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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Serious Comedy? Finding Meaning in The Canterville Ghost

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Many critics of Oscar Wilde's ‘‘The Canterville Ghost’’ find dark and profound meanings beneath what Philip K. Cohen calls in The Moral Vision of Oscar Wilde ‘‘the camouflage of hilarity.’’ Cohen argues that this seemingly light ghost story ‘‘faithfully renders Wilde's life during the mid 1880s,’’ a time when Wilde, by necessity was leading a double life. By 1886, he was involved in a homosexual relationship with Robert Ross and had also been married for two years. Both his marriage and the social mores of late Victorian England demanded that Wilde hide his affair.

In ‘‘The Canterville Ghost,’’ Cohen finds Wilde almost confessional, condemning the wearing of masks and the ‘‘radical discrepancy between the self—or, more accurately, selves—he paraded before the public ... and his private self.’’ Lydia Reinbeck Wilburn in ‘‘Oscar Wilde's 'The Canterville Ghost': The Power of an Audience,’’ reads the story as a reflection of Wilde's aesthetic vision, if not his moral vision. Wilburn sees Wilde grappling with questions about the function of audience. How important is the audience to an artist? How important should an audience be? Wilburn notes that Wilde addressed similar issues in his essays and criticism. However, in "The Canterville Ghost,'' she finds Wilde more receptive than he was in his critical works to the idea that an artist needs an appreciative audience to successfully perform. Though Wilburn and Cohen reach different conclusions in their studies, both fundamentally see "The Canterville Ghost'' as an essay on performance and mask-wearing, and both extract a serious interpretation from the work.

That "The Canterville Ghost'' is about masks and performance is easy to concede. The Ghost, Sir Simon, studies the art of haunting. He constantly prepares for his role as a ghost. The narrator shows him reflecting upon his past successes when first rebuffed by the Otis family: "With the enthusiastic egotism of the true artist he went over his most celebrated performances, and smiled bitterly to himself as he recalled to mind his last appearance as the 'Red Reuben, or the Strangled Babe,' his debut as 'Gaunt Gideon, the Blood-sucker of Bexley Moor,' and the furore he had excited one lovely June evening by merely playing ninepins with his own bones upon the lawn-tennis ground.’’

Sir Simon uses a theatrical vocabulary to describe his past roles. "Debut'' and "furore'' indicate both his performance and the audience for whom he plays. Actors debut new roles to audiences, and a furore is caused when a play is a smash hit. Even when not performing, the Ghost exhibits the stereotypical affectations of actors and dandies—men who gave exaggerated attention to their appearance. Sir Simon has created a dandyism for ghosts. This is not unlike Oscar Wilde who, adorned in velvet breeches and with a green carnation in his buttonhole presented himself as a brilliant dandy to London society. Similarly, the narrative emphasizes Sir Simon's attention to clothes: ‘‘He was simply but neatly clad in a long shroud, spotted with churchyard mould.'' Sir Simon pays as much attention to his gruesome attire as any dandy. Indeed, it can take the Ghost up to three hours to don an appropriate costume.

Despite the Ghost's dedication to his role, the American Otis family proves a most unreceptive audience. When the Ghost rattles his chains, Mr. Horace B. Otis suggests that Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator would stop the clanking. When the Ghost effects "his celebrated peal of demoniac laughter,'' Mrs. Otis offers Dr. Dobell's tincture as a cure for indigestion. Disgusted by the "gross materialism'' of the Otises, Sir Simon eventually abandons his art and holes himself up in a secret room....

(This entire section contains 1442 words.)

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The Ghost views his failure to scare the Otises as tragedy, and Wilburn and Cohen use his failure as a jumping off point in their criticism.

However, the comic tone of the story belies any attempt to read pathos into the Ghost's self-pity. "The Canterville Ghost'' parodies actors, dandies, American materialism, aristocratic excess, ghost stories, and Gothic conventions. From the outset, the story is comic, and it disarms readers by its apparent lightness. Dialogue in ‘‘The Canterville Ghost'' foreshadows the witty nonsense spoken in Wilde's later plays. Each member of the Otis family is summed up in a witty characterization that marks him or her as the subject of comedy rather than tragedy. Of Mrs. Otis, formerly Miss Lucretia R. Tappen of New York, we learn "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.’’ Of the eldest son, Washington, we are told, ‘‘Gardenias and the peerage were his only weaknesses. Otherwise he was extremely sensible.’’

Both descriptions point to a comic theme thoroughly exploited in "The Canterville Ghost'': the farcical result of the American/British culture clash. Americans in England were ridiculed for their atrocious slang and peculiar accents, a point noted in the story when the Otises, with stereotypical American assumed superiority, expound on "the sweetness of the New York accent as compared to the London drawl.’’ Likewise, despite their protestations in favor of democracy, Americans were perceived to be envious of the English aristocracy. Therefore, at the end of the tale, Virginia Otis ‘‘received the coronet,’’ or married the Duke, which as the narrator explains, ‘‘is the reward for all good little American girls.’’

The story begins and ends by parodying stock characters. Comic moment succeeds comic moment throughout the narrative. Given this, how is the reader to treat a ghost story seriously when the Ghost is not taken seriously by the characters he attempts to haunt, and the characters are merely sketched stereotypes?

