably the first person who has been kind to him in over three hundred years, and he drinks in her kindness, admitting that he has been lonely, unhappy, and sleepless for so very long. He finds the humility to ask the sympathetic Virginia to help him find rest and to fulfill the old prophecy, and she agrees. Virginia performs her role with courage and love; Sir Simon finally finds his rest; and Virginia learns the truth about death, life, love, and ghosts.

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Wilde tells the reader that Sir Simon de Canterville murdered his wife in the sixteenth century. Approximately three hundred years later, however, there is nothing particularly bloodthirsty about his ghost, which haunts Canterville Chase, and takes a purely artistic pleasure in frightening people. In part two of the story, the ghost recalls his past triumphs just as an elderly actor might review his career on the stage. His reaction to the practical, prosaic attitude of the Otis family is to be insulted at their lack of sensibility, and to try even harder to win them over to his poetic vision of what a haunted house ought to be.

It is the poetic element in the ghost's nature that leads him to confide in Virginia Otis, telling her that she is "much nicer than the rest of your horrid, rude, vulgar, dishonest family." Virginia is pure, beautiful, and sympathetic, and she understands, as the rest of the family does not, the ghost's sublimated desire for eternal rest. The final picture the reader has of the ghost is that of a rather pathetic, even a tragic figure, doing what he conceives as the duty of a ghost, and coming to revel in the theatrical aspect of it. All the time, however, his restless soul is yearning for "the Garden of Death," but he has never come close enough to anyone to confess this until Virginia befriends him.

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The ghost, Sir Simon, is badly misunderstood. By making Sir Simon a more rounded character than the average ghost, Wilde turns stereotypes about ghosts on their heads.

We learn that Sir Simon, while he feels an obligation to do his duty by trying to frighten the Otis family, really would prefer to be released from the job. In fact, he ends up more frightened of the prankster Otis twins then they are of him.

We find out about his sensitivity when Virginia talks to him and learns he wants nothing more than to be released to die. He shows vulnerability when he confides in her that he needs someone pure, like her, to pray for him so that he can go to his final rest. He is not so much terrifying, as we normally imagine a ghost, as sad.

We know that he likes to dress up, showing a theatrical side.

One interpretation is that he is a portrait of Wilde himself, who felt misunderstood and "othered" because of his homosexuality. Wilde liked to dress up and was a sought-after guest for society hostesses because of his ability to be entertaining. Underneath, however, like the ghost, he suffered.

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Sir Simon, or the ghost, is the namesake and major character in "The Canterville Ghost." He has roamed the interior of Canterville Chase since his death in 1584 and is a very complex and emotional character, for a number of reasons.

First of all, the ghost is fiercely proud of his personal history. He boasts, for example, of his success at the Kenilworth Tournament and the compliment paid to his suit of armour by Queen Elizabeth I. He loves to reminisce about his "brilliant and uninterrupted career of three hundred years" as the resident ghost of Canterville Chase. These recollections border on egotism, as the narrator states in Chapter 3, but are central to understanding the delight he feels at being able to scare others. 

Secondly, the ghost has a theatrical nature which he expresses through his hauntings. He does this by creating characters, like the "Red Reuben" and the "Gaunt Gibeon," routines that he has developed to aid him in terrifying the residents of Canterville Chase.

His failure to terrify the Otis family, however, gives us a glimpse into a darker side of the ghost's character. In the beginning he becomes angry and determined to have his revenge. But, as his failures increase, his character softens and becomes more vulnerable. The opening of Chapter Four sums this up succinctly: "the ghost was very weak and tired...his nerves were completely shattered, and he started at the slightest noise." In other words, when the ghost is not fulfilling his purpose, he quickly becomes dejected and feels that he is not appreciated by those around him. 

When he begs Virginia Otis to pray for him, so that he might have eternal peace, we see another important aspect of his character: the ability to be repentant and humble. 

The ghost is, therefore, not at all how one might imagine a ghost to be. He is other-worldly, yet strangely human. He exudes pride and vanity, yet is vulnerable and feels a strong urge to repent of his past crimes. 


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