At their core, most Victorian ghost stories are oblique commentaries on the discombobulating transition from agrarian pre-modernity to industrial capitalism. There is, of course, far more to them than this, but ghost stories found a peculiar vogue during the Industrial Revolution as Britons (who were increasingly middle-class, urban, and intellectual) struggled to reconcile these drastic developments with many, many centuries as superstitious, rural, peasants.
Folklore had the glue of English society prior to the 18th century, where the same families had nestled in the same rainy villages for centuries, using the same technologies and hearing the same ghost stories for many generations. With capitalism and industrialism came new technologies, better medicine, longer lives, and more mobility, and this lead many people to wonder if humanity was evolving beyond the morals of past centuries.
In ghost stories by Charles Dickens, Rhoda Broughton, Mrs. Oliphant, Elizabeth Gaskell, J. S. Le Fanu, Charlotte Riddell, Amelia B. Edwards, and Wilkie Collins, English readers were encouraged to question how far we truly had evolved. These tales generally decided that steam-engines, Darwinian biology, and mass-market publishing may have prettied mankind up a bit, but we were still subject to the same crimes, temptations, and terrors of our agrarian forefathers. The clash between the not-so-distant past and the steam-powered future lead to a tremendous fashion of ghosts, providing a convenient and navigable space for modern Britons to ponder the rapidly developing times that they lived in. Was there still justice? Did morals still matter? Had we outgrown social accountability? Ghost stories answered these questions and soothed the aching growing pains of Victorian society as the next hundred years saw humanity graduate from candles, lancets, and buggies to electricity, penicillin, and automobiles.
“The Canterville Ghost” is one of the most unusual entries in this genre, because it ponders the same problems with humor rather than horror. This is, of course, not the first example of this (in many ways this story is done in the tradition of Charles Dickens, whose comical ghost stories “The Lawyer and the Ghost,” “The Bagman’s Uncle,” and “Baron Koeldwethout’s Apparition” also used the supernatural as a comedic arbiter of the changing times), but it is without a doubt the most famous comic ghost story in British literature. Wilde goes a step further and introduces yet another frightening development of the Victorian Age to act as a threat to England’s national traditions – the looming, farcical enemy of so many stodgy, English characters in his plays and stories: the American nouveau riche.
Towards the turn of the 20th century, the American ambassador to London, Hirim B. Otis, leases the rural manor, Canterville Chase, and moves his loud, rambunctious family into the grim hall – all in spite of the locals’ grave warnings that it has been haunted for centuries. This is hardly a deterrent, however: Otis views the ghost as a quaint feature of English country living, not a bug, and agrees to buy the specter along with the furniture. The family – his wife, his adult son Washington, his teenage daughter Virginia, and his younger twin sons – don’t expect to actually see a ghost, but they quickly get to know Sir Simon de Canterville – the spirit of a 16th century squire who aims to terrify them. This begins with a gruesome bloodstain on the carpet, but the modern Americans are nonplussed: Mrs. Otis “does not care at all” for it, and when the servants provide the fearful intelligence that the bloodstain is supernatural and cannot be washed away, young Washington confidently recommends that they use Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent.
Soon after, Sir Simon appears to Mr. Otis in the middle of the night – wailing and clanking his rusted chains. Otis lumbers out of bed, unimpressed, and suggests that the ghost try Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator to oil his shackles. All of this worries the ghost, who is disappointed and concerned that he is losing his touch, and he thinks back on the way he terrified past residents through the centuries. Throughout the coming weeks he tries different tricks – making his bloodstain ghoulishly change colors and appearing in a variety of theatrical, ghostly forms (including the Headless Earl, the Blood-Sucker of Bexley Moor, the Suicide’s Skeleton, and the Strangled Babe) – but the family is mildly entertained at best, and bored at worst, leaving Sir Simon depressed and helpless.
Mrs. Otis tries her hand at abating Sir Simon’s depression by slipping him indigestion tonics and pondering joining the Psychical Research Society (a move which Wilde notes as a sign that although she was a New York heiress, “in many respects, she was quite English”), but the ghost continues to slip deeper into misery and purposelessness. To make things worse, he has been regularly pranked by the abominable Otis twins, who have employed tripwires, buckets of water, butter slides, and peashooters to humiliate the self-important specter. Perhaps most embarrassing, the twins terrify him with a ghost of their own -- made from a bedsheet, a jack-o-lantern, and a butcher's knife.
At this point, the mood of the story shifts: Sir Simon lets go of his attempts to matter and falls into a black depression. Unexpectedly, he begins to find sympathy from the only Otis who has not attempted to solve his problems with pragmatism, commercialism, or humiliation – 15 year old Virginia. Quiet and observant, Virginia is not like the rest of her family – she and Sir Simon gently bond 0ver their mutual loneliness, and he softly opens up about the shameful death of his wife, Lady Eleanor, whose death left his spirit stranded in their shared home.