Perhaps, as Wilburn argues, the reader needs to accept that each character in"The Canterville Ghost'' acts a part. The Ghost may be the only character who meditates upon performance, but surely Mrs. Otis who once played a ‘‘celebrated New York belle'' and now trades on "her superb profile,'' also stays in costume throughout the story. Mrs. Otis, however, has realized that one cannot play the same role forever, and like an accomplished actress moves gracefully from girlish ingenue to mature character parts. Sir Simon's failure springs from a point that Wilde would later return to in his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. First, Sir Simon is jolted into reality when the Otises fail to respond correctly to his haunting. Up until this point there has been no difference between the Ghost's public and private selves. Sir Simon, before the Otises arrived, truly lived by Oscar Wilde's motto: ‘‘Life for art's sake.’’ Sir Simon, in other words, had no identity other than that of evil ghost. Like the Ghost, Sybil Vane, the beautiful actress in The Picture of Dorian Gray realizes that she has no identity beyond her nightly performances. In this dark and disturbing novel, this realization causes Sybil to commit suicide. Initially, the title character, Dorian Gray, falls in love with Sybil because she is a wonderful actress. Each night she plays a different heroine in a Shakespeare play. Dorian can believe that she is actually Juliet or Desdemona even though she acts in a filthy theater with bad actors. When Sybil realizes, however, that she is not a Shakespearean heroine, but an actress in a cheap playhouse, she loses her ability to act. Dorian cannot love the real Sybil, only the ideal she represented in her roles. Similarly the Ghost can exist solely as a performer of a part. Once his public refuses to believe in his part, the Ghost loses his identity.

The nature of performance is an important theme in Oscar Wilde's works, but the theme does not necessarily lead to serious reflection. While Sybil Vane's suicide must be read as a tragedy, that Sir Simon gives up haunting to seek a final resting place can be interpreted differently. First, the Ghost's performance has had a good run. A Broadway play that lasted three hundred years would be considered a success indeed. Also, the other characters in "The Canterville Ghost'' show every indication of keeping up their own performances. The Otis family embrace their character roles, and play out the American stereotypes to their fullest. If they inhabit a world where everyone performs a role, at least Wilde has created a rich variety of parts. Death, in the story, is a picturesque garden that awaits the exhausted actor. The specter of Oscar Wilde and his real life tragedy haunts much interpretation of ‘‘The Canterville Ghost,’’ but here, Wilde created a comedy.

Source: Kimberly Lutz, ‘‘Serious Comedy? Finding Meaning in 'The Canterville Ghost,'’’ for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.

Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost: The Power of an Audience

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Although Wilde's short story collection Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories has enjoyed some critical attention, most of the discussion has focused on the comic and moral content of the stories, especially the relationship between the criminal and the artist. But a closer examination of the stories suggests that Wilde was also exploring various concepts of a theory of performance—specifically the artist's and audience's roles in the artistic performance. Wilde was using the texts, particularly "The Canterville Ghost,'' to work through problems involving the audience's power over different phases of the artist's performance.

In his works Wilde presents at least three contradictory stances about performance: that the audience should be ignored by the artist during creation of the 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. These contradictions are either stated outright in his essays and letters, or they are implied or presented in his stories. In Intentions and numerous other reviews and letters to editors, Wilde strenuously resisted the notion that the audience could have an active role in what Wolfgang Iser [in The Implied Reader, 1975] calls the aesthetic experience, that moment brought about by the ‘‘convergence of text and reader.’’ Wilde, with his classical education and Paterian tastes, thought that the artist should stand aloof from the audience's preconceptions about art; as artist, his role was to perform, thereby delivering aesthetic dictates to his audience and shaping their notions and tastes. But running counter to his stated directives was the fact that by nature he was very much a public performer, one who depended on the interaction between artist, audience, and artwork. Wilde needed his audience if he were to create, a lesson he learned late but well when, imprisoned, he was deprived of the audience he sought. And his early stories (although minor works) show the public to be crucial to the making of illusion and even to the artist's well-being. This [essay] will focus on ‘‘The Canterville Ghost,’’ not only because it has always been one of Wilde's most popular early stories (so popular that it has been produced recently as a television movie), but, more importantly, because it is one whose subtext undercuts Wilde's stated critical positions.

The conflicting notions of the audience's role preoccupied Wilde throughout his career, and they have preoccupied his critics, who continue to search for a resolution to these contradictions. Recent studies of Wilde's work, however, have begun to point out ways in which some of his fictional and dramatic works embody and advance the various tenets of his critical thought. But as yet critics have not accounted adequately for the diversity of his critical stances, nor have they established a connection between his early concern with performance on the one hand and his continuing distrust of the audience's role in the aesthetic experience on the other. Richard Poirier's The Performing Self presents a conception of literature which accounts for these complexities. Poirier here puts forward a theory of performance focusing on the local energy of the writing effort and effect rather than on a coherent canon of works. Poirier describes literature as a performance of the self, a playful activity, a solitary ‘‘self-discovering, self-watching response’’ to the chaos of existence. For the artist, the self-discovery in creation produces a feeling of "narcissistic power'' as he momentarily gains control of his environment. During this first aspect of the creating act the most exciting considerations for the artist are himself and the rarefied, self-absorbed atmosphere of the performance. Poirier adds, however, that after this phase, another self emerges from the completed performance, a public self that looks outward to audiences for publicity, for confirmation of the creative act, or even for ‘‘historical dimension.’’ The artist's creative energies, now in the public sphere, strive for "love" from the public and ‘‘compet[e] with reality itself for control of the minds exposed'' to the artwork.

Poirier's two-phase analysis of creative acts allows us to see that through his contradictions Wilde was trying to talk about different aspects of performance. Thus, when Wilde states in "The Soul of Man Under Socialism'' that an artist takes no notice of the public, he means this to describe the self-consulting, self-discovering phase of the creative act. And the contradictory statement in the same essay that the artist is to shape the public's taste and temperament refers to the second phase of the performance: thus the artist now wants to affect what T. S. Eliot would call the literary tradition.

Later, when Wilde pushes these notions further, examining the audience as co-shapers of the aesthetic experience, we recognize that Wilde foreshadows Iser's concerns as well as other modern theories. In his fiction Wilde anticipates Victor Shklovsky's notions of laying bare the devices of fiction by pointing to the audience's and artist's roles as makers [in Russian Formalism, translated by Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis, 1965]. In many of these stories Wilde self-consciously displays the human attempt to use form so as to structure fiction and reality, suggesting Donald Woods Winnicott's concepts of creativity and play in his collection Playing and Reality. Winnicott demonstrates that the healthy individual, from infancy, engages in continual interplay in the "potential space'' between himself and the outside world, both to separate himself from it and to establish an interrelationship with it. Wilde's story ‘‘The Canterville Ghost’’ presents an example of such ongoing creativity as the characters create other fictional characters or objects: the twins recreate the Canterville Ghost out of advertising slogans, they create their own"Otis Ghoste,'' and Virginia"comes to life'' for readers because Wilde encourages us to help create her from the plethora of previously written fictions and myths inhabiting the text. Thus writer, audience, and text all join in the creation of the story.

