The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde.

The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde. 

A Short Story discussion by Kate O’Brien. 

Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost was his first story to be published in two parts. 

The story was published in 1887. This short story is set in the 19th century. 

This story is extremely popular and it has been adapted many times. 

The plot follows the Otis family as they move into Canterville Chase, an old English country house. They’ve been warned that the house is haunted, but the Otis family do not believe in ghosts … that is, they don’t believe in ghosts until denying a ghostly presence is impossible. 

I really enjoy short stories because they are snippets in time, snapshots of characters, and even though sometimes I wish this story was longer, I actually think it is almost a perfect short story. (That is, if a story can ever really be perfect, because that of course is a matter of opinion.)

This story is mysterious, it is intriguing, it is at times very witty, and there are enough different characters to keep readers hooked, without being too many for a short story. I find sometimes that if a short story is too packed with lots of different characters, it can be hard to follow and it can also feel like some people just get lost at times. There could be a really intriguing character introduced but then because it is a short story and there is not as much narrative time, that character just sort of fades away and that is always a shame – unless it is a mystery and that is the intention, but I hope what I’m getting at is clear. 

Ambiguous endings sometimes face the same issue. I need an ambiguous ending to feel intentional, I need it to feel like and read like the ambiguous ending was being built up all along,  otherwise I feel cheated because it seems like the author was just not sure how to end their tale, so therefore it is ambiguous by default which just feels unfinished. (In my opinion.)

I’m a fan of Wilde’s writing style in general, but I especially enjoy The Canterville Ghost. 

I believe this work is a piece of satirical writing, as Wilde uses gothic tropes in quite an exaggerated way. Satire or not, I’m a fan of the eerie, foreboding atmosphere that Wilde creates, and as I’ve said many times, I always love when a story is set in a creepy, old, towering house on the hill. 

In a way I think that The Canterville Ghost could be called the ultimate ghost story. 

The setting is perfectly ominous. The central characters don’t believe in ghosts and this fact makes the story’s ghost Sir Simon de Canterville extremely determined to scare the family away.

I think that this short story is incredibly layered. Three hundred years before the Otis family moved into the house, Simon de Canterville killed his wife, Lady Eleanor. Why?

He killed her because she was “too simple, too plain, and didn’t prepare his clothing properly.” 

After Lady Eleanor was murdered, her brothers decided to avenge her by murdering Simon de Canterville in an act of revenge. They locked him in a room with food and water just beyond his reach and left him to slowly starve to death. This is quite a grim prospect so you can see what I mean when I say that this short story is very dark. The fact that a character could murder his wife so casually is extremely dark too. 

Simon de Canterville takes great pleasure in being a ghost. Nothing delights him more than scaring the people who enter the house. He is able to take on various forms and he has no problem scaring people until the Otis family arrives. I would call him a sadistic figure as he seems to relish in causing fear and pain. 

The Otis family are unmoved by the bloodstains he leaves on the floor, they simply wipe them away. They do not flinch when they hear his rattling chains, they simply tell him that the noise is too loud. Virginia Otis, the daughter of the family, even scolds Simon de Canterville for trying to scare them so much and she scolds him for killing his wife. 

Simon de Canterville confesses to murdering his wife, and he tells Virginia that he has not been able to truly die for three hundred years. He has not been able to quench his thirst or satisfy his hunger. He simply wishes to die. Virginia feels pity for him. I do wonder how this would be handled if the story was adapted again in 2023 – it is very hard to sympathise with a figure who so nonchalantly murdered his wife. Simon de Canterville also scared some people so horrifically that they committed suicide. So while I do believe his confession to Vriginia is meant to be one that evokes sympathy, in all of my readings of this tale, I’ve never been able to view him as any kind of victim. Virginia however, does feel pity for him. She is told of a prophecy, Simon de Canterville can truly die if a girl cries for him and prays for him. She agrees to help him and during this time, she goes missing. She returns safely and goes on to happily marry after leading the rest of her family to the skeleton of the Canterville ghost. She informs everyone that he is truly dead now and the house is haunted no longer. She lives a happy life – but she never reveals what happened when she went missing. I suppose we are left to use our own imaginations about this.  

This story makes me think about many things. Wilde does include wit and humour in this story, highlighting how perhaps we make light of things in order to get through them. Dark humour and black comedy also tends to take very dark situations and make them somewhat funny- even though they are often topics that we can’t imagine laughing at. I also think the fact that Simon de Canterville became a ghostly figure that people were warned about is very interesting. I’d argue that he could almost be called an urban legend. Again, I think there is something deeply human here. Audiences tend to be drawn in by violent stories, and this is because they seem too violent to be true. Why is true crime popular? Because people cannot believe that acts like that actually happened. People are fascinated by true crime, people get enamoured with all the details, people want to know what happened and how? Hearing about crime, be it true or fictional, and even being taken in by a ghost story is a way of experiencing something frightening in a safe way. 

You can’t physically get hurt if you’re listening to a story, but you can get scared and spooked, and some people love a thrill. 

I think the fact that this story was published in 1887 and it still highlights how tragic or violent situations can be turned into a story is really interesting and perhaps this shows that in some ways, human nature will stay the same. Simon de Canterville killed his wife, but over time this tragic and violent act became nothing but a ghost story – and I think is a really interesting point of discussion. This story may be fiction but there are parallels of this happening in reality, for example, there is a Jack the Ripper tour in London. 

Overall I think it is a great read. Wilde’s language is imaginary and evocative. He weaves humour and satire into a mysterious and dark tale. If you want a good short story then pick up The Canterville Ghost. 

Be sure to follow me on Instagram @katelovesliterature if you don’t already as that is where I publish all updates about – schedule changes, upcoming pieces, mini-recommendations etc. There is lots to see and read so follow along. 

 I will be #outofoffice next week because I am going on a little adventure so there will not be a piece published on 01/03/23 – however I do have an exciting week planned and I will be active on Instagram so follow along to see a sneak peak of what is coming up very soon.

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