Oscar Wilde and the Evolution of the Gothic in an Age of Epistemological Upheaval

Though typically not characterized as a "Gothic" writer, Oscar Wilde, like many writers in fin de siècle England, maintained a strong dialogue with the genre. By the time Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories and Wilde’s most “technically” Gothic work The Picture of Dorian Gray were published as books in 1891,[1] the Gothic had not only evolved considerably from its origins in Horace Walpole’s 1764 work The Castle of Otranto, it had become ubiquitous, permeating aspects of Victorian culture at large. Not surprisingly, this "highly unstable genre" evades a clear-cut definition (Hogle 1).[2] Nonetheless, the Gothic’s connection to the past, and the cultural fears that accompany it, transcend the genre’s conflicted nature. The "stock features"[3] so often associated with the Gothic as a mode, then, "provide the principal embodiments and evocations of cultural anxieties" (1), as Fred Botting explains in his seminal work The Gothic. As the Victorian era veers towards modernity, these evocations correspondingly evolve. Wilde’s volume of short stories helps to illustrate both the ubiquity and the development of the Gothic in the late-nineteenth century: while it still incorporated some of the stereotypical features it had come to be known (and occasionally mocked) for, it also became increasingly focused on psychological depth, mirroring the growing search, via the occult and pseudo-scientific or pseudo-religious theories and beliefs, for spiritual and epistemological clarity in an historical era unsettled by conflict.

“The Canterville Ghost” exemplifies how late Victorian Gothic works in particular are inextricably embedded in their historical context. Jerrold Hogle states that "a Gothic tale usually takes place (at least some of the time) in an antiquated or seemingly antiquated space -- be it a castle, a foreign palace, an abbey .  . . " (2).  Historical context comes to be symbolized by this (stereo-)typical setting, which in “The Canterville Ghost” is Canterville Chase, the ancient, haunted manor. Physical location, though, is less important in and of itself than is historical significance and embodiment because, Hogle continues, "[w]ithin this space, or a combination of such spaces, are hidden some secrets from the past (sometimes the recent past) that haunt the characters, psychologically, physically, or otherwise" (2). The titular ghost, Simon de Canterville, not only haunts the new residents of the Chase, the Otis family, he also symbolizes the eventually uncovered hidden past. In Gothic works, ghosts or other supernatural creatures "rise from within the antiquated space . . . to manifest unresolved crimes or conflicts that can no longer be successfully buried from view" (2). The idea of past sins returning to haunt those in the present resonates through "The Canterville Ghost" but as with most elements of the Gothic, not in the usual way. Simon is himself a victim (albeit perhaps deserved) of a crime never punished and has been subsequently immobilized, his spirit unable to move on; but in exposing Simon’s fate, his own crime (having murdered his wife for nothing more serious than improperly dressing the buck he had shot) also is revealed. After all, asserts Andrew Smith, “Ghosts are never just ghosts; they provide us with an insight into what haunts our culture” (153). For Wilde, what haunts English culture is its misogyny and interment in antiquated notions of the past.

In addition, Gothic works, including “The Canterville Ghost,” gradually begin to reflect the psychological turmoil which lies beneath end of the century progress. Kelly Hurley, in her analysis of human identity and the body in fin de siècle Gothic works, uses Terry Eagleton's theory of new art forms emerging from a "collective psychological demand" following periods of unrest,[4] in order to show how the Gothic functions "to negotiate the anxieties that accompany social and epistemological transformations and crises" (5). In particular, the French Revolution (1789-1799) produced such a period of unrest. The conflict upended traditional concepts of good and evil through the destabilization of notions of authority, leaving “a deep epistemological chasm concerning where truth was to be sought and how it was to be expressed" (Killeen 127). Wilde’s Simon perfectly encapsulates this notion. Despite being a ghost (a type of “monster”), Simon views his role with a pragmatism and dedication that renders him akin to an industrious worker:

It was his solemn duty to appear in the corridor once a week, and to gibber from the large oriel window on the first and third Wednesday in every month, and he did not see how he could honourably escape from his obligations. It is quite true that his life had been very evil, but, upon the other hand, he was most conscientious in all things connected with the supernatural.

