The Canterville Ghost

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"He met with a severe fall" – Illustration by Wallace Goldsmith of the effects of a butter slide set up by the twins as part of their campaign of practical jokes against the ghost.

"The Canterville Ghost" is a humorous short story by Oscar Wilde. It was the first of Wilde's stories to be published, appearing in two parts in The Court and Society Review, 23 February and 2 March 1887.[1]

The story is about an American family who move to a castle haunted by the ghost of a dead English nobleman, who killed his wife and was then walled in and starved to death by his wife's brothers. It has been adapted for the stage and screen several times.


The home of the Canterville Ghost was the ancient 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 characterise the setting. Wilde mixes the macabre with comedy, juxtaposing devices from traditional English ghost stories such as creaking floorboards, clanking chains, and ancient prophecies.


The story begins when the American Minister to the Court of St. James's, Hiram B. Otis, and his family move into Canterville Chase, an English country house, despite warnings from Lord Canterville that the house is haunted. Mr. Otis says that he will take the furniture as well as the ghost at valuation. The Otis family includes Mr. and Mrs. Otis, their eldest son Washington, their daughter Virginia, and the Otis twins. At first, none of the Otis family believe in ghosts, but shortly after they move in, none of them can deny the presence of Sir Simon de Canterville. When Mrs. Otis notices a mysterious bloodstain on the floor, she simply replies that "She does not at all care for bloodstains in the living room". When Mrs. Umney, the housekeeper, informs Mrs. Otis that the bloodstain 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. When the ghost makes his first appearance, Mr. Otis promptly gets out of bed and pragmatically offers the ghost Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator to oil his chains. Angrily the ghost throws the bottle and runs into the corridor. The Otis twins throw pillows on him and the ghost uses the fourth dimension of space to flee. Disappointed with his first attempt to scare the family, he starts wondering what went wrong. He thinks of his previous successful appearances when he was in his prime form.

The Otis family witnesses reappearing bloodstains on the floor just by the fireplace, which are removed every time they appear in various colors. But, humorously, none of these scare the Otis family in the least. Despite the ghost's efforts to appear in the most gruesome guises, the family refuses to be frightened, and Sir Simon feels increasingly helpless and humiliated.

Wilde describes Mrs. Otis as "a very handsome middle-aged woman" who had been "a celebrated New York belle". Her expression of modern American culture surfaces when she immediately resorts to giving the ghost ’Doctor Dobell's tincture’, thinking he was screaming due to indigestion at the family's second encounter with the ghost. 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 colorful 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 Otis family, 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, the 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 pragmatic, unsentimental Americans. Sir Simon schemes, but even as his costumes become increasingly gruesome, his antics do nothing to scare his house guests, and the Otis beat him every time. He falls victim to tripwires, toy peashooters, 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, the Otis's beautiful and wise fifteen-year-old daughter. Virginia is different from everyone else in the family, and Sir Simon recognizes this. 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 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. The story ends with Virginia marrying the Duke of Cheshire after they both come of age. 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.


Theatrical Films

On Television

According to The American Film Institute Catalog, "Among the many other adaptations of Oscar Wilde's story are the following television versions, all titled The Canterville Ghost :"[5]

Sept.28, 1949 on ABC network, directed by Fred Carr and starring Wendy Barrie and Edward Ashley

20 November 1950 on NBC network’s Robert Montgomery Presents Your Lucky Strike Theatre, starring Cecil Parker and Margaret O'Brien

12 April 1951, on the Du Mont network, directed by Frank Wisbar, starring Lois Hall, Reginald Sheffield and Bruce Lester

May 1953, Ziv TV’s syndicated version, directed by Sobey Martin, starring John Qualen and Connie Marshall

9 November 1966, The Canterville Ghost, a 1966 ABC television musical that aired 2 November and featured Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Michael Redgrave. Featured songs by Fiddler on the Roof songwriters Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick.[6]

15 October 1986, for syndication, directed by Paul Bogart, starring John Gielgud, Ted Wass and Andrea Marcovicci.

In addition to the AFI list:

On radio and audio[edit]

In print[edit]

A graphic novel version published by Classical Comics in 2010 adapted by Scottish writer Sean Michael Wilson, with art by Steve Bryant and Jason Millet

In music[edit]


  1. ^ Sherard, Robert Harborough (1906). The Life of Oscar Wilde (Abridged). New York: Mitchell Kennerley. p. 454. canterville court and society 23 2.
  2. ^ Sonia Chopra. "Bhoothnath". Sify. Archived from the original on 12 April 2014.
  3. ^ Bettridge, Daniel (25 October 2012). "Fry and Laurie to reunite for The Canterville Ghost". Radio Times. Retrieved 14 May 2014.
  4. ^
  5. ^ "AFI|Catalog". Retrieved 19 December 2019.
  6. ^ Jones, Kenneth (28 July 2012). "Bock & Harnick TV Musical "The Canterville Ghost" Gets NYC Screening". Playbill. Archived from the original on 2 May 2014. Retrieved 14 May 2014.
  7. ^ The Canterville Ghost (Audiobook Review) Booklover Book Reviews
  8. ^, QCM s r o. "Bílý pán aneb Těžko se dnes duchům straší". Národní divadlo Brno (in Czech). Retrieved 19 December 2019.

External links[edit]