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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Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525

Oscar Wilde wrote at the end of the Victorian period, named for Queen Victoria. This period marked the rise of a growing middle class in Great Britain. This middle class had gained wealth through the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, as well as a result of Britain's expanding empire. The values of this class stood in marked contrast to the values of an older aristocracy. Members of the aristocracy had traditionally depended on land for income and were used to inheriting wealth rather than earning it. The middle class idealized the importance of the family, thrift, and hard work. However, many working-class Victorians lived in poverty and squalor. Government commissions microscopically examined the living conditions of the poor in an attempt to improve everything from sewage systems to education. Mid-Victorian novelists used their art to bring attention to the social problems of the day.

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Aesthetic Backlash
Oscar Wilde was a follower of the Aesthetic— also known as the Decadent Movement—which had developed in France and had been introduced into England in the late 1800s. The Decadents believed that beauty should be valued above all else. Believing in ‘‘art for art's sake,’’ the Decadents shunned the social problem novels that flourished earlier in the Victorian period. As Oscar Wilde wrote in his famous preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray,"No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style.'' In other words, Wilde thought that moral judgments devalued the artistry of paintings and literature. Most Decadents also deviated from the moral values of their time period, experimenting with sex and drugs. Critics have noted that in ‘‘The Canterville Ghost’’ Sir Simon exhibits Decadent sensibilities.

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Science
In ‘‘The Canterville Ghost,’’ Mr. Horace B. Otis declares that"the laws of Nature are not going to be suspended for the British aristocracy.’’ The nineteenth century saw many advances in science. Charles Darwin had presented his theory of evolution in The Origin of Species in 1859. The opening of the Natural History Museum in London in 1881 allowed for the greater spread of recent scientific knowledge. Advances were made in medicine, as vaccines were found for such diseases as rabies and anthrax. Scientists were better able to interpret the natural world as they discovered the size of atoms and the physical makeup of the sun. Also, in 1882, Viennese physician Joseph Breuer began using hypnosis to cure hysteria, marking the early beginnings of modern psychoanalysis.

Many nineteenth-century Europeans and Americans also sought answers in the more questionable sciences that flourished in their day. Phrenology, the belief that a person's character traits are apparent in the shape of his or her skull, is one example of a Victorian pseudo-science. Some Victorians also believed in Mesmerism, developed earlier in the century by Franz Anton Mesmer. He suggested the possibility of mind control through hypnosis. The Society for Psychical Research was established in 1882 to prove the existence of ghosts. Oscar Wilde refers to this society in ‘‘The Canterville Ghost.’’ Mrs. Otis, a rational American, announces her intention of joining the society. The Otises' inability to distinguish between science and pseudo-science parodies Victorian faith in science.

Setting

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The story takes place in an old English castle, Canterville Chase, which has all the accoutrements of a traditional haunted castle. Descriptions of the wainscoting, the library paneled in black oak, and the armor in the hallway characterize the gothic setting and help Wilde clash the Old World with the New. Typical of the style of the English Decadents, the gothic atmosphere reveals the author's fascination with the macabre. Yet he mixes the macabre with comedy, juxtaposing devices from traditional English ghost stories such as creaking floorboards, clanking chains, and ancient prophecies with symbols of modern America. Wilde's gothic setting helps emphasize the contrast between cultures—setting modern Americans in what could arguably be a classic symbol of British history—and underscores the impropriety of the castle's mismatched residents, the Otises.

Literary Style

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Setting
"The Canterville Ghost'' is set in the English countryside in the late nineteenth century. Canterville Chase, where most of the story takes place, is described in Gothic terms. It is an old mansion with secret rooms and passageways, long corridors, carved gargoyles, stained glass windows, and oak paneling. Portraits of long-dead Canterville ancestors, ancient tapestries, and a suit of armor add to the medieval-like setting. Frequent thunder and lightning storms also contribute to the gloomy atmosphere. In short, Canterville Chase seems to fit the stereotype of a haunted house.

Stereotypes
Oscar Wilde explores several stereotypes in the story. Canterville Chase boasts the comic book attributes of a haunted house and would be immediately recognized as such by its contemporary audience. Similarly Mr. Horace B. Otis, as an outspoken republican who rejects European ascendancy and believes in the power of the American dollar, represents another stereotype. He and his family discuss the superiority of all things American, from accents to actresses. The Otises also embrace scientific rationalism and believe in the solutions promised by ‘‘Pinkerton's Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent’’ and ‘‘Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator.’’