Sir Simon had murdered his beautiful wife in a jealous rage, based on unfounded rumors, and was looked in a secret room by her vengeful brothers, where he died of thirst and hunger. For centuries he has been languishing in shame and self-loathing, and now all that he longs for is to sleep in the Garden of Death, but the Angel of Death has forbidden it, and his soul is trapped in Canterville Chase.
Virginia listens patiently to Sir Simon, sharing in his suffering, and he pleads with her to help him – to weep for him, as he cannot weep, to pray for him as he has no faith left, and to travel with him to the underworld to plead for the release of his soul. He hopes that, since she is still so young, it will enact a prophecy that his curse can only be broken through the love of an innocent child -- a restoration which will cause the manor's centuries-barren almond tree to bloom once again. Virginia does this – weeping and praying for him, and then passing through the wall into the supernatural realm – the Garden of Death – where she accompanies him to the afterlife, passionately appeals to the Angel of Death to release his soul, and tells him goodbye.
Virginia fails to appear at dinner and the family grows worried, but after a frantic search they find her standing at the top of the stairs in the dark. She has returned to the mortal world, bearing the Canterville family jewels -- a parting token from Sir Simon -- and reports that Sir Simon has departed forever. She leads the family to a secret room in a corridor deep in the heart of the manor. There they find Sir Simon's pathetic, skeletal remains chained to the wall, laying in the spot where he starved to death. Virginia kneels at the spot and prays for his soul to find peace, and at the moment the blighted almond tree miraculously blooms outside.
Four days later their provide him with a lavish, dignified Christian burial. They invite Sir Simon's ancestors, and offer to return the family jewels, but they insist that Virginia keep them as a token of the family's thanks.
Virginia is spiritually transformed by the experience, and returns from the Garden of Death with a serene maturity which seems poised to redeem the shallow coarseness of her American family and the irrelevant aloofness of her adopted British culture. She never shares what she experienced in the Garden of Death, and it remains her secret for the rest of her life. A few years later she marries an English duke, to whom she tells the story of her transcendental experience with Sir Simon: a ghost who taught her “what Life is, and what Death signifies, and why Love is stronger than both.”
By the 1880s the United States had unexpectedly been able to survive the Revolutionary War, the constitutional crisis, the War of 1812, several economic depressions, the assassination of two presidents, several complete transformations of its core political parties, the national sin of chattel slavery, and the great Civil War. Up to this point Britain had been the uncontested super power of the Western world, and although this supremacy would go unchallenged until World War One, everyone could see America’s star rising in world affairs. Transatlantic relations between the two countries began to become more balanced: before the Civil War, Americans were hopelessly out of their depth, and though charmingly provincial, were still desperate for acceptance by their English cousins. But by the Grover Cleveland administration, the United States had become a formidable economic power on the global stage, and cocksure Yankees were flooding British society – shocking Britain’s elite with their unapologetic optimism and charming the middle class with their sunny egalitarianism.
In “The Canterville Ghost” the meeting between the Otis’s (the name of a well-respected New England family, by the way) and Sir Simon is more than transatlantic culture shock – in many ways it is a deeply spiritual reconciliation between both countries’ deepest insecurities. Americans were decidedly vulgar, petty, shallow, materialistic, and overly optimistic. Britons, on the other hand, were decidedly classist, grave, melodramatic, obsessed with the past, and overly pessimistic. Wilde, who adored Americans, has the two parties address one another’s insufficiencies: the Americans learn to appreciate history, gravity, and metaphysics, while the British learn to be proactive, confrontational, and to let go of the past.
Virginia – Wilde’s typical unsullied, American belle – serves as the hinge between the two parties. She lacks her parents’ (and her brothers’) servile faith in capitalism (manifested in their hilarious belief in the ability of mass-market consumer products to solve all metaphysical problems), but has the youthful innocence needed to break the curse (a rare find in morbid, sardonic Britain).
The story is absolutely hysterical, but notably ends on a somber, spiritual note whereby the Americans lose their bumbling silliness and the Britons learn to move beyond the past by addressing historical sins head-on. Virginia’s wedding to the duke is the culmination of this transatlantic reunion, promising to help the two countries heal their vices and move on from their insecurities. Sir Simon is brought to peace by Virginia’s belief in grace (while so many other women were driven mad, brought to fits, and made suicidal by their encounters with him) and her faith in forgiveness (a notably rare trait in Wilde’s British women – e.g. the name-conscious Gwendolyn and Cecily in “Being Ernest”).
Like Sibyl Vane in “Dorian Gray,” Virginia is not interested in public spectacles or falsified emotions: both women stand out from Wilde’s menagerie of characters for being open-hearted, accepting, and sincere. But unlike Sibyl, whom Dorian rejects, Virginia is able to break the curse of sin by facing it unflinchingly, and providing Sir Simon with unwavering moral support. Guided by her kindness and acceptance, he is able to pass into the afterlife, and the story ends with a hopeful prospect for Britain and America’s transatlantic relationship.