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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The Canterville Ghost Characters

The main characters in "The Canterville Ghost" are Sir Simon, Virginia Otis, and Horace Otis. 

  • Sir Simon became a ghost after murdering his wife. He has haunted Canterville Chase for hundreds of years. 
  • Virginia Otis is the only daughter of the Otis family. Unlike the rest of her family, Virginia takes pity on Sir Simon and helps him find peace in the afterlife. 
  • Horace Otis is the new American owner of Canterville Chase, representing modern practicality and consumerism. Unlike the previous tenants, Mr. Otis is unconcerned by the presence of the ghost and employs various modern household products to deal with the haunting.


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Sir Simon CantervilleSee Ghost

CecilSee Duke of Cheshire

Duke of Cheshire Desperately in love with the fifteen-year old Virginia Otis, the boyish Duke of Cheshire proposes after watching her win a pony race. However, his guardians pack him off to Eton, and he must wait to marry. But his impetuousness cannot be quelled. When Virginia vanishes, he insists on being part of the search party. As soon as she reappears, he smothers her with kisses. His devotion is rewarded, and Virginia consents to become the Duchess of Cheshire.

Ghost The Ghost, or Sir Simon Canterville, has haunted Canterville Chase since he was starved to death in 1584 by his dead wife's brothers. They murdered him because he had murdered his wife for the trivial reasons that she was plain and a bad housekeeper. For three hundred years, Sir Simon has frightened the inhabitants of Canterville Chase and has relished his role as resident ghost. He has appeared as ‘‘The Headless Earl," "The Corpse-Snatcher of Chertsey Barn,’’ and ‘‘The Blood-sucker of Bexley Moor’’ as well as other incarnations. However, when the rational American Otises arrive, the Ghost realizes that his audience does not appreciate his performance. No matter what he tries, he cannot frighten the Otis family. Weary and despairing, Sir Simon begs Virginia Otis to pray for him so that he can finally achieve eternal rest. Initially the butt of the twins' s pranks and an annoyance to the practical Otises, the Ghost becomes an object of sympathy. Before he goes quietly to his grave, he gives Virginia a box of priceless jewels.

Mr. Horace B. Otis The boisterous head of the Otis family, Mr. Otis first dismisses tales of a ghost in his newly purchased English house, arguing that the modern country of America has already bought up anything of value from the Old World. Sir Simon is stunned when Mr. Otis demands that the ghost use Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator to quiet his haunting chains so that the family may get some sleep. Mr. Otis is a calm man who scolds the twin Otis boys for throwing pillows at the ghost, and then reasons that if the ghost will not use the lubricator, the family will take away his chains. Mr. Otis leads the search for the missing Virginia and eventually consents to letting her marry into the aristocracy.

Mrs. Lucretia Tappan Otis The spirited matriarch of the Otis clan, Mrs. Lucretia Tappan Otis, a former New York beauty, is renowned for her ‘‘superb profile.’’ Sir Simon views her as a gross materialist because she offers him Dr. Dobell's tincture for indigestion; she has misunderstood his ghostly laugh as a sign of a medical disorder. Generally undisturbed by the Ghost's performances, Mrs. Otis introduces her neighbors to such American pleasures as clambakes. Except for understandable anxiety at Virginia's disappearance, Mrs. Otis possesses a ‘‘really wonderful amount of animal spirits.’’

Virginia Otis Virginia Otis, the somewhat puritanical, beautiful fifteen-year old daughter of the American Minister, has already inspired the love of the young Duke of Cheshire as the story begins. In the first part of the story, the reader does not learn much about Virginia's personality. She hangs back as the rest of her family either plots against the Ghost or attempts to cure him of his clanking chains and scratchy voice. When Virginia encounters Sir Simon, she pities him and tries to help the weary spirit. Sir Simon tells her that if she prays for him, he will finally gain eternal rest. She bravely takes his hand and, ignoring warning voices, follows him into another dimension....

(This entire section contains 731 words.)

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Later, Virginia marries the young Duke. Her husband entreats her to tell him what happened the fateful night with the Ghost, but she refuses. Virginia asserts, though, that she is grateful to Sir Simon, for he taught her that Love is stronger than both Death and Life.

Stars and StripesSee Twins Twins The youngest children of the Otis family, the twins are wild hooligans. They throw pillows at the ghostly Sir Simon's head, hit him with their peashooters, and throw nuts along the corridor in an effort to trip the Ghost. Irrepressible, the twins achieve their greatest triumph when they create their own ghost from a hollowed-out turnip, a bed curtain, and a kitchen cleaver. Their constant pranks leave Sir Simon shaken, as his every plan for revenge is thwarted by the twins's efforts.

