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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History of the Text

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Reception and Publication History: The Canterville Ghost was first published in two installments in The Court and Society Review in 1887 and was later included in Wilde’s 1891 collection Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories. Wilde’s first published story, The Canterville Ghost is often categorized as a novella due to its length. Critics initially dismissed the book as derivative and hardly worth critiquing. Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) was fiercely criticized for its departure from conventional Victorian values and tenets of morality, but his humorous play, The Importance of Being Earnest (1898) was well received. Wilde’s work is now noted for the author’s wit in satirizing the conventions of his time while often developing serious themes. Oscar Wilde had toured America in the early part of 1882 giving lectures about aestheticism, a philosophy he embraced, and upon returning to Europe, he lectured about his impressions of America. His cross-cultural interest is reflected in The Canterville Ghost, in which an American family is depicted as being at odds with English sensibilities and traditions. 

Aesthetic Movement and Victorian Literature: Oscar Wilde wrote The Canterville Ghost at the end of the Victorian period, defined by the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901), when the aesthetic movement was gaining adherents among artists and writers and some members of the upper class in England. Aestheticism was rooted in the conviction that beauty should be valued above all else. Aesthetes frequently expressed their belief in “art for art’s sake,” and in more impassioned moments, “life for art’s sake.” The movement can be traced to the English Romantic poets, namely Keats and Shelley, the French symbolist poets, such as Baudelaire and Mallarmé, and the writings of Oxford professor and art critic Walter Pater. 

Aesthetes were known for producing works of art and literature that evoke the senses and transgress rigid Victorian mores. Consequently, 19th-century English literature inspired by the aesthetic movement challenges the accepted Victorian literature of the day, which is chiefly concerned with social and moral problems. 

  • Victorian novels, such as those of Charles Dickens, are often didactic, teaching moral lessons regarding the value of hard work and perseverance and developing themes regarding love, courage, sacrifice, truth, and justice. 
  • Victorian novels in the gothic tradition, such as Dracula and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, frame good and evil as spiritual concepts from which lessons can be learned regarding the human condition. 
  • Victorian novels often focus on characters who improve their lot in life or solve personal problems while acting in accordance with Victorian values. 

Science, Pseudoscience, and the Victorian Era: The term “scientist” originated in Victorian England, and for the first time, science was regarded as a profession. The body of scientific knowledge expanded greatly in Europe and the United States during the Victorian era. 

  • Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species (1859), which first elucidated the theory of evolution through natural selection, was widely accepted as the authoritative text on the subject. Scientific study advanced further with the opening of the Natural History Museum in London in 1881. Louis Pasteur’s proving that microorganisms cause many diseases led to the use of pasteurization and the production of vaccines for rabies and anthrax. As scientific discoveries proliferated, superstition and folklore were increasingly seen as silly and irrelevant. 
  • The Victorian era was also a time of invention through science and technology. The telephone, phonograph, light bulb, elevator, internal combustion engine, and air brakes were invented during the era, along with the sewing machine, washing machine, typewriter, and bicycle. 
  • As the emphasis on science continued in the Victorian era, pseudoscience played a role in society, as well. Psychical societies were established, and seances were popular. The practice of phrenology and mesmerism (hypnosis through animal magnetism) was widespread. Many people had difficulty in distinguishing science from pseudoscience. 

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