When readers first encounter Wilde's short stories, their frivolous and somewhat risque content seems to show Wilde as minimally concerned about the reader's power in the aesthetic experience. Nor does he seem interested in shaping the reader's tastes, aesthetic judgment, or world view. Yet a closer examination of the underlying concerns of the works points to a different understanding of these stories. Each of the stories in the collection Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories depicts an artist-figure grappling with his or her role in relation to the audience. In two of the stories, "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime’’ and ‘‘The Model Millionaire,’’ Wilde portrays the artist blithely creating or enacting roles without the necessity of the audience's complicity. But in the other two stories, ‘‘The Canterville Ghost’’ and ‘‘The Sphinx Without a Secret,’’ the audience is shown to be crucial to the making of the illusions and to the artist's self-satisfaction. Although all four stories focus on the creating self, only ‘‘The Canterville Ghost’’ concerns us here, for this story alone explores Wilde's multiple interests in the artist and the audience as creators. In this story, a nouveau-riche American family, the Otises, moves to England and searches for an old English mansion to buy. But they choose a home that is haunted by a murderer's ghost—the original tenant, Sir Simon de Canterville. Unlike their English neighbors, the upstart Americans refuse to take the Ghost seriously; instead, they satirize and parody his stunts and horrors. This response eventually depresses the Canterville Ghost. He tries to find other ways to affect them, even to the point of compromising his art. Yet, he is unwilling to quit his occupation altogether, for he is a responsible being. We soon discover, however, that he cannot leave even if he wants to until someone comes to release his soul from the earthly plane into the final resting place. Virginia, the only daughter of the Otises, takes on that role, befriending and thereby releasing him. In gratitude, the Ghost presents her with the Canterville jewels. Thereafter she marries a young neighboring Duke, and they settle into happy domesticity.

Wilde published "The Canterville Ghost'' along with three other stories, in book form in July 1891, but they had each been published in sophisticated society journals four years earlier."The Canterville Ghost—A Hylo-Idealistic Romance: The Redemptive Heroine'' was the first to appear, published in the 3 February and 2 March 1887 issues of Court and Society Review (a short-lived journal catering to the sophisticated tastes and leisured interests of the upper classes). Ghost stories were very much in demand throughout the nineteenth century, in part because of the influence of the Gothic novel and because of the resurgence of interest in paranormal occurrences (as evidenced by the establishment of the Society for Psychical Research in 1882). In Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, for example, where Wilde was to publish "The Portrait of Mr. W. H.’’ (July 1889), ghost stories were part of the monthly fare, whether written as real attempts at horror, investigations into the supernatural, or comedies about ghosts. Similarly, ghosts are of concern to characters in major fiction of the nineteenth century such as Northanger Abbey, Wuthering Heights and "The Turn of the Screw.'' Thus, Wilde could count on seasoned audiences for ‘‘The Canterville Ghost.'' Given a receptive audience, he tries through the subtext to enlarge their awareness about fiction-making and about the arbitrary reality created by language.

In the beginning of "The Canterville Ghost'' Wilde focuses on performance by pointing both to the first (narcissistic) and second (public) phases of the Ghost's creations. The Canterville Ghost glories in his artistry, taking every opportunity to provoke fresh terror in the new residents in the mansion, and he recalls his most celebrated performances with ‘‘the enthusiastic egotism of the true artist.’’ His performances are elaborate, theatricalized with costumes and alliterative titles such as "Red Ruben, or the Strangled Babe,'" 'Gaunt Gibeon, or the Blood-Sucker of Bexley Moor,'' and "Martin the Maniac, or the Masked Mystery.'' The humorous alliteration draws attention to the artificiality of ghost stories as well as to the Ghost as conscious fiction-maker.

But almost immediately Wilde introduces the problem most artists must contend with when performing: an unreceptive audience that prevents the performance from reaching completion. Such is the American family—a pragmatic, mundane group who simply refuse to be terrorized, rendering the Ghost's artistic efforts ineffectual. Confronted with the Ghosts's various attempts to horrify, the boys treat the performer like a mere schoolboy opponent, hurling pillows and water balloons at him, and even spitting pellets from peashooters at him. His performances having failed with the twins, the Ghost hopes to gain proper publicity from the adults, by perhaps precipitating screaming fits, fainting spells, or possibly heart attacks from them, but they give him only what they would an ordinary mortal displaying such behavior—Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator for his noisy chains and Dr. Dobell's tincture for his "indigestion." And despite the Ghost's laudable attempts to provide them a terrifying bloodstain every night, Washington prosaically scrubs it away with Pinkerton's Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent. Such pragmatic responses to the Ghost's horrific performances convince him that his audience does not deserve the bloodstain: they are, he sniffs, clearly incapable of appreciating the ‘‘symbolic value of sensuous phenomena.’’

The Ghost refuses to admit to himself that his audience will never engage in his performances, and he gives them one more chance. He prepares his most terrible deed to date: to gibber and moan horrifically while stabbing himself repeatedly through the neck. On his way to do this he pauses at the corner, only to receive a terrible shock. The twins have upstaged his performance, creating an apparition of their own, seemingly a parody of a ghost. The poor Canterville Ghost is "frightened witless,'' and "never having seen a ghost before'' he retreats hastily. Naturally, the humor of this passage comes from seeing a ghost being frightened by a ghost. But Wilde also seems to be wrestling here with the role of the audience in the creating process. We see in this scene that the artistic ghost, unlike the twins when they were the audience, responds receptively to their performance, as an audience should; he suspends his disbelief and follows their aesthetic suggestions. For example, when he cannot actually make out what the scroll proclaims, the Ghost creates the statement himself: it must, he assumes, present ‘‘some scroll of shame," "some record of wild sins," "some awful calendar of crime.’’ Not until the dawn will he be able to see that he owes his fright more to his own imagination than to the concrete details—the turnips and cloth— of the twins's artifact. His previous response was thus an aesthetic experience resulting from his collusion with the artistry of the twins, whereas their creative intention seemed to be mainly mockery. When the Ghost can read the scroll's actual message, he realizes the twins' satiric and insulting intent:

YE OTIS GHOSTE Ye Onlie True and Originale Spook. Beware of Ye Imitations All others are Counterfeite.