Young Virginia Otis is described as a Puritan believing in the simple differences between right and wrong. American forthrightness is contrasted to the decadence and decrepitude of an outdated English aristocracy, embodied in the Ghost, Sir Simon. Sir Simon has no morals; he murdered his wife because she was a bad cook and plain. British aristocrats are seen as stuck in familiar patterns. For three hundred years, generations of Cantervilles accepted the presence of a ghost and did nothing to stop the cycle of hauntings. By contrast, the Otises scrub out blood stains and offer to oil the Ghost's creaky chains, proving that American common sense can outmatch tradition.

Fairy Tale
Oscar Wilde explored fairy tale conventions in several of his works. In ‘‘The Canterville Ghost,’’ he introduces Virginia Otis, a fairy-tale type heroine. Critics have likened her to the princess in "The Frog Prince.’’ In that fairy tale, the princess has to put aside her ingrained dislike of amphibians, and, in a leap of faith, kiss the frog. Similarly, Virginia must believe that there is a soul worth saving in the murderous and grisly Sir Simon. Her actions lead to a happy ending: she marries a Duke and receives a casket of valuable jewels from the Ghost.

Aestheticism and Decadence
Oscar Wilde was part of a late nineteenth-century movement known as aestheticism or decadence. Proponents of this movement believed in "art for art's sake,'' and sometimes in "life for art's sake.'' In other words, the moral purpose of both art and life is to produce beauty. Beauty is the ultimate goal. In many ways, Sir Simon, the Canterville Ghost, practices such a credo. He painstakingly assembles costumes to represent true ghostliness more perfectly. He spends all his time studying and preparing the art of horror. The Otises, however, fail to appreciate his numerous incarnations and do not see the art behind his performances. Crass materialists, the Otises destroy the Ghost's art. They scrub out his carefully maintained bloodstain and finally convince him to oil his clanking chains. As a misunderstood artist, the Ghost gains the reader's sympathy. But in many ways, Sir Simon is a parody of the very movement to which his creator belonged.

Literary Qualities

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"The Canterville Ghost" is a study in contrasts. Wilde takes an American family, places them in a British setting, then, through a series of mishaps, pits one culture against the other. He creates stereotypical characters that represent both England and the United States, and he presents each of these characters as comical figures, satirizing both the unrefined tastes of Americans and the determination of the British to guard their traditions. Sir Simon is not a symbol of England, as perhaps Mrs. Umney is, but rather a paragon of British culture. In this sense, he stands in perfect contrast to the Otises. Sir Simon misunderstands the Otises just as they misunderstand him, and, by pitting them against each other, Wilde clearly wishes to emphasize the culture clash between England and the United States.

The story illustrates Wilde's tendency to reverse situations into their opposites as the Otises gain the upper hand and succeed in terrorizing the ghost rather than be terrorized by him. Wilde pairs this reversal of situations with a reversal of perspective. This ghost story is told not from the perspective of the castle occupants, as in traditional tales, but from the perspective of the ghost, Sir Simon. In this sense, Sir Simon could logically be labeled the "protagonist" in this story, as it is he who faces the challenge of overcoming adversity and bettering his "life."

Social Sensitivity

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"The Canterville Ghost" is both a parody of the traditional ghost story and a satire of the American way of life. Wilde obviously intends to satirize American materialism, but he pokes fun at English traditional culture as well. Mrs. Umney, who faints at the sound of the thunder that follows Washington's removal of the bloodstain, is laughable, as are Mr. and Mrs. Otis with their lack of refinement and their reliance on practical solutions and common sense. Wilde satirizes both cultures when, after Lord Canterville warns him about the ghost, Mr. Otis replies, "But there is no such thing, sir, as a ghost, and I guess the laws of Nature are not going to be suspended for the British aristocracy."

Though Wilde tells a humorous tale, it appears that he also has a message, and he uses fifteen-year-old Virginia to convey it. Virginia says that the ghost helped her see the significance of life and death, and why love is stronger than both. This is certainly not the first time an author has used the traditional ghost story and the theme of life and death to examine the issue of forgiveness; ghosts, after all, presumably remain in this realm because, for some reason, they are unable to move on. Wilde's ghost, Sir Simon, "had been very wicked," Virginia tells her father after she returns to the castle. "But he was really sorry for all that he had done." God has forgiven him, Virginia tells her father, and because of that forgiveness, in the end, Sir Simon de Canterville can rest in peace.

