The Canterville Ghost Critical Appreciation, Criticism & Analysis Video

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  • 0:03 Background & Sources
  • 1:22 Summary of the Story
  • 3:07 Critical Reception
  • 4:42 Adaptations
  • 5:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Virginia has a Master's degree in Curriculum and Development and a Ph.D. in English

Written by the famous English author Oscar Wilde, 'The Canterville Ghost' is a humorous look at the antics of a ghost trying to get the attention of an American family living abroad. This lesson will look at some ways to analyze and appreciate the story.

Background & Sources

If you're a fan of Oscar Wilde and his more well-known literary works, like The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray, you'll find it interesting to note that ''The Canterville Ghost'' was Wilde's first published prose fiction work. This humorous look at a culture clash between a British ghost and an American family was first published in 1887 as a serial in the upper-class periodical Court and Society Review. In 1891, ''The Canterville Ghost'' was one of the stories published as a collection under the title Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories.

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde

There are many possible sources for this story idea, works that Wilde would have certainly known. A satirical essay about murder by Thomas de Quincey may have contributed to the narrative, as well as Jane Austen's famous parody of the gothic novel, Northanger Abbey, which was still quite popular at the end of the 19th century. In addition, Wilde spent time traveling and lecturing in America, which certainly gave him an impression of typical American behavior and attitudes.

The story also has some overtones of a theme of masking and hiding one's true nature, which reflects Wilde's own double life in the public eye to avoid persecution for his homosexuality. Later academic writers have further explored this connection in scholarly journals.

Summary of the Story

The haunted Canterville Chase
haunted house

The clash of cultures begins right away in the story as an American, Mr. Otis, purchases the centuries-old Canterville Chase as the home for his family while he serves as an American minister to Britain. The current family owner is quite upfront about the presence of the ghost, but Mr. Otis is undeterred and buys the property.

The ghost soon discovers that his usual tricks of clanking chains and appearing in various horrible disguises have no effect on the family, except to amuse them.

Sir Simon and his many disguises

In fact, Mr. and Mrs. Otis both offer modern American products to the ghost to help with his rusty chains and sore throat, while the small twins set out to play typical childish tricks on the ghost and shoot him with their peashooters. The ghost becomes rather depressed and despondent when he can't fulfill what he sees as his rightful ghostly mission.

The turning point comes when the Otis's adolescent daughter, Virginia, takes the time to talk with the ghost in a serious way. She finds out what really happened: after Sir Simon murdered his wife, her brothers starved him to death as punishment. The poor fellow confides that he hasn't slept in 300 years and longs for the peace of forgiveness and death.

Sir Simon Longs for Final Rest

Virginia agrees to pray for him and help him find peace in death. She follows him into the death portal that opens in the house, assured that she'll be safe due to her innocence and purity. Virginia returns in the morning, having escorted the forgiven spirit into the afterlife. The family has made a frantic search and are much relieved to hear what really happened. All ends well, as the ghost is now dead and at peace, the house is free from his antics, and young Virginia marries her Duke. British and American customs are now reconciled.

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