Mr. Hirsham B. Otis, an American minister, has just purchased the estate Canterville Chase from Lord Canterville. Canterville Chase, Lord Canterville explains, has been the home of the Canterville family for generations. He further informs Mr. Otis that the house comes fully furnished—but it also comes with a ghost that has haunted it for centuries, making all of the estate’s inhabitants most uncomfortable.
This moment might seem commonplace enough—selling a house. However, it’s important to remember that in generations past, the aristocracy simply didn’t sell their landholdings. Thus, to Wilde’s readers, this moment would have been a reminder of the rapidly changing times.
Mr. Otis laughs at Lord Canterville’s belief in haunting, saying that the Otis family comes from America, a modern country where no one believes in such things. If ghosts did exist, Mr. Otis says, Americans would have put one into a museum already. Despite Lord Canterville’s warnings, Mr. Otis goes through with the purchase.
At the end of the season, the Otis family moves into the home, including Mrs. Otis, the couple’s oldest son Washington, their daughter Miss Virginia E. Otis, and the twins, who are called affectionately “the Star and Stripes.” As they approach the house for the first time, the weather turns from a “lovely evening” into a gloomy storm. They’re met in the doorway by the housekeeper, Mrs. Umney, who is wearing a black dress.
The change in weather as the family approaches the house is a common trope in gothic literature. It suggests that whatever horror is contained in the house is so unnatural that the natural world must react against it. Bram Stoker (with whom Wilde was acquainted) uses a similar technique in Dracula.
The narrator describes the family, painting Mrs. Otis as a middle-aged woman who is at once attractive and vivacious. She’s filled with “a really wonderful amount of animal spirits,” and she has a certain Englishness about her. Washington was patriotically named after George Washington. Virginia is a girl of fifteen, who is “lithe and lovely as a fawn.” She takes pleasure in besting boys in pastimes where boys are expected to excel, such as horseback riding. The twins are quite rowdy.
Aside from Virginia and the twins, the majority of the Otis family barely factor into the story at all. As such, the time and care Wilde takes in crafting them as quintessentially, almost comically American characters allows these characteristics to become the most important things about them.
One of the first things that the family notices about their new home is a bloodstain on the fireplace mantle. Mrs. Umney assures them that the stain is centuries old and a real tourist attraction to boot, as it marks the spot where Sir Simon de Canterville murdered his wife in 1575. Mrs. Umney adds that Sir Simon himself disappeared from the house under suspicious circumstances only a few years later, and his body was never found. His ghost has, however, haunted the house ever since.
It’s quite easy to forget, as the comedy of the tale takes over for these early gothic elements, that Sir Simon is a ghost because he has committed an act of unspeakable violence against his own wife. This mirrors the way that many British citizens, who feel nostalgic about the grand days of British nobility, forget about the violence and oppression caused by the British aristocracy.
Washington Otis is unimpressed by these histories and instantly sets to work removing the stain from the fireplace using “Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent.” The centuries-old stain washes away quickly. However, as Washington steps back to show off his work to the others, a loud, ominous crash of thunder sounds, and Mrs. Umney faints.
The way that Washington announces the name of the detergent feels artificial and out of place—almost like he’s advertising the product to the story’s readers, rather than talking to his family. The Pinkerton Stain Remover alludes to the Pinkerton security firm, which was known for violently suppressing organized labor in the United States.
Mr. and Mrs. Otis hold a serious conversation about how to deal with a fainting housekeeper. Mr. Otis suggests that they will deduct the time spent fainting from her pay, which he believes will stop the fits quickly. Regarding the thunder, he remarks that England must be so overcrowded that it can’t afford to have nice weather for everyone. He’s not sure, himself, why people don’t move away from the place.
Mrs. Umney’s fainting spell, while dramatic, is standard fare for female characters written by Victorian men. Wilde is particularly clever, then, in constructing the Otis’ conversation. If the vulgar Americans were better read, they would know that Mrs. Umney’s fainting was perfectly acceptable in British culture.