And though Simon is the “evil” one, it is he who is ultimately tormented, especially by the Otis twins. The ghost, then, experiences an existential crisis brought about by an encroaching threat (the American Otis family). In the nineteenth century, institutions which had traditionally been ordered sources of clarity, in particular, the Church of England and the aristocracy, began to lose their power and influence. "The Canterville Ghost"’s use of a traditional haunted setting juxtaposed with an acutely non-traditional, contemplative “monster” demonstrates how the Gothic became more concerned with "signs of internal states and conflicts than of external threats," (Botting 7). This shift allowed Gothic works to effectively address Victorians' "wider anxieties which, centring on the individual, concerned the nature of reality and society and its relation to individual freedom and imagination" (Botting 7). In addition, technological and scientific advancements, exemplified by the Americans’ use of commercialized products to combat Simon’s activities (and soothe his aching joints), accelerated at the end of the nineteenth century, causing increasing turmoil: the very way Victorians viewed the world became upended. By using the Gothic, Victorians could "manage the anxieties engendered of scientific innovations by reframing these within the non-realistic, and thus more easily distanced, mode of gothicity" (Hurley 6). “The Canterville Ghost,” and Wilde’s ambiguous presentation of traditional dualities therein, thus reflects the Gothic's ability to express deeply conflicting socio-historical issues in a less direct and, therefore, more amenable way.

In fin de siècle England, growing disillusionment with the Church of England and  overwhelming scientific and technological advances led to new attempts to find enlightenment. In particular, the occult became ingrained in Victorian era thought. No "marginal concern," Jarlath Killeen points out, "the occult was everywhere in nineteenth century Britain" (124). Killeen underscores how the Gothic's engagement with the occult, therefore, was a reflection of broader trends in Victorian society. Importantly, both subsequently demonstrate the arc towards modernity, as Killeen explains:

In the occult the Victorians found the best expression of their Gothic refusal to be either wedded completely to modernity or completely turned towards the past. As a hybrid discourse it could articulate the complexities of the kind of modern human the Victorian wanted to be without compromising either of the forces thus expressed. Both scientific and "pseudo-scientific," religious and heretical, about the past but looking to the future, old and new, the Occult Gothic propelled the Victorian mind into the twentieth century. (159)

Therefore, it is not surprising that both "Lord Arthur Savile's Crime" and "The Canterville Ghost" reveal a preoccupation with the occult which coincides with the Victorian Occult Gothic. Indeed, according to Eleanor Dobson's article, "Oscar Wilde, Photography, and Cultures of Spiritualism," Wilde himself was more than cursorily interested in the occult. He purportedly attended séances and visited fortunetellers and cheirosophists (palm-readers) (Dobson 144). In addition, his wife was a member of the Theosophical Society and the Society for Psychical Research, as well as the secret occultist society the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (145). Accordingly, cheiromancy in “Lord Arthur” and ghosts in “Canterville” are treated almost as mundane: Wilde neither criticizes nor endorses either occult subject. Instead, they are incorporated into the works as any other scientific discourse would be, showing the effects on the public at large.[5] This attitude corresponds to a Victorian Occult view of truth and the world and allows the reader to understand how the occult had, for many, become integrated into daily Victorian life.

The end of the nineteenth century also saw the rise of  “scientific” theories like degeneration as defined by Max Nordau in 1892’s Entartung (the English translation of which, Degeneration, was published in 1895), i.e., the belief that the “abnormal,” embodied by the decadents themselves, were “monstrous freaks of nature who belied humanity’s claim to evolutionary perfection” (Karschay 3). That degeneration and other pseudo-scientific theories attained popularity at the same time as the occult reflects the similarities between the two. Science and technology unsettled beliefs in simple empirical knowledge, and new ways of “seeing” were sought. Therefore, these notions became intertwined: “the fin-de-siècle Gothic consistently blurs the boundary between natural and supernatural phenomena, hesitating between scientific and occultist accountings of inexplicable events” (Hurley 16). In particular, degeneration affected concepts of normality that permeated all aspects of discourse in the Victorian era. Like the Gothic, though, degenerative theory evaded easy definition (Karschay 5). Importantly, however, the theory made what constitutes normality “dominate intellectual and popular debate at the end of the nineteenth century” (Karschay 22). This included the Victorian, and particularly fin de siècle, Gothic which “is inscribed with the anxieties about degeneration . . . and gives voice to these fears in displaced shape, through horrific images of psychological and (especially) physical decay” (Karschay 22). Correspondingly, Wilde’s works (in particular, Dorian Gray, but also “The Canterville Ghost,” where the ghost must tend to a “body” which has broken down from the stress of years of haunting), acutely reflect these same fears and cultural discourses. That this was a source of unease for Wilde is not surprising: the ideas espoused by degeneration theory were almost certainly, whether directly or indirectly, responsible for his conviction for “acts of gross indecency.”