Thus has his audience (now the artists) transformed his centuries of horrific productions to the ephemeral palaver of American advertisements. Worst of all, the scroll pronounces the Canterville Ghost's artistry counterfeit and imitative. Demoralized, he now inhabits their fiction—that he simply was not capable of terrorizing his audience as the ‘‘Onlie True and Originale Spook’’ could do so well.

It is certainly true that he was not able to involve them in his artistry as they were able to involve him. But we see that the Canterville Ghost is a more receptive audience than were the twins: unlike them, he is open to many different kinds of artistic experience. We also see that the twins are not as philistine as the Ghost would have us think, for they are themselves capable of creating, even if only slapstick, buffoonery, or satire. Unfortunately though, their narrow artistic interests do not include the Ghost's particular creations; they simply refuse to take them seriously. Wilde, in his career, would struggle with this same plight: how to get audiences to hear his works, how to keep them from ridiculing or dismissing him.

In despair, the Canterville Ghost draws on his last reservoir of discourse to conjure up a revenge. Desperately, he tries his most deadly invocation and awaits the second crowing of the cock: ‘‘When Chanticleer had sounded twice his merry horn, deeds of blood would be wrought, and Murder [would] walk abroad with silent feet.’’ But again, his art—the ability to evoke the power residing within words—fails him: apparently for the first time in the history of conjuring, Chanticleer crows only once. Frustrated, humiliated, and at last cowed, the Canterville Ghost sinks into a dark depression.

His expectations undermined by the audience's lack of interest, the Ghost realizes (as Wilde himself eventually would) that he must reconsider his roles, search for new masks, and renovate his performances. Through the manipulation of objects and language, the young Americans have evoked a potential space where the Ghost must define himself anew, but the only role left him is that of Victorian duty or convention. Even though the Americans have hurt his feelings, he dutifully and politely "traverse[s] the corridor'' every Saturday between midnight and three o'clock, now having oiled his chains and removed his noisy boots, "to take every possible precaution against being either heard or seen.’’ In other words, by wrongly trying to please his audience, by giving in to their expectations, the Ghost has let the audience take over his future performances: they have told him he can perform, but only without demanding their attention. The Americans thus not only refuse to participate in his public performance but now they also dictate to him how to structure his private first phase of creation: so long as he eliminates everything from his performance which might attract their attention, he can dress up as ‘‘Black Isaac, or the Huntsman of Hogley Woods’’ or however he desires. If they are not asked to respond to his performances, they will not have to grapple with their preconceptions about his performances—or about reality. Rather, they can continue with their own philistine assumptions, namely that ghosts (or artists) are to be ignored or harassed, but not to be taken seriously (thus the twins tie strings across the corridors to trip him and make a butter-slide from the top of the oak staircase to the opening of the Tapestry Chamber, the last of which causes the Ghost a severe fall). Clearly they are exactly the kind of audience any artist of Wilde's cast fears.

But even if Wilde's ghostly alter-ego has surrendered control of his art to his audience, Wilde has not. His wit, inverted cliches and paradox draw attention to himself and the audience as performers in life and art. His rhetorical devices show us how to lay bare the arbitrary acceptance of the reality created by language, categories, and assumptions of the age. As in ‘‘Critic as Artist’’ Wilde shows us how we are "slaves of words.'' Through the humorous paradox that the ghost of a murderer would remain polite and dutiful in other areas of his existence, Wilde places the notions of duty, sincerity, and sin into the realm of play. Further, Wilde succeeds in upending conventional notions of good and evil when he elicits from the reader some sympathy for the Ghost who had committed a crime but who now is responsible, concerned for others, and polite. Delighting in paradox, Wilde playfully manipulates our point of view until the attentive reader can question the stability of words such as "evil," "earnest," "sin," or "responsibility." By thus pointing to the artificiality of language, Wilde again makes his audience aware of themselves as performers of the reality around them.

In addition, Wilde playfully calls our attention to our assumptions about language and moral categories in the scenes with Virginia and the Canterville ghost. When Virginia, a ‘‘sweet Puritan,’’ scolds him for murdering his wife, the Ghost, a complex "personality'' like the murderer Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (treated in Wilde's ‘‘Pen, Pencil, and Poison’’), responds aptly and wittily, transforming ethical concerns into aesthetic concerns. In a display of panache, the Ghost tells Virginia that he murdered his wife primarily in aesthetic defense against her ordinary face, her negligent housekeeping habits, and her unimaginative cookery:

‘‘It is very wrong to kill anyone,’’ said Virginia, who at times had a sweet Puritan gravity, caught from some Old New England ancestor.

‘‘Oh, I hate the cheap severity of abstract ethics! My wife was very plain, never had my ruffs properly starched, and knew nothing about cookery. Why, there was a buck I had shot in Hogley Woods, a magnificent pricket, and do you know how she had it sent up to table? However, it is no matter now, for it is all over, and I don't think it was very nice of her brothers to starve me to death, though I did kill her’’.

