“The Canterville Ghost” is a short story written by Oscar Wilde and first published in 1887 in The court and society review. It is one of Wilde’s most famous short stories, along with Lord Arthur Savile’s crime. Lighter and more macabre at the same time, “The Canterville Ghost” is probably an even better expression of Oscar Wilde’s talent as a writer of short stories.
Mr Otis, an American minister, buys the Canterville chase in spite of the warnings of the seller, who tells him there is a ghost inside the house. As they arrive at the house, they find a three century-old blood stain which won’t go and bad weather which won’t go either. The old housekeeper explains that the blood stain “…is the blood of Lady Eleanore de Canterville, who was murdered on that very spot by her own husband, Sir Simon de Canterville, in 1575.” The ghost makes his first apparition and attempts to scare the Minister and his family (Mrs Otis, daughter Virginia, elder son Washington, and twin sons Stars and Stripes), but to no avail. The ghost tries again : clanking noises, howling cries etc. but with no more success. On his third attempt he encounters another ghost, which frightens him a lot, until he realises it is a fake created by the twins. The ghost feels very depressed following these repeated failed attempts to exercise his ghostly duty of scaring people to death. But little Virginia pities him, they chat, she tells him off for killing his wife, he tries to justify himself by saying she was not a good cook, and that he has not slept for three hundred years. And then he talks to her about the Canterville prophecy on the library window : if a little girl should weep for him, then peace will fall upon Canterville. But it won’t be an easy ride for little Virginia : “You will see fearful shapes in darkness, and wicked voices will whisper in your ear, but they will not harm you, for against the purity of a little child the powers of Hell cannot prevail.”. She decides to help him, faces the forces of Hell and then vanishes. The morning after, she cannot be found. Desperate, the entire family looks for her everywhere, even suspecting the gypsies who had been camping in the park. Finally, Virginia reappears ; the ghost is dead and she is left with a box of beautiful jewels. The ghost is buried, and Virginia marries the little Duke of Cheshire, who was desperately looking for her before. There is a final twist when the reader is led to believe Virginia is not so pure after all.Retour en haut de page
This humorous short story by Oscar Wilde is a masterpiece in miniature. An English stately home has an old and eccentric occupant of a ghostly nature, but the poor thing discovers that the new loud and boisterous American family moving in are distinctly less easily scared than any previous tenants. As he does his best to terrify with high jinx he is met only with their prompt and unrelentingly modernising rebuffs ; his gruesome costumes are received with mockery ; and his fantastically messy pranks are answered by some particularly robust cleaning products. The truly magical character in this supernatural novella however, is the young daughter Virginia. Her heart-warming kindness is unexpected in the comic novella, but gives her empathy sufficient to befriend the lonely spirit as well as beguile a reader and create a something beautiful in amongst the jovial wit of the tale.
If the humour might seem classical nowadays, it is because Oscar Wilde invented it. The contrast between the British-ness (ghost, understatement, deadpan humour, phlegm, self-control, enforcers of tradition…) contrasts brilliantly with this stereotypical portrayal of the American family, “an excellent example of the fact that we have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.”. When the Otises are told that the three-century old blood stain cannot be removed, Washington says : “This is all nonsense. Pinkerton’s Champion stain remover and Paragon detergent will clean it up in no time.”. This American family is described in those terms : “They were evidently people on a low, material plane of existence, and quite incapable of appreciating the symbolic value of sensuous phenomena.”Retour en haut de page
The beauty of death
However, there is another angle to the short story, one which is often overlooked : using the ghost as an excuse to discuss life and death. “Far away beyond the pine-woods…there is a little garden”, and the ghost carries on : “Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forget life, to be at peace. You can help me. You can open for me the portals of death’s house, for love is always with you, and love is stronger than death is.”.
Another masterpiece by Master Wilde.
© 2013- Les Éditions de Londres