Compare and Contrast

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1880s: Homosexuality is considered a moral outrage and perversion punishable by jail. Homosexual relationships are hidden from societal view.

1990s: Although homosexuality is more accepted, many states still have laws against homosexual acts. Many people consider the homosexual lifestyle as opposed to religious doctrine. Legislation to sanction gay marriages and gays in the military has failed. Many states have passed anti-discrimination laws in response to vicious hate crimes that target homosexuals.

1880s: Nineteenth-century Europe and America are enamored with such practices as phrenology, the belief that a person's character traits are apparent in the shape of his or her skull. Some Victorians also believed in Mesmerism, developed earlier in the century by Franz Anton Mesmer. He suggested the possibility of mind control through hypnosis.

1990s: The practice of alternative medicine is on the rise, as many people turn away from technological advances and the complicated health care system. Instead, they use massage techniques, yoga, acupuncture, and other techniques to address serious health issues.

Media Adaptations

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"The Canterville Ghost’’ was loosely adapted into a film by the same name in 1944. In this version, set in World War II, Charles Laughton plays a cowardly ghost who meets a cowardly descendent played by Robert Young. Directed by Jules Dassin, released by MGM, the film is available from MGM/United Artists Home Entertainment.

A 1991 production of ‘‘The Canterville Ghost’’ from "Wonderworks" features a ghost who must haunt an old manor house until he learns to conquer his fears. Produced by Helios Productions, the film is available through Public Media Video.

An animated version was produced in 1986 by Orkin-Flaum Productions.

NBC broadcast The Canterville Ghost, adapted for television by Bell System Family Theatre, in 1975.

Patrick Stewart stars as Sir Simon, and Neve Campbell as Virginia in the 1996 Hallmark production of The Canterville Ghost, directed by Syd Macartney.

The Saturday Evening Ghost was the title of a 1936 stage adaptation by Samuel French.

Darwin R. Payne wrote a 1963 stage version of ‘‘The Canterville Ghost.’’

For Further Reference

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Belford, Barbara. Oscar Wilde: A Certain Genius. New York: Random House, 2000. A biography of Wilde that highlights his eccentricity and artistic genius as well as discusses his homosexuality in light of the political and culture environment of the times. Includes historical photographs and excerpts from his works.

Foldy, Michael S. The Trials of Oscar Wilde: Deviance, Morality and Late Victorian Society. Yale University Press, 1997. An analysis of Wilde's trial and the attempts to chastise him for sexual deviance. Offers a discussion of the social and moral issues of concern in England in the late 1800s.

Mason, Stuart. Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Movement. Haskell House Publisher, 1970. A discussion of Wilde's style and his involvement in the Decadent movement and its credo "Art for art's sake."

"Oscar Wilde." Dictionary of Literary Biography Online. Gale Group, 2001. Discusses Wilde's personal life, his career, and his writings and provides a list of sources for further study.

Raby, Peter, ed. Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde. Cambridge University Press, 1997. Places Wilde's work in its historical context and discusses his predominant themes and the personal viewpoints that influenced them. Includes an introductory essay by Merlin Holland, Wilde's grandson.

Sammells, Neil. Wilde Style: The Plays and Prose of Oscar Wilde. Studies in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Literature series. Longman, 2001. An examination of Wilde's major works and a survey of current criticism. Discusses his influence and his style and offers an analysis of specific works.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Shewan, Rodney."Fiction as Ingratiation—First Attempts at a Social Pastoral: 'Lord Arthur Savile's Crime,"The Canterville Ghost,"LadyAlroy,"TheModel Millionaire,'’’ in his Oscar Wilde: Art and Egotism, Macmillan, 1977, pp. 32-5.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891. Reprint. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Further Reading
Ellmann, Richard. "Introduction," in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and Other Writings, Bantam Books, 1982, pp. ix—xix.
Ellmann gives an overview of the themes found in Wilde's major works.

Raby, Peter. Oscar Wilde, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 1-11,54-6.
Raby offers a brief analysis of the significance of Wilde's life to his works, and explores the various influences on ‘‘The Canterville Ghost.’’

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