Wilde orchestrates this scene with such whimsical irony that any indignation or outrage the reader might feel at such monstrous behavior is absolutely undercut. Only for a moment at the end of the story does Virginia, the Ghost's new audience (and now his new biographer), succeed in evoking for us any sense of real pain, sin, or remorse felt by the Ghost, when she points out Sir Simon's manacled skeleton, showing that he died in agony, vainly reaching towards food and drink placed just out of his reach. Of course Wilde's reader soon recognizes this description as a Gothic cliche, after which he or she rescinds any emotional investment in the Ghost's predicament. The fluid stances Wilde uses to describe Sir Simon's life allows him to call our attention to other arbitrary structures upon which we base our judgments. And if the modern reader knows (just as a limited number knew then) that when this story was published Wilde himself had begun to violate society's sexual codes, then the reader can bring Wilde's own "crime" to the story's appeal for flexible judgments about morality.

Of course, Wilde's main concern with any character's sins or indiscretions is whether the behavior results in an enlarged, multiplied (Paterian) self. Those personalities who explore new arenas of experience, and thus perform new facets of the self, are seen as artists, whether of life or artifact. In this story Wilde celebrates characters who have tried on other masks in life (or in death). The ghost of course is one such character, as is Mrs. Lucretia Tappan Otis, who has played the roles of "celebrated New York belle'' in the past and is currently playing a handsome matron with a ‘‘superb profile.’’ But whereas Mrs. Otis has only dabbled in the artistry of the self, her daughter Virginia will wholeheartedly engage in such artistry. By risking her chaste reputation in order to embark on a secret, romantic escapade (an activity which, when camouflaged with the excuse that one is visiting a sick relative, Wilde later would term "bunburying'' in The Importance of Being Earnest), Virginia recreates the self, paralleling Wilde's other artist/criminal figures. After this romantic rite of passage, Virginia becomes an artist of the self. But unlike the ghost, she successfully dictates artistic terms to her audiences within the story, whether to her husband and family or to the ghost himself. They receive or contribute to her performances as she desires: her family accepts her version of reality while she was with the ghost, and because of her love the ghost allows her to remake his gothic drama of revenge and depression into a tragicomedy of forgiveness and peace. Possibly, her dominant position in relation to her audience is meant to suggest Wilde's desires regarding his own role with his audiences.

We watch Virginia's character take on more masks and become an aggregate of performances as the story progresses. Originally we see her as a fifteen-year-old "amazon," "lithe and lovely as a fawn,’’ whose freshness provides a contrast to the aesthetic, amoral ghost. Her essential naivete is suggested when she sweetly offers the ghost a sandwich and has the imaginative capacity to believe in him before the others do: as the story's subtitle indicates, she is the "hylo-idealist'' of this "romance.'' Soon, however, the reader realizes that Wilde's text provides potential space for the reader to negotiate Virginia's characterization through the echoes of previous texts inhabiting this text. Virginia' s name, for example, emphasizes that she will be a conciliator between the English families and her own; "Virginia" recalls both the English Queen and the American state named for that queen. Nor is it an accident that the only other woman besides Virginia that the ghost admires is the Virgin Queen (he mentions that she had complimented his performance at the Kenilworth tournament). In addition, the description of Virginia as an amazon suggests a tie to the mythic world, just as the second part of the subtitle (‘‘The Redemptive Heroine’’) opens up possibilities for ties to other literary heroines and even to the Virgin Mary. When we consider Virginia's role in the story—she leads the Ghost through the darkness so that his soul may find final rest—there is also a clear echo of Dante's Beatrice. And, just as Beatrice rebuked Dante when he reached the top of Purgatory, so Virginia sternly reminds the Ghost that it is ‘‘very wrong to kill anyone,’’ and later she chastises him for being rude, dishonest, ‘‘horrid, and vulgar.’’ Virginia/Beatrice even usurps Dante's role when she returns to the others with her new vision. Thus we see Wilde using familiar literary models to encourage his audience to respond creatively to the story; his text calls attention to our own roles as receptive readers (and therefore creators) who can fill the gaps in the text, a possibility which Wilde in ‘‘Critic as Artist’’ seems to support for the critic or for any sensitive, educated reader: "The critic occupies the same relation to the work of art that he criticizes as the artist does to the visible world of form and colour, or the unseen world of passion and of thought .... Indeed, I would call criticism a creation.’’ Yet Wilde seems ambivalent about a reader's being too free with a text. His confident statement about the creative critic or reader contrasts markedly with Wilde's anxious Canterville Ghost, whose audiences ignore his artistic guidance and eventually force him to relinquish control of his art. Wilde in this story wants to shape the audiences's responses more than he implied in ‘‘Critic as Artist.’’

One area, however, where Wilde's shaping hand is perhaps too subtle for many readers is that of Virginia's bunburying. Wilde handles the sexual goings-on between the ghost and Virginia so discreetly that they have remained hidden from the audiences within the story as well as from most readers of the story. The energy of the story focuses on the performance of concealment, yet Wilde also enjoys the game of implying that there is something to reveal. First, we recall that Virginia is seduced by the Canterville Ghost's ‘‘dreamy voice’’ and his poetically persuasive rhetoric. But beneath this artist's smooth words of poesy is found another familiar line, used by countless men to seduce countless virgins—that a good woman's love can redeem a man's crooked soul. The ghost points to the inscription on the library window (quoted below) and promises Virginia that he wants her only to pray and weep for him and thereby release his soul. But even a cursory glance at the prophecy on the library window shows that the ghost is withholding something in his interpretation of these lines. Readers who know Wilde's works remember his later statement in The Picture of Dorian Gray that the soul can be cured by means of the senses, and there are certainly numerous sensuous details in this scene.

In the context of what follows between Virginia and the ghost, the inscription can suggest that the ghost looks forward to sexual fulfillment and consequent gratitude (‘‘When a golden girl can win Prayer from out of the lips of sin’’), and there is the hint of a rite of passage for the golden girl (‘‘And a little child gives away its tears "). Virginia is fifteen, and possibly Wilde is suggesting the familiar relationship between an older artist and a younger lover. Several other details in the text also suggest a sexual seduction. When the ghost gratefully kisses Virginia's hand, his hands are ‘‘cold as ice,’’ but his lips are burning ‘‘like fire,’’ a description which underlines his sensual nature. Further, the ghost clutches her hand tightly, and Virginia goes with him into the darkness, despite the warnings from the gargoyles (symbols of human lusts) and from the huntsmen on the tapestry (an image suggesting that Virginia is the prey). As they reach the threshold of the "great black cavern’’ he ‘‘pull[s] at her dress’’ to hasten her in.