Fears related to class distinction also consistently recur in the British Gothic, and Wilde's works are no exception: in one way or another, each of the stories in Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories is suffused with an overt awareness and suspicion of class realities. However, like the definition of the Gothic itself, these motifs belie easy explanation. Botting asserts that the Gothic both rejects, via its emphasis on "bourgeois values of virtue, merit, propriety and, within reason, individualism," and reinforces, through a "nostalgic relish for a lost era of romance and adventure," class ideals (3). Hogle concurs, explaining that the Gothic's treatment of class ranges from idealizing the "enticing call of aristocratic wealth" to "desir[ing] to overthrow those past orders of authority in favor of a quasi-equality associated with the rising middle-class ideology of the self as self-made" (4). Clearly, Wilde portrays both in "The Canterville Ghost": ghost Simon represents the old order, and the American Otis clan, the new. The ghost's refusal or inability to move on can signify the English resistance to the (at least superficially) classless American society: Killeen points out, "the ghost, after all, represents a breach in historical progression" (Killeen 129). In this way, Wilde's ghost can emblematize English society's refusal to let go of the hierarchy imposed by the aristocracy. In yet another contradiction, the Otis family, despite the father's protestations, are obsessed with all things aristocratic: Washington's weakness is the "peerage" and Virginia, of course, marries the young Duke.[6]  In addition, there is the question of why the Otis family came to England in the first place. In "The Spectre of Genre in 'The Canterville Ghost'" Maureen O'Connor asserts that the Otises are in England "to marry Virginia into the aristocracy" (335), referring to Wilde's essays "The American Invasion" and "The American Man."

Regardless of intention or interpretation, Wilde's works both succeed in stimulating discussion of the anxieties facing Victorians and effectively illustrate how the Gothic’s development at the turn of the century reflects that same unease. The Gothic offers a position of ambivalence that is ideal for periods of both unrest and advancement, allowing authors like Wilde to open up discussions about even the most controversial issues. Hogle concludes that "the longevity and power of Gothic fiction unquestionably stem from the way it helps us address and disguise some of the most important desires, quandaries, and sources of anxiety, from the most internal and mental to the widely social and cultural . . ." (4). As the nineteenth century came to an end, then, these "sources of anxiety" included the very concept of existence and meaning in the universe especially as redefined by scientific inquiry, as well as the foundations of traditional English society: the church and the aristocracy. Furthermore, as the Victorians attempted to put together a new way of seeing themselves and the world, the Gothic intertwined with pseudo-scientific theories like degeneration and occult beliefs into a narrative mode ideally suited for questioning truth and existence. Specifically, Wilde’s use of the Gothic, especially in Lord Savile’s Crime and Other Stories, but also in The Portrait of Dorian Gray, helped him tackle these issues, and in doing so, the works perfectly reflect the historical context of fin de siècle Gothic.

- Kerry Walsh

Works Cited

Botting, Fred. Gothic, Routledge, 1996.

Dobson, Eleanor. “Oscar Wilde, Photography, and Cultures of Spiritualism: ‘The Most Magical of Mirrors.’” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, vol. 63, no. 2, Apr. 2020, pp. 139–161.

Hogle, Jerrold E. “Introduction: the Gothic in Western Culture.” The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction, edited by Jerrold E. Hogle, Cambridge UP, 2002, pp. 1–20.

Hurley, Kelly. The Gothic Body : Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin De Siècle. Cambridge UP, 1996.

Karschay, Stephan. Degeneration, Normativity and the Gothic at the Fin De Siècle. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Killeen, Jarlath. History of the Gothic: Gothic Literature 1825-1914. University of Wales P, 2009.

O’Connor, Maureen. “The Spectre of Genre in ‘The Canterville Ghost.’” Irish Studies Review, vol. 12, no. 3, Dec. 2004, pp. 329-338.

Smith, Andrew. “Hauntings.” The Routledge Companion to Gothic, edited by Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy, Routledge, 2007, pp. 147-154.

Wilburn, Lydia Reineck. “Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Canterville Ghost’: The Power of an Audience.” Papers on Language & Literature, vol. 23, no. 1, Winter 1987, p. 41-55.

Williams, Anne. Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic.

Wolfreys, Julian. “Preface: ‘I could a tale unfold’ or, the Promise of Gothic.” Victorian Gothic: Literary and Cultural Manifestations in the Nineteenth Century, edited by Ruth Robbins and Julian Wolfreys, Palgrave, 2000, pp. xi-xx.       

Annotated Bibliography

Dobson, Eleanor. “Oscar Wilde, Photography, and Cultures of Spiritualism: ‘The Most Magical of Mirrors.’” English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920, vol. 63, no. 2, Apr. 2020, pp.                        139–161.

Dobson examines Wilde's foray into the occult, and that of his wife, and how this influenced his writing, particularly The Picture of Dorian Gray, but also "The Canterville Ghost." Dobson finds evidence of both Wildes' activities in the supernatural and demonstrates how the occult was so prevalent in the fin de siècle that when readers approached texts, they read them using what Christine Ferguson has called an "occultic approach": looking for hidden connections to the occult. For Dobson, this "occultic approach" allows her to find Wilde's discourse on photography in relation to both the occult, in its portrayal of the "soul," and its elevation to the status of fine art.

