The Canterville Ghost

The Canterville Ghost Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Oscar Wilde

The child of well-off Irish parents, Oscar Wilde studied the classics at Trinity College in Dublin at the age of seventeen and matriculated to Magdalen College, University of Oxford, three years later. At Magdalen, Wilde’s studies remained classically focused, but his eye was nevertheless caught by the emerging decadent movement and aestheticism. He consequently developed a reputation for being something of a “bad boy” that would follow him for his entire life. Still, he graduated from Magdalen in 1878 with a bachelor’s degree in classics and very high honors. This same year, he published his poem, “Ravenna.” For a time, Wilde travelled between Paris, London, and the US delivering lectures, mostly on the subject of aestheticism, and publishing poems and plays. Eventually, he married and fathered two children. Throughout his life, Wilde held careers as a magazine editor, a journalist, an essayist, a dramatist, and a novelist.  In 1895, however, he was tried and found guilty by the state of having committed sodomy—homosexuality was, at the time, criminal. He was sentenced to two years of hard labor. Wilde’s time in prison was at odds with his previous, posh life, and he did not fare well there. His health declined steadily, and he died just three years after being released from prison, while exiled in Paris. Today, Wilde is remembered for his legendary wit and the kind of pithy rejoinders found throughout The Canterville Ghost. His sole novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, though lambasted as profane and poorly written by critics in his time, has been greatly redeemed, and his magnum opus, the play, The Importance of Being Earnest, continues to enjoy revivals.
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Historical Context of The Canterville Ghost

Although the British empire was continuing to amass power worldwide, the traditional power of the monarchy in England was continually lessening at the same time that the power of the parliamentary government (which was democratically elected) grew. Under the reign of Queen Victoria in the nineteenth century, England underwent its final transitions to a constitutional monarchy—a system where the monarchy operates under mandates set forth by a constitution. Parliament, it seemed, was especially keen to represent the people. Beginning in 1832, Parliament began passing a series of Reform Acts that gave voting rights to increasing numbers of citizens such that, by the time The Canterville Ghost was published half a century later, the number of British men eligible to vote had grown from five hundred thousand to over five million (women would not be allowed to vote until 1918, and only then if they were property owners over the age of thirty). With this shift in power towards the common man, and the subsequent rise of the middle class, the aristocracy—along with its power and wealth—began to wane. This is precisely the pivotal social and political moment in which the American Otis family in The Canterville Ghost enter to purchase a house owned for centuries by aristocrats.

Other Books Related to The Canterville Ghost

Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost pulls much of its haunted-house imagery directly from the gothic genre. Many of these conventions, including Sir Simon’s ominous sounds and the dark and stormy nights he prefers, come directly from that genre’s progenitor, Horace Walpole’s 1764 novel, The Castle of Otranto. Wilde wasn’t alone in borrowing from Walpole, or in extending the conventions of the gothic genre in order to make broader societal points. Both Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner” and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol work similarly, though largely without Wilde’s comedy. Like Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost, Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry also balances Gothic conventions with a dark, satirical brand of comedy. For example, Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” is both horrifying and humorous in tone and content, as Montresor, dressed in a mask and cape made of black silk, murders his friend Fortunato, who is dressed cheerfully as a court jester—belled cap and all. Irish writer Sheridan La Fanu also makes use of a similarly striking blend of comedy and horror in her works, which are satirical and Gothic. One might even argue that modern comedies like Ghostbusters owe a debt to the odd mixture of horror and wit that Wilde presents in The Canterville Ghost.
Key Facts about The Canterville Ghost
  • Full Title: The Canterville Ghost
  • When Written: 1887
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: 1887
  • Literary Period: Late Victorian
  • Genre: Novella, comedy, satire, gothic
  • Setting: Canterville Chase, England
  • Climax: Sir Simon, the story’s titular ghost, finds eternal rest and divine forgiveness with the help of Virginia Otis, an innocent and fearless young woman.
  • Antagonist: Sir Simon de Canterville
  • Point of View: Third person omniscient

Extra Credit for The Canterville Ghost

Inauspicious Beginnings. Although today’s readers are most likely to encounter The Canterville Ghost as a standalone book, the novella was first published via installments in The Court and Society Review, a short-lived literary magazine. Wilde published another short story and a handful of essays in the magazine as well. Interestingly, all of his contributions came in the year 1887, and all were centered around the dual themes of Americans and marriage.

Highly adaptable. Like Sir Simon himself, The Canterville Ghost has had an exciting afterlife: it’s been adapted to a wide variety of media, including films, radio dramas, animated television specials, and even an opera. Most recently, an animated film with voice work by actors Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry is in the works.