And there is other evidence to suggest that Virginia has indeed been bunburying. When Virginia returns after being alone with the ghost for eight hours she brings with her a casket of jewels (a gift usually presented to a lover). Later, she is given the widow's place in Sir Simon's funeral procession. Such precedence reinforces the idea that probably she was not just praying and weeping during that entire eight hours. Years later, when queried by Cecil (who is by that time her husband) she will not give details about her visit with the ghost, saying only that she owes Sir Simon "a great deal'' because he taught her to see "what Life is, and what Death signifies, and why Love is stronger than both.’’ The Duke seems satisfied enough with this answer as long as her heart is his, though her explanation sounds suspiciously like an excuse used by a bunburyist. This interpretation finds further support when Virginia, by then a respectable matron, blushes at the thought of telling her children about her activities. Rodney Shewan calls this conclusion ‘‘the feminist's answer to 'Lord Arthur Savile's Crime,''’ for in this case the wife, not the husband, has "sacrificed" herself and kept the secret from her spouse. Such poetic justice no doubt would be much appreciated by the fashionable (and perhaps jaded) readers of Court and Society Review. But taking Shewan's observation further, we can also see that the importance of this scene for Wilde is that Virginia has added to the aggregate of her self. She has transformed herself from a one-dimensional cliche to a multi-faceted romance. She has become an artist of the self.

By the end of the story we begin to synthesize Wilde's contrapuntal concerns about performance. Not only do the characters, plot, and language explore the nature of performance, but the story's structures play with it as well when they elude easy categorization. The spoof of a ghost story slides into erotic intrigue, and the young Duke's idyllic love story with Virginia plays with elements of Old Comedy as she bunburies with an older man. The marriage of the Duke and Virginia reconciles the old world with the new, and Virginia, now a Duchess, proudly wears the Canterville jewels. Further, the Duke is able to live with his wife's unwillingness to share her secret, trusting her to love him in spite of the unexplained event in her past. Even though the story ends on a question (whether she will tell her children her secret), readers feel the ending provides closure: Virginia has been so successful in her life's artistry thus far that we are confident she will create an appropriate fiction about her secret for her children when the time comes.

Wilde further reminds readers of his notions about creativity when the ghost of Sir Simon, because of the intercession of Virginia (his artistic audience), receives forgiveness and love from her, which, as Poirier points out, is at bottom what every personality and artist strives to achieve when presenting a performance to the public. Sadly, though, he now desires that Virginia's love serve only to grant him deliverance to his final death. Perhaps the ghost's achievement of final rest suggests that last aspect of the creative process which every artist experiences—the depletion and emptiness following the completion of any artwork. Or perhaps the ghost's desire to attain final rest suggests his recog- nition that the mode of performance he loved so much (horrifying the inhabitants of the mansion) no longer has a receptive audience, and thus there is no point in going on with it. This possibility would be a dark one for Wilde since, like the ghost, he too devotes much of his creative energy to shocking (and sometimes horrifying) his audiences.

This last observation leads us back to one of Wilde's anxieties about performance which is not fully resolved in the story—namely the role of the artist in relation to the audience and the work. For beneath the comic tone and paradoxical style of the story, we sense the Ghost's earnestness about his artistry and his genuine despair over his failure to reach his audience on his own terms. Perhaps comedy and paradox are Wilde's defenses against the real pathos an artist feels when his performance is not given even polite consideration by the audience. The Canterville Ghost tries several roles in his increasingly desperate attempt to achieve—at the least—confirmation from his audience so that he can know that public aspect of The Performing Self. But he is able to do so only when he becomes respectable, dutiful, and self-effacing—a grim alternative for any artist, but especially one of Wilde's cast. Perhaps the ghost's last fling with Virginia was Wilde's way of retrieving for his alter-ego some bit of liveliness, complexity, and personality to compensate for his necessary surrender to the audience.

Such was the way Wilde handled rejection from his audience in his own works and life (until his imprisonment): he simply became more flamboyant and more subversive as he put off confronting the significant power of his audience. A main problem, then, that the reader must negotiate in Wilde's work is the same contradiction that threatened to undo his life: Wilde wants to prevent his audience from controlling his creative territory, but he also wants to encourage the audience in its responsibility to create its reality and fiction. Thus, Wilde always kept one eye on his audience, seeking out their recognition, and, like the ghost, he tried several means to persuade them to consider his vision. Just as the ghost needed to tell someone his artistic woes, so Wilde expended much energy writing letters to journals such as the Pall Mall Gazette, the St. James Gazette, the Daily Chronicle, the Speaker, and the Daily Telegraph, earnestly justifying the ways of his art to his public. Even his paradoxical style—although appreciated by persons such as the readers of Court and Society Review— was not only a means to shock his audience, but ultimately an attempt to persuade unbelievers to inhabit his world view, a view that language, values, and beliefs are arbitrary structures and that the artist's role is to guide the audience in its creations and structurings. Wilde wanted the success with his audiences that Virginia achieved with hers. So, in addition to writing letters to editors, he continued to explore and expose what he saw as the misguided power of audiences in his fiction and essays. The underlying text beneath the humor of the Ghost's defeat reveals to the readers that even though Wilde seemed in control of the witty and complex performance of ‘‘The Canterville Ghost,’’ on some level he knew (but chose not to believe, as his later life would show) that the audience had the power to control or to ruin a performance—or even an artist. It is perhaps significant that when Wilde published these stories in book form for the general public, the collection received mostly bad reviews. Like the Canterville Ghost, Wilde would have to try yet another mask.

Source: Lydia Reineck Wilburn, ‘‘Oscar Wilde's 'The Canterville Ghost': The Power of an Audience,’’ in Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 23, No. 1, Winter, 1987, pp. 41-55.

