The Canterville Ghost
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"The Canterville Ghost" is a popular short story by Oscar Wilde, widely adapted for the screen and stage. It was the first of Wilde's stories to be published, appearing in the magazine The Court and Society Review in February 1887. It was later included in a collection of short stories entitled Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories in 1891.
The story of the Canterville Ghost takes place in an old English country house, Canterville Chase, which has all the accoutrements of a traditional haunted house. Descriptions of the wainscoting, the library panelled in black oak, and the armour 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 American consumerism. 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 "modern" thinking of the house's mismatched residents.
The story begins when Mr Otis' family shifted to Canterville Palace, despite warnings from Canterville that the house is haunted. Mr. Otis says he will take furniture as well as ghost at valuation. The Otis family includes Mr. and Mrs. Otis, their daughter Virginia, twin boys (often referred to as "Stars and Stripes") and their eldest son Washington. At first, none of the members of the Otis family believes in ghosts, but shortly after they move in, none of them can deny the presence of Sir Simon (The Ghost). The family hears clanking chains, they witness re-appearing bloodstains "on the floor just by the fireplace", which is removed every time it appears in various forms (colors). But, humorously, none of these scare the Otises in the least. In fact, upon hearing the clanking noises in the hallway, Mr. Otis promptly gets out of bed and pragmatically offers the ghost Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator to oil his chains.
Despite Sir Simon’s attempts to appear in the most gruesome guises, the family refuses to be frightened, and Sir Simon feels increasingly helpless and humiliated. When Mrs. Otis notices a mysterious red mark on the floor, she simply replies that she does “not at all care for blood stains in the sitting room.” When Mrs. Umney, the housekeeper, informs Mrs. Otis that the blood stain is indeed evidence of the ghost and cannot be removed, Washington Otis, the eldest son, suggests that the stain will be removed with Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent: A quick fix, like the Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator, and a practical way of dealing with the problem.
Wilde describes Mrs. Otis as “a very handsome middle-aged woman” who has been “a celebrated New York belle.” Her expression of "modern" American culture surfaces when she immediately resorts to using the commercial stain remover to obliterate the bloodstains and when she expresses an interest in joining the Psychical Society to help her understand the ghost. Mrs. Otis is given Wilde's highest praise when he says: "Indeed, in many respects, she was quite English..."
The most colourful character in the story is undoubtedly the ghost himself, Sir Simon, who goes about his duties with theatrical panache and flair. He assumes a series of dramatic roles in his failed attempts to impress and terrify the Otises, making it easy to imagine him as a comical character in a stage play. The ghost has the ability to change forms, so he taps into his repertoire of tricks. He takes the role of ghostly apparitions such as a Headless Earl, a Strangled Babe, the Blood-Sucker of Bexley Moor, Suicide’s Skeleton, and the Corpse-Snatcher of Chertsey Barn, all having succeeded in horrifying previous castle residents over the centuries. But none of them works with these Americans. Sir Simon schemes, but even as his costumes become increasingly gruesome, his antics do nothing to scare his house guests, and the Otises succeed in failing him every time. He falls victim to trip wires, pea shooters, butter-slides, and falling buckets of water. In a particularly comical scene, he is frightened by the sight of a “ghost,” rigged up by the mischievous twins.
During the course of the story, as narrated from Sir Simon's viewpoint, he tells us the complexity of the ghost’s emotions. he sees himself brave, frightening, distressed, scared, and finally, depressed and weak. He exposes his vulnerability during an encounter with Virginia, Mr. Otis's fifteen-year-old daughter. Virginia is different from everyone else in the family, and Sir Simon recognizes this fact. He tells her that he has not slept in three hundred years and wants desperately to do so. The ghost reveals to Virginia the tragic tale of his wife, Lady Eleanor de Canterville.
Unlike the rest of her family, Virginia does not dismiss the ghost. She takes him seriously; she listens to him and learns an important lesson, as well as the true meaning behind a riddle. Sir Simon de Canterville says that she must weep for him for he has no tears, she must pray for him for he has no faith and then she must accompany him to the angel of death and beg for Death's mercy upon Sir Simon. She does weep for him and pray for him, and she disappears with Sir Simon through the wainscoting and goes with him to the Garden of Death and bids the ghost farewell. Then she reappears at midnight, through a panel in the wall, carrying jewels and news that Sir Simon has passed on to the next world and no longer resides in the house. Virginia’s ability to accept Sir Simon leads to her enlightenment; Sir Simon, she tells her husband several years later, helped her understand “what Life is, what Death signifies, and why Love is stronger than both.”
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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.”
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.
Wit and humor
Humor is the most powerful weapon used by Wilde to defuse the tension and scary atmosphere that would have resulted in a traditional ghost story. Phantoms, strange noises, blood stains, even the haunting of the ghost in the corridors are all treated with humor: Mr. Otis offers lubricant for creaking chains, the persistent blood stain is cleaned with stain remover, and the ghost appears in a miserable state that shocks no one. After Mr. Otis offers him Lubricator to oil his chains, the ghost laughs demoniacally, then Mrs. Otis accuses him of indigestion and offers him tincture. The ghost feels duty bound and says, "I must rattle my chains, groan through keyholes, walk about at night."
Oscar Wilde treats even murder non-seriously. Sir Simon murdered his wife because she was not a good cook nor could do repair work. Sir Simon even gloats to himself about the people he drove to their insanity or deaths as a ghost. He becomes frustrated because the Otises are incapable of appreciating the symbolic value of apparitions, blood stains, development of astral bodies and his solemn duty to haunt the castle. All the tricks played on the ghost are humorous, with the most ironic being the fake ghost which frightens the 'real' Canterville ghost.
- The Canterville Ghost, a 1944 film.
- The Canterville Ghost, a 1962 BBC television drama featuring Bernard Cribbins.
- The Canterville Ghost, a 1966 American Broadcasting Company (ABC) television musical that aired November 2 and featured Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and Michael Redgrave.
- The Canterville Ghost, a 1974 radio drama adapted by George Lowthar for the CBS Radio Mystery Theater series.
- The Canterville Ghost, a 1985 film.
- The Canterville Ghost, a 1986 film.
- The Canterville Ghost, a 1988 animated television special.
- A radio dramatisation was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on New Year's Eve 1992.
- The Canterville Ghost, a 1996 film, starring Patrick Stewart.
- A reading of the story by Alistair McGowan was broadcast on BBC Radio 7 in December 2007.
- A graphic novel version came out in 2010 from the publisher Classical Comics, a publisher much praised by teachers and librarians for their high quality versions of classic novels. The graphic novel is 110 pages and stays close to the original Story by Wilde. It was adapted by Scottish writer Sean Michael Wilson, with art by Steve Bryant and Jason Millet.
- The Canterville Ghost, an upcoming animated feature film with the voices of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, intended for release around Christmas in 2014.
- "The Canterville Ghost" is an opera by the Russian composer Alexander Knaifel to a libretto by Tatiana Kramarova based on Wilde's story.
- "The Canterville Ghost" is a song by the Austrian Symphonic Metal band Edenbridge which is about this ghost; the song appears in the album Shine and it's preceded by its intro track named "The Canterville Prophecy".
- "El Fantasma de Canterville" is a song by the Argentinian musician Charly García
- "Canterville - The musical" is a musical by Flavio Gargano, Robert Steiner and Valentina De Paolis - Canterville - The musical
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