An American diplomat's family moves into an ancient stately mansion. They're warned by the owner that it is haunted by a most horrifying and gruesome spirit who had once cruelly murdered his own wife. The story progresses with creaking floor boards, mysterious passages, dark attics, clanking chains, and weird howling. Yet, the reader is totally unprepared for Oscar Wilde's brand of tongue in cheek humor as he takes all the ingredients of a traditional ghost story and turns it on its head, and creates a hilarious parody instead of a morbid saga!
The Canterville Ghost was the first of Oscar Wilde's short stories to be published. It appeared in a magazine in 1887 and provides a prophetic glimpse into Wilde's genius for comic timing, dialogue and situational comedy. He had a successful career as a journalist and poet and consequently turned to fiction and drama.
The plot is one that leaves the reader chuckling at every turn. The American diplomat and his family are products of a purely pragmatic culture which has no patience with sentimentality and superstitions. The English mansion is steeped in legends about ancient curses and the diabolical doings of a seventeenth century specter. The Americans believe in a robust, healthy and practical way of life and use all manner of branded cleaning products. The two youngest members of the family called the Stars and Stripes set wicked traps for the ghost, while the daughter Virginia is the only one who can truly appreciate the poor ghost's situation.
The Canterville Ghost revels in stereotypes and mocks at society's typical ways of viewing people and history. Pitting the brash and impertinent Americans against the dignified and aristocratic English provides plenty of room for comedy. The reader comes to realize that the ghosts of the past have no power over the optimism of the present. It is also a tale of the clash between the Old and New Worlds, of new money and old, traditions and modernity. It also portrays the gradual decay of the aristocratic English way of life in the Victorian era and the advent of American heiresses whose untold millions made in a variety of industrial businesses pumped new blood into the dying aristocracy of Old England. However, the genteel good breeding of Lord Canterville and the innocent goodness of fifteen year old Virginia provide food for thought as Wilde creates characters who stand out in their humanity and compassion.