Marriages and Murders: Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and The Canterville Ghost

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The main action of "The Canterville Ghost'' takes place in 1884, three hundred years after Sir Simon murdered his wife—and in the same year that Wilde married his. Whereas Wilde suggests his personal guilt, augmented by the betrayal of marriage, within Lord Arthur Savile's Crime, here they are present only through the correspondence of dates. Yet the transformation of life into confessional art is no less certainly his intention. He constructs this story, like so many of his other works, around the confrontation of saint and sinner. The distinguishing characteristic of "The Canterville Ghost'' is its negative portrayal of the double life. Although Wilde might praise artificiality and the wearing of masks elsewhere, the ghost's experience reveals that this mode of existence is the lonely refuge of an anguished sinner, who gladly forsakes it to gain the peace that forgiveness brings. Finally, as he promises in the subtitle, ‘‘A Hylo-Idealistic Romance,’’ Wilde presents the conflict between materialism and idealism, an opposition he develops using the literary labels realism and romance in ‘‘The Decay of Lying." "The Canterville Ghost’’ constitutes also Wilde's tentative testing of the fairy-tale genre, in which he casts the next major portion of his writings.

‘‘The Canterville Ghost’’ faithfully renders Wilde's life during the mid-1880s. Beneath the camouflage of hilarity, he 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. The Canterville ghost, representing the first of these, has long practiced an art that Wilde himself mastered: ‘‘insincerity.. .by which we can multiply our personalities'' through the wearing of masks. In a state of despair, the ghost looks back on past triumphs:

With the enthusiastic egotism of the true artist he went over his most celebrated performances, and smiled bitterly to himself as he recalled to mind his last appearance as ‘‘Red Ruben, or the Strangled Babe,’’ his debut as ‘‘Gaunt Gibeon, the Blood-sucker of Bexley Moor,’’ and the furore he had excited one lovely June evening by merely playing ninepins with his own bones upon the lawn-tennis ground.

Sir Simon's antics not only yield the desired self-multiplication, but also they afford the additional pleasure of shocking the public. Wilde reiterates the relationship of haunting to art as he conducts his reader behind the scenes:

It [i.e., the role of ‘‘Reckless Rupert’’] was, however, an extremely difficult"make-up,’’ if I may use such a theatrical expression in connection with one of the greatest mysteries of the supernatural, or, to employ a more scientific term, the higher-natural world, and it took him fully three hours to make his preparations.

The veteran thespian can boast a long list of hauntees gone mad as a result of his artistry. Although for most of his career he has been restricted to victimizing aristocrats and their servants, the installation of the Otis family at Canterville Chase presents him with the opportunity epater le bourgeois. However, their materialistic mentality proves more than a match for even his best performances. Like the other arts, Sir Simon's languishes in an age dominated by science and common sense.

Wilde seems to be suggesting that creative energies might be directed toward more fruitful enterprises than the lost war against Philistinism. And certainly the story indicates that Sir Simon's efforts to transform his life, such as it is, into art yield no greater success than Dorian Gray's. Even had the age been more propitious, the poseur's existence could not have fulfilled the ghost—or Oscar Wilde. For, while the public figure has chosen society as victim, the private self has fallen prey to society. Sir Simon's defeat by an unappreciative audience is hilarious indeed when contrasted with the anguish of his inner being. As he tells Virginia, his wife's brothers murdered him nine years after he took her life. They committed that grim, vindictive act of revenge associated in The Duchess of Padua with Old Testament morality. Sir Simon's skeleton commemorates their vengeance and represents the man behind his and Wilde's masks:

Imbedded in the wall [of a secret compartment] 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 his 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.

In this symbolic tableau, the Old Testament judgment that irrevocably damns sexual inversion has punished Sir Simon for his crime and shackled Wilde with mind-forged manacles that place salvation beyond his reach. The trencher and ewer suggest the Eucharist and the Christian dispensation of forgiveness for sin. Wilde sought New Testament mercy, but his socially instilled belief in Old Testament judgment, combined with imperfect faith in Christ's law of love, rendered it inaccessible to him at this time. The manacled skeleton might serve as emblem to The Duchess of Padua, which figures forth the same paralyzing entrapment between two moralities.

It has been observed that most of Wilde's works end with a ceremonial unmasking. ‘‘The Canterville Ghost'' is no exception. But, whereas in the comedies a past crime or indiscretion is exposed, Sir Simon's evil deed has long been a matter of public record. In this story, Wilde lifts the poseur's successful mask to reveal the sufferer beneath. Sir Simon has actually been destroyed by the public he seems to have terrorized so ably. Masks, then, are a way to hide the scars of guilt and to taunt society for its lacerating morality. Certainly multiplication of personalities does not result in the fulfillment Wilde claims for it in other writings. In "The Canterville Ghost'' he focuses on the shortcomings of this mode of existence, which he will unequivocally reject in De Profundis.

In his review of Yeats' s Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, Wilde offers a definition of ghosts that thoroughly applies to Sir Simon:

The ghosts live in a state intermediary between this world and the next. They are held there by some earthly longing or affection, or some duty unfulfilled, or anger against the living; they are those who are too good for hell, and too bad for heaven.

The Canterville ghost longs for release from his protean series of roles; they are to him a form of purgatory rather than a means of self-realization. As did Guido and Beatrice, he longs for death: "Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one's head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.’’ But he cannot gain deliverance through his own efforts because he lacks faith; this he sacrificed by killing his wife. Stripped of his masks, his stage glory brought to an end, he tells Virginia of his spiritual despair: "You must weep for me for my sins, because I have no tears, and pray with me for my soul, because I have no faith, and then, if you have always been sweet, and good, and gentle, the Angel of Death will have mercy on me.... against the purity of a little child the powers of Hell cannot prevail.'' These lines provide the interpretative context for the chained skeleton. Sir Simon's lack of faith cannot be readily overcome like the transitory doubts of Guido, Beatrice, and Lord Arthur Savile, though he wants to believe as badly as they.

