The Canterville Ghost

The Canterville Ghost is a popular 1887 novella by Oscar Wilde, widely adapted for the screen and stage.


“The Canterville Ghost” is a parody featuring a dramatic spirit named Sir Simon and the United States minister (ambassador) to the Court of St. James's, Hiram B. Otis. Mr. Otis travels to England with his family and moves into a haunted country house. Lord Canterville, the previous owner of the house, warns Mr. Otis that the ghost of Sir Simon de Canterville has haunted it ever since he killed his wife, Eleonore, three centuries before. But Mr. Otis dismisses the ghost story as bunk and disregards Lord Canterville’s warnings. When the Otises learn that the house is indeed haunted, they succeed in victimizing the ghost and in disregarding age-old British traditions. What emerges is a satire of American materialism, a lampoon of traditional British values, and an amusing twist on the traditional gothic horror tale.


The story 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 paneled in black oak, and the armor 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 Otises.

Themes and Characters

The story begins when Hiram B. Otis and his family move into Canterville Chase, despite warnings from Lord Canterville that the house is haunted. The Otis family includes Mr. and Mrs. Otis, their son Washington, their daughter Virginia, and twin boys. At the onset of the tale, not one member of the Otis family believes in ghosts, but shortly after they move in none of them can deny the presence of Sir Simon. The family hears clanking chains, they witness re-appearing bloodstains on the carpet, and they see strange apparitions in various forms. But none of these scares 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 disguises, the family refuses to be frightened, and Sir Simon feels increasingly helpless and humiliated. When Mrs. Otis notices a mysterious red mark on the carpet, 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 oldest son, suggests that the stain 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 colorful character in the story is undoubtedly Sir Simon, the ghost, who goes about his ghostly duties with theatrical panache (flair). He assumes a series of dramatic roles in order to impress the Otises, making it easy to imagine Sir Simon as a comical character in a stage play. This ghost has the ability to change forms, so he taps into his repertoire of tricks. He takes the role of ghostly apparitions such as The Headless Earl, The Strangled Babe, The Blood-Sucker of Bexley Moor, Jonas the Graveless, 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 foiling 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 by Sir Simon, we come to understand the complexity of the ghost’s emotions. We see him 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 an age-old prophesy that because he has no tears and no faith he can only die and go to his eternal rest if Virginia, who has these qualities, “weeps for his past sins and prays for the salvation of his soul.” She is the only one willing to suspend her skepticism, the only one willing to believe in ghosts, and ultimately, the only one able to help put Sir Simon to his longed-for rest.

Unlike the rest of her family, Virginia does not dismiss the ghost. She takes him seriously; she listens to him, and she learns an important lesson. 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 in a casket 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 and to become a believer 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.”

Literary Qualities

“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.”

Social Sensitivity

“The Canterville Ghost” is both a parody of the traditional ghost story and a satire of the American way of life. Wilde obviously intends to satirize American materialism, but he pokes fun at English traditional culture as well. Mrs. Umney, who faints at the sound of the thunder that follows Washington’s removal of the bloodstain, is laughable, as are Mr. and Mrs. Otis with their lack of refinement and their reliance on practical solutions and common sense. Wilde satirizes both cultures when, after Lord Canterville warns him about the ghost, Mr. Otis replies, “But there is no such thing, sir, as a ghost, and I guess the laws of Nature are not going to be suspended for the British aristocracy.”

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.

Related Titles And Adaptations

Oscar Wilde’s short stories can be divided into periods. “The Canterville Ghost” was the first of his stories published, which appeared in a collection of short stories entitled "Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories." In addition to the title story, other stories in this collection include “The Sphinx Without a Secret” and “The Model Millionaire.”

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

The original was an early work of Wilde, published serially in the magazine "Court and Society Review" in 1887.

A large number of adaptations of "The Canterville Ghost" have been made, including:

*A 1944 adaptation starring Charles Laughton resetting it in wartime and taking massive liberties with the plot. []
*A 1966 opera by the Russian composer Alexander Knayfel’
*A 1974 made-for-television dramatization with David Niven as the ghost.
*A radio adaptation for the CBS Radio Mystery Theater first broadcast on 15 July 1974
*A 1975 episode of The Ghost Busters
*A 1976 recording of El fantasma de Canterville by Leon Gieco
*A 1985 TV movie starring Richard Kiley and directed by William F. Claxton []
*A 1986 TV adaptation starring Alyssa Milano and Sir John Gielgud []
*An animated short from 1990 []
*A 1996 TV movie starring Patrick Stewart, Neve Campbell and Cherie Lunghi []
*A 1997 TV adaptation starring Ian Richardson and Celia Imrie []
*A 2001 radio drama, The Canterville Ghost, produced by Radio Tales for NPR, rebroadcast by XM. See the adaptation synopsis.
*Several stage musicals
*A 2006 stage adaptation by D. J. Segeth
*A French stage adaptation by le Theatre de 4 Coins
*A Radio Adaption for BBC Radio 7

In addition, it was the theme of two songs by the symphonic metal band Edenbridge for their "Shine" album.

External links

* [ "The Canterville Ghost"] , online at [ Ye Olde Library]
* [] Current stage musical.
* [ The ballet] .

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