The Canterville Ghost Summary and Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

The Canterville Ghost

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The Canterville Ghost Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 31-page guide for “The Canterville Ghost” by Oscar Wilde includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 7 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Old World vs. New World and Justice vs. Vengeance vs. Forgiveness.

Plot Summary

“The Canterville Ghost” is a comical story that highlights the differences in British and American cultures during the nineteenth century. Wilde uses the story to critique both cultures. More telling, given the story’s ending and that the events are closely placed within the historical context of conflicting views and several wars, the overall theme of forgiveness reads surprisingly fresh, even in today’s time. Ironically, Wilde’s story was received in his day with little fanfare. Though it began its publication serially in 1887, it would not be until Wilde’s now-famous novel The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 1891 that Wilde would begin his long-lasting critical acclaim as a notable writer and thinker.

When the story was first published, and even later, when it was again published in a group of short stories, critics pointed out that the work was derivative, and as such, unoriginal. It would not be until much later that critics began praising Wilde for the story’s ability to draw upon various genres and writers to tell its tale. This use of material and reference points from other works actually aids in making the story so relevant and comical.

The story itself concerns Horace B. Otis, who is an American minister, and his family. The family buys Canterville Chase, which is a purportedly haunted Tudor mansion. The minister’s English friends try to warn him about the haunted mansion but, being American, he pays no heed to ghost stories, and moves the family into the mansion. The family finds a bloodstain on the carpet, and the mother, Lucretia, wants the horrible stain removed. The housekeeper, Mr. Umney, tells the family that the stain is historic, and should not be removed. The oldest child, Washington, says the stain can easily be removed with cleanser, and sets about removing it. As he does, thunder and lightning start outside, causing the housekeeper to pass out. Each successive morning, the stain reappears. And each morning, it is again removed with the cleaner.

A few nights later, the ghost appears to Mr. Otis and his two twin sons in a hallway. Though it attempts to scare them, Mr. Otis simply replies that it might use a lubricant for its creaking chains, and the twins throw pillows at the ghost’s head. The ghost retreats to its quarters, shocked at the family’s reaction. It begins to reminisce on its past victories of scaring the mansion’s inhabitants, causing them to go mad or commit suicide. It then thinks up a plan to get back at the American family for its lack of fear concerning the ghost.

While the ghost is thinking up a plan to scare the family, the family thinks about the ghost. The family laughs at the ghost, as well as the bloodstain, which is changing color from red to green. The only member of the family who does not laugh is Virginia, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Mr. Otis. When the ghost next attempts to scare the twins, they shoot pellets at it. Moreover, it tries to scare the entire family by laughing ominously, but Mr. Otis simply recommends a tincture to the ghost for indigestion.

The ghost, known as Sir Simon, who is mentioned earlier as having killed his wife (hence the bloodstain), leaves the mansion for a while due to his anger over failing to scare the American family. When Sir Simon returns, however, he himself is actually scared by the Otis twins when they make a fake ghost out of materials found around the house. The ghost finally gives up on trying to scare the family. He also uses the lubrication to help quiet his chains. As the twins continue to pick on Sir Simon, though, he plans one final scare. When he enters the twins’ room, however, a bucket of water falls onto his head and he develops a cold.

One day, Virginia is out riding with Cecil, a duke whom she has known since childhood and who likes her. She then finds the ghost’s hiding place, and berates him for trying to scare the family. She implores him to behave himself more, and also chides him for killing his wife and stealing her paints to make the bloodstain. Unlike the rest of her family, she pities the ghost, and offers to help him emigrate to America. Sir Simon says he wants to finally rest in the Garden of Death, then implores Virginia to pray for his soul. Finally, Virginia takes the ghost’s hand and goes with him into another dimension.

The Otis family is worried sick about Virginia’s disappearance. One day, she finally returns with a small casket. She reveals to the family where the ghost’s secret chamber is, and they find his skeleton chained to the wall. Earlier, the reader learns that Sir Simon was starved to death by his wife’s brothers. Virginia says the family has to have a funeral for the ghost, to which the family agrees. A grand funeral is arranged, where Lord and Lady Canterville attend. Mr. Otis attempts to give the jewels that were in the casket to Lord Canterville, but he will not accept them, so they go to Virginia. Later, when Virginia marries Cecil, they walk in the churchyard, and Virginia admits that the ghost, who is now at peace, showed her how important life and death are, and how love is stronger than both.

Wilde’s ghost story is entirely comical, but its clash between American and British thoughts and views are telling. The ghost is a representation of old traditions, such as the British traditions of those scared in the story. This culture comes into direct conflict with the American virtues and beliefs in the form of the Otis family. The family is not scared of the ghost. Moreover, the family manages to actually scare the ghost, which is highly comical in its approach. By instilling humor in this critique, Wilde shows how Americans of the time were not tied to the same ideas of value or tradition as the British. This was the prevailing point-of-view, at least. This concept is exemplified when Virginia asks only for the box the jewels are in, not the jewels themselves. Lord Canterville is shocked that she could value something like the ornate box, and not the materialistic representation of which the jewels stood for.

Wilde also shows how Americans were viewed as practical, which is noted in the family’s suggestions for the ghost and how they remove the bloodstain. Instead of being scared, Mr. Otis suggests lubricant for the ghost’s chains, and a tincture for possible indigestion. Washington, the oldest son, suggests a cleaner to remove the “ancient bloodstain.”

The story also shows how valuable forgiveness is, regardless of one’s culture. Virginia is able to pity the ghost and forgive him. She prays for his soul and takes a journey with him, thus showing forgiveness where her family initially did not. As such, the ghost is able to atone for his past sins as well and move on. In the face of the recent wars taking place for both Americans and the British, Wilde’s narrative…

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Chapter 1