Themes and Characters

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The story begins when Hiram B. Otis and his family move into Canterville Chase, despite warnings from Lord Canterville that the castle is haunted. The Otis family includes Mr. and Mrs. Otis, their son Washington, their daughter Virginia, and twin boys. At the onset of the tale, not one member of the Otis family believes in ghosts, but shortly after they move in none of them can deny the presence of Sir Simon. The family hears clanking chains, they witness reappearing bloodstains on the carpet, and they see strange apparitions in various forms. But none of these scares the Otises in the least. In fact, upon hearing the clanking noises in the hallway, Mr. Otis promptly gets out of bed and gives the ghost Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator to oil his chains.

Despite Sir Simon's attempts to appear in the most gruesome disguises, the family refuses to be frightened, and Sir Simon feels increasingly helpless and humiliated. When Mrs. Otis notices a mysterious red mark on the carpet, she simply replies that she does "not at all care for blood stains in the sitting room." When Mrs. Umney, the housekeeper, informs Mrs. Otis that the blood stain is indeed evidence of the ghost and cannot be removed, Washington Otis, the oldest son, suggests that the stain be removed with Pinkerton's Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent: a quick fix, like the Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator, and a practical way of dealing with the problem. The Otises, like stereotypical Americans, seek instant gratification, and they expect to find an explanation and a solution for everything in existence. In setting the Otises against Sir Simon, a symbol of English tradition, Wilde craftily portrays both Hiram and Mrs. Otis as "ugly Americans," that is to say, as uncultured, unimpressed by British culture, and incapable of being moved by anything out of the ordinary.

Wilde describes Mrs. Otis as "a very handsome middle-aged woman" who has been "a celebrated New York belle." She is obviously considered refined in the American way of thinking but, like her husband, Mrs. Otis is materialistic and has a blatant disregard for British tradition and history. Her lack of culture surfaces when Mrs. Otis immediately resorts to using the commercial stain remover to obliterate the bloodstains and when she expresses an interest in joining the Psychical Society to help her understand the ghost. Mrs. Otis is laughable, as is her husband, for both of them continue to reveal their ill-refined ways while presuming they can assume the role of English aristocrats.

The most colorful character in the story is undoubtedly Sir Simon, the ghost, who goes about his ghostly duties with theatrical panache (flair). He assumes a series of dramatic roles in order to impress the Otises, making it easy to imagine Sir Simon as a comical character in a stage play. This ghost has the ability to change forms, so he taps into his repertoire of tricks. He takes the role of ghostly apparitions such as The Headless Earl, The Strangled Babe, The Blood-Sucker of Bexley Moor, Jonas the Graveless, Suicide's Skeleton, and the Corpse-Snatcher of Chertsey Barn, all having succeeded in horrifying previous castle residents over the centuries. But none of them works with these Americans. Sir Simon schemes, but even as his costumes become increasingly gruesome, his antics do nothing to scare his house guests, and the Otises succeed in foiling him every time. He falls victim to trip wires, pea shooters, butterslides, and falling buckets of water. In a particularly comical scene, he is frightened by the sight of a "ghost," rigged up by the mischievous twins.

During the course of the story, as narrated by Sir Simon, we come to understand the complexity of the ghost's emotions. We see him brave, frightening, distressed, scared, and finally, depressed and weak. He exposes his vulnerability during an encounter with Virginia, Mr. Otis's fifteen-year-old daughter. Virginia is different from everyone else in the family, and Sir Simon recognizes this fact. He tells her that he has not slept in three hundred years and wants desperately to do so. The ghost reveals to Virginia an age-old prophesy that because he has no tears and has no faith he can only die if Virginia, who has these qualities, "weeps for his past sins and prays for the salvation of his soul." She is the only one willing to suspend her skepticism, the only one willing to believe in ghosts, and ultimately, the only one able to put Sir Simon to rest.

Unlike the rest of her family, Virginia does not dismiss the ghost. She takes him seriously; she listens to him, and she learns an important lesson. She does weep for him and pray for him, and she disappears with Sir Simon through the wainscoting and goes with him to the Garden of Death and bids the ghost farewell. Then she reappears at midnight, through a panel in the wall, carrying jewels in a casket and news that Sir Simon has passed on to the next world and no longer resides in the castle. Virginia's ability to accept Sir Simon and to become a believer leads to her enlightenment; Sir Simon, she tells her husband years later, helped her understand "what Life is, what Death signifies, and why Love is stronger than both."