First published in the Court and Society Review, “The Canterville Ghost,” subtitled “a Hylo-Idealistic Romance,” concerns an American minister, Mr. Hiram B. Otis, who buys a haunted English mansion from Lord Canterville. When warned about the ghost by Canterville, Mr. Otis replies only that since Americans live in a modern country and have everything that money can buy, if there is a ghost they would just as soon have it in a museum. Canterville tells Otis that the ghost has been around since 1584 and makes an appearance before any family death. Otis refuses to believe that there is any ghost, and the purchase is completed.
The Otis family consists of Hiram; his wife, the New York belle Lucretia R. Tappan; their eldest son, Washington; their 15-year-old daughter, Virginia; and their twins, nicknamed the “Stars and Stripes.” Upon entering their new home, Mrs. Otis notices a bloodstain which the housekeeper identifies as the blood of Lady Eleanore de Canterville, murdered by her husband Sir Simon in 1575. It is Sir Simon’s ghost that haunts Canterville. He survived his wife for nine years before disappearing under strange circumstances, and his body was never discovered. Washington promptly removes the stain with Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent. The next morning, the bloodstain has returned, as it does each morning after Washington removes it. One night, Mr. Otis is awakened by the clanging of metal and the appearance of the Canterville ghost. With red eyes, long gray matted hair, ragged clothes, and chains hanging from his wrists and ankles, the ghost is furious when Otis calmly requests that he use Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator to silence the noise of the chains. When the ghost flees, groaning in an attempt to terrify the family, the twins throw pillows at him. In 300 years, the Canterville ghost has not been so insulted. He mentally runs through his list of brilliant performances, all of which resulted in the death or madness of those he frightened, and vows revenge.
The humiliation of the ghost continues, and he finally resorts to stealing Virginia’s paints to restore the bloodstain that Washington removes daily. His groans cause Mrs. Otis to recommend Dr. Dobell’s tincture for indigestion to the ghost, and the twins set up a mock ghost that terrifies him. The ghost resolves to himself that these are gross materialists incapable of appreciating him, and he determines to do only his minimal duty as a ghost. He even tries the Rising Sun Lubricator and finds that it does indeed oil his chains well. After a butter slide set up by the twins trips him, he vows to try his most terrible disguise, Reckless Rupert, or the Headless Earl. But the twins douse him with water and laugh at him. The Canterville ghost gives up his nocturnal wanderings, and the family generally assumes that the ghost is gone.
One day, Virginia notices the ghost sitting alone in the tapestry chamber. He admits to killing his wife and then says that her brothers starved him in retaliation. The ghost tells Virginia that he cannot sleep and that he wishes to die, but that he cannot until the prophecy written on the library window is fulfilled. The prophecy requires a golden girl to pray and weep for the soul of the ghost. She agrees, and they disappear together. At midnight, Virginia reappears to her frantic family with a beautiful box of jewels and with the news that the ghost is dead. She takes her family into a chamber where a gaunt skeleton stretches out his hand for an out-of-reach water jug. The family holds a funeral for the ghost, and not long after, Virginia marries her sweetheart, a duke. The story closes when the duke asks her what happened when she was locked up with the ghost. Virginia refuses to answer, and only blushes when the Duke asks if she will tell their children.
In “The Canterville Ghost,” Oscar Wilde draws on fairy tales, the popular gothic conventions of the 19th century, and the portrait of the American abroad to shape his comic ghost story. Possible sources for the ghost of Sir Simon include Alfred Tennyson’s poem “Maud” as well as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Christabel.” Wilde also emphasizes Sir Simon’s performance of a role, the importance of masks and appearance, and the discrepancy between the public and private self, all of which are repeated themes in Wilde’s work. The clearly allegorical names of the children—Washington, Virginia, and the Stars and Stripes—suggests that they come from a country in which everything can be bought and commodified, in which the bloodstains from the past are easily removed with the newest brand of detergent. Henry Labouchere, who endorsed Wilde’s lecture tour in America in 1882, hoped that Wilde’s hyperaestheticism might offer a corrective for America’s hypermaterialism, and it is this hypermaterialism that characterizes the Americans of Wilde’s story. That England’s ghosts and skeletons simply fail to haunt the American Otis family is a central point in “The Canterville Ghost.” The ghost cannot haunt the American family, and it is only in the young girl Virginia that Wilde hints at a more vexed relationship to the past. She eventually marries a duke, making her father uneasy that she is united with a titled figure of the past. She is the character most aligned with the ghost, and she disappears with him for hours for which she will not account. At her husband’s urging to tell what occurred between her and the ghost, or at least to tell their children one day, Virginia only blushes, though it remains unclear whether she blushes at the allusion to sexuality within the marriage, at the mystery of her time with the ghost, or at some combination of the two.
Wilde, Oscar. The Canterville Ghost and Other Stories. New York: Dover, 2001.