Book Review – The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde

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Book Review – The Canterville Ghost

The Canterville Ghost
The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde, Book Review

The Canterville Ghost is a short story by Oscar Wilde. Like many works of literature, the story first appeared in a magazine, The Court and Society Review in February 1887. The Canterville Ghost is a story of contrast – American vs. British Society. When the story starts, the American minister, Mr Hiram B. Otis has purchased Canterville Chase, an English country house. Otis is warned by Lord Canterville that the house is haunted, but he doesn’t believe in ghosts.

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Book illustration
Book illustration (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Otis family consists of husband and wife, their eldest son, Washington, daughter Virginia and twin sons. Shortly after the Otis family arrives at their new country estate, they notice a spot on the floor in the library. Their housekeeper informs them that Lady Eleanore de Canterville was murdered at that exact spot by her husband, Sir Simon de Canterville, who survived her by nine years. His body was never discovered, however, his spirit haunts the place.

Washington applies some strong stain remover – Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent – to the blood stain, which disappears temporarily and reappears the next day. As soon as they remove the stain it reappears the following day – bright red, dull red, purple and even bright emerald green.

After the blood stain reappears the first time, the Otis family concludes that there must be a ghost. Mrs Otis is a modern day woman and declares that she is going to join the Psychical Society. Washington decides to write to Messrs Myers and Podmore, “on the subject of the Permanence of Sanguineous Stains when connected with crime.”

To get the most from this SummaReview of The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde, after you have read it, answer the following questions:

  1. Is this a book I’d like to read for myself? Why? Why not?
  2. What has made an impression on me in this reading?
  3. Were there any kernels of wisdom in this reading?
  4. Is there a framework that you can use in your life and work?
  5. What are five takeaways from the SummaReview?

The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde is told through the eyes of the very theatrical ghost, Sir Simon, who appears in many different costumes and personas – Red Reuben, Strangled Babe, Dumb Daniel, Suicide’s Skeleton, Martin the Maniac, Masked Mystery, Reckless Rupert, Headless Earl and so on. The first night, Sir Simon decides to haunt the Americans, Mr Otis greets him with a container of Rising Sun Lubricator for him to oil his manacled chains so he doesn’t make so much noise and disturb the family’s sleep. The twin boys also throw a pillow at him.

The ghost quickly retreats to his hiding place and is feeling quite insulted. Never in his three hundred years of haunting people at Canterville Chase has he ever received that kind of reception. The tables have been turned on the ghost, and instead of terrifying the residents, they instead “terrify” him. The twins use their pea shooters and discharge pellets at Sir Simon. One night after he attempts to frighten the family with one of his terrible laughs, Mrs. Otis lets him know that he sounds quite terrible and offers him a bottle of Doctor Dobell’s tincture.

Sir Simon suffers great indignities at the hand of the American family, who are not afraid of him. He enters the twins’ room to scare them and a large jug of water falls on him, which just about does him in. He has a grand plot to exact revenge against Washington whom he bears a special grudge for removing the blood stain with Pinkerton’s Paragon Detergent. But once again, the joke is on Sir Simon, when he encounters, what he perceives as another. The ghost has never seen another ghost and is quite terrified, and flees to his room. When he regains his composure and courage, Sir Simon seeks out the ghost to form some sort of alliance. He discovers to his chagrin, that the ghost wasn’t a real ghost. In another instance, Washington and the twins force him into the great iron oven, which luckily wasn’t lit at the time, forcing Sir Simon to escape through chimneys

Sir Simon’s nerves begin to unravel because nothing is working and he is becoming quite weak. He even decides not to bother with replacing the stain on the floor in the library. He doesn’t think very highly of the Otis family “They were evidently people on a low, material plane of existence, and quite incapable of appreciating the symbolic value of sensuous phenomena. The question of phantasmic apparitions, and the development of astral bodies, was of course quite a different matter, and not really under his control…”

The ghost resigns to the fact that he will not be able to frighten the “rude” American family. The twins lay in wait for Sir Simon on several occasions laying traps for him but he never appears. The family concludes that the ghost has left Canterville Chase. All during this time, Virginia was the only one in the family that did not play a trick on, or even approach the ghost. Why?

One day while out riding, Virginia tears her riding habit quite badly and decides to enter Canterville Chase through a back door. She is surprised to discover the Canterville Ghost sitting by a window. His disposition is that of someone suffering from depression and she feels sorry for him. An interesting dialogue takes place between them and during that time, he admits that he killed his why and why, and Virginia tells him that it is wrong to kill. She is also upset because he stole her paint to replace the blood stain and hence the mystery of the different colours of “blood” is solved.

Virginia tries to convince Sir Simon to go to America because they would appreciate a ghost there, but he doesn’t want to go to America. Sir Simon is weary because he hasn’t slept in over three hundred years. He wants to rest, but is terrified of the Garden of Death. He believes that through Virginia he will receive forgiveness and allowed to rest. He believes that through the purity of a child, Hell cannot prevail.

She takes him through the portal, and doesn’t tell her parents, so when they cannot find her they panic. But no one even thinks about Sir Simon, because they believed he had left. Virginia appears the next day after her family had searched for her everywhere and couldn’t find her. She relates what happens and shows them the gift of jewels she received from Sir Simon. Mr Otis tries to return the jewels to Lord Canterville, who refuses them and is convinced that should he take them, Sir Simon would return.

The story ends when Virginia is married a few years later, and you get the sense that something profound took place with her encounter with Sir Simon that she has never revealed.

I found this story quite funny and I laughed a lot. But when you stop to think, this is a story of contrasts. Think about it, an American family emigrates to England and buys a very English country home. Though they are warned that the house is haunted, they initially do not believe. However, when they realize that the house is indeed haunted, they do not respond in a “British” way by being scared, they turn things around on the ghost baffling him. You see the ghost going through a range of emotions until he is a broken man. It’s a story of role reversals, instead of the ghost terrorizing the residents of Canterville Chase, they terrorize him instead.

I recommend The Canterville Ghost. The book is an easy read and can be read in a couple of hours. Many of the film adaptations of The Canterville Ghost are not close to the book. This version with Patrick Stewart and Neve Campbell (The Canterville Ghost) is closer than other adaptations, though you shouldn’t watch the film in lieu of reading the book. I found reading the book far more delightful than watching the film.

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Further Reading/Viewing

Oscar Wilde: A Controversial Writer
Oscar Wilde – The Canterville Ghost

Cannot view video? Click here. Uploaded by  on May 26, 2009

The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Canterville Ghost, by Oscar Wilde

For those who want a print book to read: The Canterville Ghost: By Oscar Wilde

The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde YouTube Videos

Patrick Stewart as a Ghost 1 Uploaded by EternalMethos on Jan 17, 2009

Patrick Stewart as a Ghost 2

Patrick Stewart as a Ghost 3

Patrick Stewart as a Ghost 4

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Patrick Stewart as a Ghost 10