The Theatrics of the Supernatural in “The Canterville Ghost”

One aspect of “The Canterville Ghost” that I found intriguing was the theatrical element of the ghost’s haunting techniques. There are many instances where it seems like the ghost is putting on a show for whomever happens to be living in the house. For example, when the ghost recounts his many achievements, it often sounds like he is listing off parts he has acted out. He says, “in the character of ‘Dumb Daniel, or the Suicide’s Skeleton,’ a role in which he had on more than one occasion produced a great effect, and which he considered quite equal to his famous part of ‘Martin the Maniac, or the Masked Mystery…” Typically, a ghost is thought to be the spirit of someone who has died and they haunt the living as representations of themselves. However, this ghost seems to have many characters he can play on a whim. It seems like he is an actor more than a vengeful spirit. He even wears costumes. Wilde writes, “[he] spent most of his day in looking over his wardrobe.” Wilde makes this theatrical connection explicit when he writes, “It was, however, extremely difficult ‘make-up,’ if I may use such a theatrical expression in connection with one of the greatest mysteries of the supernatural…” The ghost’s hauntings are always meticulously planned out and dramatic. He assumes many different characters that he has seemed to have perfected over the centuries. Rather than just being himself, which in my opinion would be scary enough, he adopts another guise and makes a show of it. It seems less genuine and less “real.” Why go to the trouble?

One thought the came to my mind was that maybe the ghost is a symbol for tradition, especially in England. Even though it is not necessary, the ghost still puts on a show for those in the house. He even sees it as his duty. Wilde writes, “It was his solemn duty to appear in the corridor once a week… and he did not see how he could honorably escape from his obligations.” Even though it is more troublesome to appear as a different character and by the end the ghost no longer wants to haunt the house at all, he feels that he absolutely must continue. The story is an allegory representing the clash of “modern America” and “traditional England.” The theatrical part of the display seems to represent the futility and uselessness in many traditions, but whether or not they serve a function they must be continued for the sake of tradition. This value seems to be lost on the American new-comers which is why they do not appreciate the ghost’s theatrics. Rather than running and screaming, they pull out their Pinkerton’s. IPN


Filed under Week 2 Reviews: Wilde's Poetry and Short Fiction

4 responses to “The Theatrics of the Supernatural in “The Canterville Ghost”

  1. Yes, his nightly hauntings do seem to constitute a kind of duty for the ghost: it is somehow quite ironic that Wilde suggests that this is the case, for depictions of supernatural behavior usually suggest malevolent intent and uncontrollable desire to penetrate and destroy the human realm. In the ghost’s case, he bears no actual ill will (to the extent that he wants to physically injure the inhabitants of the manor) to the people he plagues; all he wants is to be a “good ghost”, so to speak. There is something very endearing in that, I find… -LH

    • I really enjoyed your post about the theatrical aspect of the Canterville Ghost. I too found the theatrics of it all very funny, and even heart-warming. This ghoul, who tries too hard to be terrifying actually becomes an image of kindness and acquires a true depth (especially when he bonds with little Virginia) through his ridiculous efforts. This is the second Wilde story that we have seen in which the comical aspects actually beckon the reader to read deeper into a more moralistic aspect of the text. Although the ghost is humorous and totally over the top, he is also like you say en emblem of England. It seems to me that Wilde is actually giving his reader the responsibility of digging deeper and past the comical, to assert a just morality (and maybe also a certain British supremacy) within his story.-MCR

  2. I really thought your comments about the clash of cultures that we see throughout this short story were very interesting, as it does seem that Wilde invites us to sympathise with the supposed villain, the ‘ghost’ of the piece, because he represents a theatricality and tradition that we should seek to admire. I would also agree with LH’s comment that there is something inherently endearing about the ghost, as he the concept of ‘fear; only exists in the story only as a means of justifying self-worth and pride. I would say that considering Wilde’s reverence for the artist and his belief in ‘l’art pour l’art’, it seems appropriate that the pragmatism of the Americans is equated with dourness, and the theatricality of the English seen as akin to a certain antiquated charm and beauty.


  3. This is a lovely thought. The performance of tradition, as you might call it, seems persuasive to me as a concern of the story, however latent (though it need not be). I wonder, then, how that would map onto ghost stories in general and their persistence in popular and less-than-popular fiction nowadays, in a world so thoroughly disabused as ours is of fantastic notions such as that of the existence of ghosts — maybe I’m speaking only for myself here. Do we as Americans think there is something “ghostly” to England, our “origin”? Is there something distinctly American to staking a (paradoxical?) claim to a “new origin”? DJM

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