In The Duchess of Padua Wilde presents his characteristic saint-sinner confrontation and preaches the efficacy of forgiveness; but the play's deep-structure undercuts his sermonizing. Lord Arthur Savile's Crime depicts mock salvation through conversion to Philistinism. ‘‘The Canterville Ghost’’ incorporates the central confrontation of The Duchess and brings it to more optimistic issue. Although Sir Simon, like Guido and Beatrice, seeks salvation in death, Wilde expresses in the story an unqualified belief in the transformative powers of Christian love.

He casts the puritanical Virginia Otis as successor to Guido and predecessor of Lady Windermere, Hester Worsley, and Lady Chiltern. Initially, she categorically condemns Sir Simon's deed: '‘‘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.’’ The ghost counters with a rejection of her moral standards: ‘‘Oh, I hate the cheap severity of abstract ethics! My wife was very plain, never had my ruffs properly starched, and knew nothing about cookery.’’ His first sentence deserves further consideration. But, rather than developing the argument, Wilde sounds a comic retreat. The debate soon gives way to Sir Simon's confession of despair and plea for Virginia's help.

She can overcome her puritanism, forgive the ghost, and lead him to salvation because she possesses the faculty of imagination. She, too, is an artist, specifically, a landscape painter. Prior to her conversion, she reviles the ghost for stealing her paints: ‘‘as for dishonesty, you know you stole the paints out of my box to try and furbish up that ridiculous blood-stain in the library. ... I never told on you, though I was very much annoyed, and it was most ridiculous, the whole thing.’’ Ridiculous indeed, but his refurbishing efforts constitute more than the criminal's compulsive return to the scene of his crime. He is also asserting the claims of imagination against the sway of materialistic common sense, of the artist's craft against Pinkerton' s Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent. But he concedes victory to Pinkerton's: ‘‘If the Otis family did not want it [i.e., the blood-stain], they clearly did not deserve it. They were evidently people on a low, material plane of existence, and quite incapable of apprehending the symbolic value of sensuous phenomena.’’

Virginia's silent sacrifice of her paints separates her from the rest of her family and, in a sense, makes her, too, suffer art's defeat by Philistinism. But in such materialistic times, this defeat is inevitable. Creative energy, Wilde suggests, should be used to transcend, rather than hopelessly to battle, the hostile cultural environment. Virginia's powers of imagination enable her to rise above the family's mentality and the "cheap severity of abstract ethics’’ and to embrace the New Testament law of love. Thus she can lead Sir Simon into a transcendent realm of peace. Her ultimate artistry facilitates his salvation, which Wilde places beyond question: ‘'‘God has forgiven him,' said Virginia gravely ... and a beautiful light seemed to illuminate her face.'' She has fulfilled the prophecy on the library window:

When a golden girl can win Prayer from out the lips of sin, When the barren almond bears, And a little child gives way its tears, Then shall all the house be still And peace come to Canterville.

The barren almond blooms, suggesting the Tannhauser legend and the remission of sexual sins. And, as the opening lines indicate, Virginia has restored Sir Simon's faith.

According to its subtitle, ‘‘The Canterville Ghost,’’ is ‘‘A Hylo-Idealistic Romance.’’ Hylo-Idealism denotes the doctrine espoused by a small group of English free-thinkers during the 1870s and 1880s. From the murky morass of their journal articles, only one characteristic emerges clearly: militant atheism. It is highly unlikely that Wilde would preface his distinctly Christian story with an allusion to their philosophy. But hylo-idealistic does have relevance when one interprets its hyphen as an indicator of opposition; Wilde continually stresses the conflict between materialism, represented by the combining form hylo-, and Christian idealism. In this philosophical romance, the idealists overcome obstacles set up by the hylists.

The story actually encompasses three realms of experience. The Otis family, which subsists on a "low, material plane of existence,'' views life through the scientist's microscope. Their treatment of the bloodstain and the twins' irreverent attacks on the ghost clearly indicate their attitude toward the supernatural. The ghost lives in a sort of limbo, occupying a purgatorial realm where, though he can defy reason and the laws of physical science, he cannot completely escape their authority. Finally, Wilde presents the transcendent realm of imagination and spirit. He associates the mundane world of reason and materialistic monism with Old Testament morality. Here Sir Simon has committed a crime and been punished; here he exists as a skeleton. The ghost's purgatory is suspended midway between matter and spirit; he can pass through walls, but must suffer the physical pain of barked shins; he has risen to taunt his murderers' descendants, yet he must live under the damning pronouncement of their moral code. The higher realm of spirit and peace is inseparable from the higher morality of the New Testament. Virginia, because she has both innocence and imagination, can depart from her family's materialistic plane of existence, enter empathetically into the ghost's purgatory, and finally conduct him into the spiritual realm.

The conflict between hylists and idealists clearly anticipates the central opposition in "The Decay of Lying'' between the literary modes of realism and romance. In fact, ‘‘The Canterville Ghost’’ embodies precisely what Wilde bemoans in "Decay": "Facts are not merely finding a footing-place in history, but they are usurping the domain of Fancy, and have invaded the kingdom of Romance.’’ These lines call to mind the Otis family's analogous invasion of Canterville Chase. Not surprisingly, as Wilde continues his lament, he finds in America the epitome of the destructive materialistic mentality:

The crude commercialism of America, its materialising spirit, its indifference to the poetical side of things, and its lack of imagination and of high unattainable ideals, are entirely due to that country having adopted for its national hero a man [i.e., George Washington], who according to his own confession, was incapable of telling a lie.

The Reverend Otis, obviously the possessor of these characteristics, fittingly named his firstborn Washington. Just as Wilde engineers the triumph of imagination over fact in his story, so he asserts at the end of"Decay'' that"Romance, with her temper of wonder, will return to the land.’’ Both triumph and prophecy reflect Wilde's yearning for forgiveness and peace.

Source: Philip K. Cohen, ‘‘Marriages and Murders: Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and 'The Canterville Ghost,'’’ in The Moral Vision of Oscar Wilde, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978, pp. 53-71.


Critical Overview