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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Critical Overview

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Even before the scandal of Wilde's trial for homosexuality and subsequent imprisonment (1895-1897), critics had a difficult time separating Wilde's life from his works. Indeed, Wilde's credo of ‘‘life for art's sake,’’ or sometimes ‘‘art for art's sake,’’ encouraged the comparison. Proponents of this school of thought believed that the creation of beauty is the moral purpose for both life and art. The French author Andre Gide believed that Wilde achieved artistic greatness through his life rather than his literary achievements. James Joyce, the renowned Irish novelist, saw little to appreciate in Wilde's literature, but nonetheless saw him as a martyr to art.

More recently, critics have come to appreciate the merits of Wilde's stories. Many suggest that Wilde reinvented and interpreted his life through his works. Philip Cohen, in his book The Moral Vision of Oscar Wilde, views Wilde's life in the 1880s reflected in ‘‘The Canterville Ghost.’’ First, Cohen notes the coincidence of dates: ‘‘The Canterville Ghost'' is set in 1884, the year Wilde married, and three hundred years after Sir Simon murdered his wife. This ‘‘correspondence of dates’’ marks the story as "the transformation of life into confessional art.’’

Cohen argues that here, as in many of his stories, Wilde ‘‘depicts a radical discrepancy between the self—or, more accurately, selves—he paraded before the public, on the one hand, and his private self, on the other.’’ Like the Ghost, Cohen argues, Wilde suffers beneath a mask-like exterior. Wilde was hiding a homosexual relationship from public view. The Ghost, allowed to rest at the end of the story, finds forgiveness where Wilde cannot. Cohen views the trencher and ewer placed just outside the skeleton's reach as evocative of the Eucharist. Christian salvation for sin was denied Sir Simon for many years, and Wilde is likewise denied as long as he wears a mask.

Lydia Reineck Wilburn has more recently argued that the stories collected in Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories, and in particular ‘‘The Canterville Ghost,’’ should be read for more than just their moral dimensions. She shows how Wilde grapples with the idea and role of the audience in these stories—ideas he also explored in his essays. Wilde, Wilburn notes, "presents at least three contradictory stances about performance: that the audience should be ignored by the artist during the creation of his artwork, that the audience's participation in the aesthetic experience is limited to being receptive to and molded by the artist's work, and that the audience plays a major role in bringing about the aesthetic experience.’’

Thus, Wilburn asserts, "The Canterville Ghost'' is primarily about the nature of performance. The reader should recognize the Ghost as an actor struggling, for the first time, against an unresponsive audience. The Otis family, Wilburn suggests, performs more successfully. The twins, after all, easily frighten Sir Simon with their fabricated ghost. Also, Wilburn sees more sophistication in what earlier critics may have called derivative. As Rodney Shewan argues, Wilde plays with the conventions of other genres: ghost stories, fairy tales, Gothic novels. He expects his readers to understand these references. The housekeeper, for instance, should be readily identifiable as a figure pulled from a Gothic novel. This, Wilburn argues, foregrounds the "fiction-making" of the story. However, Wilde's reliance on these references also makes him rely on his reading audience, much as the Ghost relied on the Otises. Without an appreciative audience, the performance will fail.

A century after Wilde's trial for homosexuality, critics no longer judge his works on the basis of the morality of his personal life. However, the critics do take into account the events of his life and their influence on his work. Therefore, much is made of masks and performance in all of his literature, and ‘‘The Canterville Ghost’’ is no exception. Where once critics wrote it off as too frivolous and light for serious consideration, they now focus on the dark side of Wilde's comedy.

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Essays and Criticism