The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde

The Canterville Ghost book cover
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The Canterville Ghost eNotes Lesson Plan

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Learning Objectives: 
By the end of this unit, students should be able to

  • summarize the plot and identify conflicts in the narrative;
  • define aestheticism and materialism as belief systems and describe how they are illustrated through the characters;
  • explain how the ghost of Sir Simon is developed as a dynamic character;
  • identify elements of gothic literature in the text and describe how Wilde employs humor in making the novella a parody of the genre;
  • identify examples of satire in the text and interpret what they suggest about differences between Americans and the British;
  • explain how major themes in the narrative are developed through symbolism, motifs, and Virginia’s relationship with the ghost.

Common Core Standards: RL.2, RL.3, RL.4, RL.5, RL.6

Introductory Lecture:

Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), author of The Canterville Ghost and other notable works of poetry and prose, led a colorful life. Born in Dublin, Ireland, to wealthy, accomplished parents, Wilde was given access to the best of educations and the freedom to explore his interests. His greatest passion arguably was the aesthetic movement, a literary and arts movement that challenged Victorian standards at the end of the nineteenth century. Adherents of the aesthetic movement believed in “art for art’s sake,” in the superiority of handmade goods over manufactured goods, and in existing “beautifully.” This movement flew in the face of Victorian beliefs and values. The influence of aestheticism is evident in Wilde’s work, including The Canterville Ghost.

The Canterville Ghost was published in two installments in 1887 in Court and Society Review, a magazine for the leisured upper classes. It was not critically acclaimed, as it was seen by critics as derivative, but the book as well as his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and his play The Importance of Being Earnest are now lauded as witty, clever works which expertly play with the conventions of the times in which they were written.

Wilde was married and fathered two children, but he was entirely immersed in promoting himself as an arbiter of taste and a self-styled professor of aesthetics. Before writing The Canterville Ghost, Wilde toured the United States for nine months, during which he delivered 140 lectures on aestheticism. His exposure to Americans and the American way of life at the end of the nineteenth century gave him rich material to draw from for his portrait of the Otises in The Canterville Ghost. Both a parody of gothic romances and a satire on American culture, the novella is often humorous; underlying the humor, however, are serious themes related to sin, repentance, atonement, and forgiveness. Critics frequently note that the narrative also reflects core beliefs of the aesthetic movement, primarily through the character of Sir Simon Canterville, the ghost.  

The iconoclastic Wilde, who favored wearing green carnations in the button hole of his coats, velvet breeches, and luxurious silk shirts, was much maligned by critics and other artists of his day—generally those who didn’t subscribe to the aesthetic movement. He was controversial and subject to scorn in paintings, musical theater, and political cartoons. Although he was an accomplished writer—bright and humorous and celebrated by a particular segment of upper-class Britons—Wilde died alone in Paris in 1900, living under a pseudonym.

The unraveling of Wilde’s personal and professional lives ensued when his homosexuality became a public matter, as homosexual relationships were illegal in Britain. Wilde was sued by the father of one of his lovers; Wilde counter-sued for libel and lost. He also lost the suit that the father had filed against him. Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor for “gross indecency between male persons,” and his reputation was ruined. Wilde published some poems while in jail, but the scandal destroyed his standing and his health. He did not write again after being released. Wilde’s marriage ended in divorce, and he was bankrupt.

Oscar Wilde’s work is now widely celebrated and has been adapted for film many times. As tastes evolved, so too did the appreciation of his literary legacy and the short-lived, ground-breaking aesthetic movement. The Canterville Ghost in many ways typifies the aesthetic movement and Wilde’s devotion to art for art’s sake.  

About this Document

Our eNotes Comprehensive Lesson Plans have been written, tested, and approved by active classroom teachers. Each plan takes students through a text section by section, glossing important vocabulary and encouraging active reading. Each is designed to bring students to a greater understanding of the language, plot, characters, and themes of the text. The main components of each plan are the following:
  • An in-depth introductory lecture
  • Discussion questions
  • Vocabulary lists
  • Section-by-section comprehension questions
  • A multiple-choice test
  • Essay questions
Each plan is divided into a teacher and a student edition. The teacher edition provides complete answer keys for all sections, including example answers for the essay questions.