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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Key Plot Points

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The Otises Move into Canterville Chase (Chapter 1): American diplomat Horace Otis purchases Canterville Chase; he and his family take up residence in the centuries-old mansion, introducing the cultural differences between Americans and the English. The Otises’ attitude about ghosts foreshadows the conflict that will develop between them and the ghost of Sir Simon Canterville, who has haunted the mansion for centuries. Gothic elements in the chapter, suggestive of mystery and suspense, contrast with the no-nonsense attitudes of Horace and his wife, who don’t believe in ghosts but do believe firmly in science. 

The Ghost Haunts the Otises (Chapters 2–4): The central conflict in the first few chapters (the Ghost vs. the Otises, who now acknowledge his presence) is resolved when the Ghost attempts several times to terrorize them but is instead terrorized by their rambunctious twin boys. The Ghost’s various encounters with Horace, his wife, and their twins are humorous and ironic to readers, but not to the Ghost; defeated and demoralized by his failures, he loses his reason to exist. The Ghost’s melancholy marks a change in his character and in the narrative’s tone that anticipate subsequent events and the book’s more serious themes. 

Virginia Otis Meets the Ghost (Chapter 5): Virginia emerges as an important character in the narrative, one who differs significantly from the other members of her family. Virginia’s encounter with the Ghost reveals her compassion, courage, and sense of morality. As the despondent Ghost reveals his earthly sins—the reason he remains a ghost—and his desire for eternal rest and peace, he is further developed as a dynamic character, and new gothic elements are introduced: the Garden of Death, a mysterious prophecy, the existence of a dimension different from the physical world, and a supernatural portal into it. Virginia’s accompanying the Ghost into the spiritual realm drives the plot to its surprising conclusion. 

Virginia Returns and the Prophecy is Fulfilled (Chapter 6–7): The mysterious prophecy introduced in chapter 5 is revisited when a supernatural event at Canterville Chase suggests that through Virginia’s intervention on behalf of the Ghost, the prophecy has been fulfilled, and the ghost of Sir Simon is at peace. Themes of sin and redemption introduced in chapter 5 are underscored by Virginia’s declaring that the Ghost “had been very wicked, but he was really sorry for all that he had done” and that now “God has forgiven him.” The fulfillment of the prophecy and Virginia’s declarations regarding the Ghost relate directly to her observing at the end of chapter 7, the conclusion of the story, that the Ghost “made me see what Life is, and what Death signifies, and why Love is stronger than both.” 

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