Hurley, Kelly. The Gothic Body : Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin De Siècle. Cambridge UP, 1996.

Hurley examines the Gothic's reemergence at the end of the nineteenth century, suggesting its reappearance as indicative of fears resulting from the dissemination of scientific theories about evolution, degeneration, and others. These scientific discourses, Hurley posits, destabilized understood concepts of the human identity, and eventually led to a new "abhuman" subject, which entails both "a threat and a promise" (4). In particular, the Gothic form at the fin de siècle exemplifies this shift because of its preoccupation with cultural and historical anxieties, examined by way of the supernatural. Hurley then connects this discourse to debates over human sexuality and gender.

Karschay, Stephan. Degeneration, Normativity and the Gothic at the Fin De Siècle. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

Karschay’s analysis of degeneration shows how the concept of “normal” became integral to late Victorian era society. The Gothic, Karschay shows, reflects these trends and also allows contemporary readers a view of the Foucauldian way in which the mode was complicit in both defining and subverting what constitutes normalcy. The introduction in particular analyzes Wilde’s letter petition for early release to the Home Secretary, where he uses degeneration theory to argue that he should be treated as a patient by the medical establishment, not punished by the courts.

O’Connor, Maureen. “The Spectre of Genre in ‘The Canterville Ghost.’” Irish Studies Review, vol. 12, no. 3, Dec. 2004, pp. 329-338.

O'Connor examines the use of genre in "The Canterville Ghost" and argues that the conflicting use of comedy and Gothic in the story reflects Wilde's "social purpose": critique of enforced conformity, especially for women (337). In particular, O'Connor examines Virginia's role as an "angel" (Section VI). This corresponds, O'Connor posits, to the Victorian feminine ideal of the selfless, domestic "Angel of the House."

Underwood, Ted. "Historical Unconsciousness in the Novel, 1790-1819." Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies. Stanford UP, 2013.

Using the Gothic novel as a template, Ted Underwood highlights how conceptions of history in novels changed, from one "embedded in places and things" in the eighteenth century, to a more "invisible" locus centered "in the minds of their characters"; this movement correlates with a gradual shift to capitalism (21). Underwood traces this development through the early Gothic using Ann Radcliffe before moving on to other authors like Lady Morgan and C. R. Maturin examining landed property's evolving signification.

Wilburn, Lydia Reineck. “Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Canterville Ghost’: The Power of an Audience.” Papers on Language & Literature, vol. 23, no. 1, Winter 1987, p. 41-55.

Wilburn posits that in "The Canterville Ghost" Wilde was attempting to highlight the audience's role in artistic production. In Lord Savile's Crime and Other Stories, Wilburn asserts, each work shows "an artist-figure grappling with his or her role in relation to an audience" (44). While in "Crime" and "The Model Millionaire" the audience's involvement is not necessary for the artist's production, in "Ghost" and "The Sphinx Without a Secret," Wilburn claims the audience is "crucial to the making of the illusions and to the artist's self-satisfaction" (44). This contributes to a larger discourse on "fiction-making" (45) and the author's own production of both works of fiction and public identity.


[1] Before their publication as books, the individual stories in Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories and The Picture of Dorian Gray both first appeared in magazines, in 1887 and 1890 respectively.

[2] It is also a subject for much debate. Jarlath Killeen's introduction to History of the Gothic: Gothic Literature 1825-1914 succinctly summarizes the variety of conflicting definitions and qualifications of the Gothic (1-3).

[3] These features include, in the eighteenth century: "[t]ortuous, fragmented narratives relating mysterious incidents, horrible images and life-threatening pursuits . . . [and] [s]pectres, monsters, demons, corpses, skeletons, evil aristocrats, monks and nuns, fainting heroines and bandits . . . . wild and mountainous locations . . . [d]ecaying, bleak and full of hidden passageways, the castle . . . [and] abbeys, churches and graveyards . . . harked back to a feudal past associated with barbarity, superstition and fear." In the nineteenth century are added: "scientists, fathers, husbands, madmen, criminals and the monstrous double signifying duplicity and evil nature" while "landscapes [become] desolate, alienating and full of menace" and include "the old house [] as both building and family line" (Botting 1-2).

[4] Marxism and Literary Criticism (20-27)

[5] “Savile’s Crime” seems to imply that Wilde believed not all knowledge derived from these activities was used in a positive, fruitful way, and in particular, that palm reading could be dangerous if taken as gospel truth. Instead, Wilde appears to view these activities as tools which could improve one’s life if used with rational thought.

[6] "Mr. Otis was extremely fond of the young Duke personally, but, theoretically, he objected to titles, and, to use his own words, 'was not without apprehension lest, amid the enervating influences of a pleasure-loving aristocracy, the true principles of republican simplicity should be forgotten.'" Part VII