"The Canterville Ghost" by Oscar Wilde (1887) 

Catalog & Introduction to the Literary Exhibition

Editorial team: Blair Casey, Caleb Ching, Huy Nguyen, Anna Oehler, Kylie Ordonez, Alexia Ryan

(Additional editing by Heidi L. Pennington)
Please note: This catalog discusses key plot points of the narrative. To avoid spoilers, read “The Canterville Ghost” first, and then return to this introduction.

This exhibition is about The Canterville Ghost, which is a satirical short story by Oscar Wilde that follows the Otises, the new American residents of Canterville Chase, and Sir Simon de Canterville, a 300-year-old British ghost who haunts their halls. The central conflict revolves around Sir Simon’s failure to effectively haunt the Otises because they view him as a physical presence rather than a specter, which robs his afterlife of meaning. Consequently, he longs for a “real” death, which Virginia, the daughter of Mr. And Mrs. Otis, helps him achieve. Following his final death, he leaves Virginia an heirloom necklace as a token of his gratitude.

This short essay introduces our thesis, which we discuss more thoroughly in the annotations that can be found on the text of “The Canterville Ghost” in this Anthology and which can be filtered using our tagging system. The tagging system divides our argument into six categories: victorianghoststoryconventions, britishsocialnorms, disruptions, Virginia, haunting, and materialist. Our gallery provides readers with context to certain aspects of the story that may be unknown to the modern audience and helps them make the story come to life in their minds.

Oscar Wilde typically satirizes upper-class British society. The Canterville Ghost is an interesting departure from this framework, as Wilde focuses his satire on the Otises, an American family, and their refusal to integrate into British society, as well as their belief that material goods can fix not only regular problems like spills but also things like haunted blood stains. Nevertheless, the satire still challenges conventions, both those of British society and those of the Victorian ghost story. Wilde’s focus on the Otises is integral to this because their materialist understanding of reality constructs the ways in which they perceive Sir Simon’s haunting as unthreatening and fixable and react by essentially haunting him back. Through the Otises’ refusal to be haunted, Wilde disrupts the conventions of the Victorian ghost story. These continuous disruptions of the reader’s expectations of both the story and the genre coalesce around the end of the story when Sir Simon’s final death subverts Wilde’s established satirical frame. Sir Simon’s previous existence as a metaphysical yet material presence defies general assumptions of the life/death binary, but his death recreates them again. This finale creates a sense of unease within the reader due to the absence of a distinct set of values they can attach to the story, mirroring the haunting that the Otises' experience after Virginia receives Sir Simon’s jewels. Thus, it is only through ceasing to matter that Sir Simon begins to matter and fulfill his purpose as a ghost through his “haunting” presence in the minds of both the reader and the Otises.  

Wilde satirizes the Victorian ghost story through the American Otis family’s subversive reactions to being haunted by Sir Simon. As American newcomers, they operate outside of a British understanding of social dynamics which allows Wilde to disrupt the formula of the Victorian ghost story. From the very first “haunting event,” Wilde contrasts how the Otises react to Sir Simon’s haunting and how the British characters react. When the eldest Otis son, Washington, cleans up Lady Eleanore’s bloodstain and “a terrible flash of lightning lit up the sombre room” (Wilde, chapter I, paragraph 15), Mrs. Umney faints from terror, whereas Mr. Otis reacts by saying, “‘What a monstrous climate!’ said the American Minister calmly, as he lit a long cheroot. ‘I guess the old country is so overpopulated that they have not enough decent weather for everybody.’” (Wilde, chapter I, paragraph 16). Mr. Otis is portrayed as a model of the modern American man; one whose materialist worldview shapes his understanding of the events that have taken place. He believes in what he can see and, currently, what he sees is a bolt of lightning. From this black and white perspective on existence, assuming a supernatural cause for natural weather phenomena seems absurd.

Ironically, it is this understanding of reality that leads to the Otises eventually believing in Sir Simon. Yet, they still do not fear him. After the bloodstain reappears Washington says, “I don’t think it can be the fault of the Paragon Detergent... for I have tried it with everything. It must be the ghost.’” (Wilde, chapter II, paragraph 1). Washington—and the rest of the Otises—have an almost supernatural faith in the abilities of their American products[1], so their “failure” when the blood stain reappears must constitute physical evidence that the ghost is real even though they have not seen him yet. That physical evidence automatically renders Sir Simon as real in the minds of the Otises because of their materialist view of reality.

Notably, the Otises do not react to this revelation with fear, instead, they view Sir Simon and his antics as a nuisance. The casual and matter-of-fact nature of Washington’s declaration of the ghostly existence indicates that he is not fazed by the ghost’s theoretical existence which is in line with how the Otises treat Sir Simon throughout the story[2]. At one point, appalled by this perceived disrespect, Sir Simon notes that, “Never, in a brilliant and uninterrupted career of three hundred years, had he been so grossly insulted” (Wilde, chapter II, paragraph 5). The Otises’ reactions disrupt British social hierarchies—wherein Sir Simon is supposed to be respected as a fearsome ghost because of his class status[3] and the amount of time he has spent haunting Canterville Chase—which deeply unsettles and horrifies him.

These disruptions of social norms not only insult Sir Simon, but they are also used by Wilde to satirize the Victorian ghost story. Since the Otises perceive Sir Simon not as a ghostly apparition but as a material being, there is no uncertainty surrounding his existence. This subverts the tropes of the Victorian ghost story because it relies on that uncertainty to create a sense of unease and horror within both the characters and the reader. Without that uncertainty, Sir Simon’s actions are no longer fearsome, but absurd, which robs him of the power to haunt[4]. This subverts tropes because that power is fundamental to how ghosts operate in the Victorian ghost story.

Without that power, Sir Simon’s role within The Canterville Ghost flips the script of the Victorian ghost story; he becomes the haunted rather than the haunter[5]. After numerous failed attempts at scaring the Otises, Sir Simon says, “I must rattle my chains, and groan through keyholes, and walk about at night, if that is what you mean. It is my only reason for existing.” (Wilde, chapter V, paragraph 3). In light of his inability to properly “be a ghost,” his life becomes meaningless. He is uncertain of his place in the new reality the Otises have created[6] and is unable to predict what will happen at any moment because no one is behaving as they should in a ghost story. These feelings of uncertainty result in Sir Simon feeling as if he is the one being haunted: “His nerves were completely shattered, and he started at the slightest noise” (Wilde, chapter IV, paragraph 1). By subverting ghost story conventions in this way Wilde reveals how the horror within ghost stories is not the result of supernatural phenomena but is actually a psychological phenomenon that is the result of people’s anxieties around changing social systems (Read more about this here and at other annotations tagged under haunting).  

When we understand haunting in this way, the events that take place at the end of The Canterville Ghost clearly constitute one. When Sir Simon gifts Virginia the jewels, Mr. Otis—and later Virginia’s husband, Cecil— is implied to be concerned for her “purity” due to the intimacy of the gift[7]. In fact, he is so concerned by them that he requests that Lord Canterville take them back (Wilde, chapter VII, paragraph 5), but he refuses. Thus, the presence of the jewels continues to haunt Mr. Otis because they serve as a physical reminder of the possibility that Virginia could have violated the patriarchal norms of Victorian society. Curiously, this aligns with the way that Victorian ghost stories create horror by playing on common cultural anxieties, meaning that Wilde is no longer rendering haunting as absurd, but instead using it to create horror in accordance with those conventions.

By leaving behind a new “ghost” in the form of the jewels, the events following Sir Simon’s death appear to adhere to a cyclical nature of haunting that is based in Victorian ghost story conventions. However, the way in which Wilde goes about creating this cycle deviates from the way it is “supposed to” occur because it substantiates a materialist worldview. Sir Simon was unable to haunt the Otises because they viewed him as a “real” thing with no uncertainty, stripping him of his ghostly status, which is what allows him to die despite the confines of the genre. Separately, Sir Simon’s ability to die in and of itself suggests that he exists in the world as a material being and that that equates to some form of life[8], essentially confirming the Otises' materialist view of reality.

This materialist frame then influences the way that they deal with his death, as the events that take place after his death follow the structure that a real death would: they find his skeleton, he leaves Virginia an inheritance, and they have a funeral[9]. These things create a reality in which he can die and does die even though he is a ghost because death has been performed. Additionally, his death subverts Victorian ghost story norms because it means that instead of beginning with a haunting, the story ends with the beginning of one that is also contingent on the physicality of its ghost. Therefore, the ending of the story both aligns with and ruptures both Victorian ghost story conventions and the story’s own satirical conventions; and that rupture is demonstrative of the way the ending operates in a series of complete contradictions on the level of the discourse.

The permanent narrative gap of what happened between Sir Simon and Virginia that the ending is based on creates a sudden disruption of the satirical frame of the story which unsettles the reader initially. The discourse levels disruptions of the Victorian ghost story and Wilde’s satirical frame that then create a deep sense of unease within the reader because there are no expectations they can attach to the story. In this way, the reader no longer simply feels uneasy because of the events of the story, but because of the way the story is told. This shifts the horror of the ghost story to a meta-level, essentially haunting the reader. Wilde tears down any previous framing and leaves the reader with more questions than answers. Thus, the anxiety felt by Mr. Otis is now mirrored in the reader as the horror continues to stem from challenged social conventions.

Sir Simon spends the entire narrative of "The Canterville Ghost" trying to make himself matter, but in the end, it is only when he ceases to be matter that he can haunt anyone because it is only then that uncertainty is introduced into the story. When Sir Simon dies and leaves Virginia the jewels, Wilde leaves the reader wondering what happened, what will happen, and what they should even think. These questions send them into a spiral of chaos attempting to uncover not only the hidden events of the story but also how to manage the plethora of contradictions that the ending creates. Thus, Wilde’s satire of the Victorian ghost story ultimately embraces the essence of what makes the ghost story horrifying: uncertainty. But we hope that after looking through this exhibition you feel a little less so.


[1] Find out more here and under other annotations labeled materialist!

[2] Find out more here and under other annotations labeled 'disruptions'

[3] Find out more here and under other annotations labeled 'britishsocialnorms'

[4] Find out more here and under other annotations labeled 'haunting'

[5] Find out more here and under other annotations labeled 'haunting'

[6] Find out more here and under other annotations labeled 'haunting'

[7] Find out more here and under other annotations labeled 'virginia' or 'britishsocialnorms'

[8] Find out more here and under other annotations tagged 'materialist'

[9] Find out more here and under other annotations tagged 'disruptions' and 'materialist'

Published @ COVE

December 2023