Some books stay with you much longer than others. And The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde is certainly one of them for me. I had first read it as part of my CBSE syllabus. Back in school, I used to wonder how it would be to read something of this sort without the pressure of scoring well. And when I did, it turned out to be nothing short of an extremely delightful experience.
The Canterville Ghost (Review)
The title might make you think that it is a ghost story that will induce a shiver down your spine. Well, sorry to break your bubble, but you are up for a major surprise. It is anything but scary!
The introduction by Kaushal Goyal describes The Canterville Ghost as a study in contrasts. Read on to find out what that means. The short story has every possible trope of traditional gothic literature; be it clanking chains, cracking floorboards, or changing weather. What more, the very first page has a passing mention of two skeleton hands. But Wilde uses these devices as a means of participating in and parodying the gothic tradition itself. General notions and stereotypes are what he aims to lampoon at each juncture.
Wilde excels in the economy of words, using fewer words to say more. But the winning factor is how fresh these words read/sound even today, though the story was first published, as part of The Court and Society Review magazine, in the late 1800s. His wild blending of macabre with comedy is as imaginative as it can get. For most parts, the irony is what lends the story its comic timing. The juxtaposition of misfit elements and situations begins the moment Wilde places a typical American family in an old British country house, Canterville Chase.
Everything is so categorically reversed from the onset itself that you know you have signed up for a rollercoaster ride. Unlike in most ghost stories, Sir Simon (a three-hundred-year-old ghost) is the narrator here. The story is told from his point of view, and it is his emotions that we get to see. Hilarity arises when Sir Simor’s innumerable attempts at scaring off the new inhabitants (the Otis family) go in vain. Oddly enough, it is him who ends up ill and terrified of the “wild shrieks of laughter from the twins.”
Washington’s (the elder son) way of mentioning the Pinkerton’s Champion Stain Remover and Paragon Detergent sounds like a ludicrous advertisement. But it is one of the many jibes at the Americans’ “practical way of dealing with the problem.” How Sir Simon speaks of the mundaneness of ghost life is just as funny as it is a firm reminder of the British aristocracy’s seemingly bizarre routines. He seamlessly creates a plethora of blink-and-you-will-miss-it moments throughout. With multiple interesting incidents unfolding one after the other, he keeps you on edge. Like most ghost stories, you are always wondering what would happen next. Almost every page of this seven-chapter-long short story has a one-liner that is likely to have you in splits. But my favorite one has to be Sir Simon’s description of Lady Eleanor de Canterville’s (his wife) murder as a family matter, which concerned no one else.Like most ghost stories, you are always wondering what would happen next. Almost every page of this seven-chapter-long short story has a one-liner that is likely to have you in splits." Click To Tweet
There is a tonal shift towards the end. Silliness makes room for some seriousness. The ending, if I may say so, is somewhat open. By making Virginia (the Otis’ fifteen-year-old daughter) hold on to her secret, Wilde makes us ponder more over the basic message of the story, “what Life is, and what Death signifies, and why Love is stronger than both.” Ultimately, Virginia’s marriage to the Duke of Cheshire comes across as a blend of the two cultures. And this symbolism brings the playful sparring of the Old and New World to a full circle. The ending was too sentimental for my taste, I admit. But it still left me yearning for more. I wish Wilde had given us some more scoops of this delish drama.
So, here is the deal. This entertaining and engaging piece is highly recommended for children and adults alike. It can serve as a great mood lifter during the gloomy lockdown days. Even at a slow pace, you can finish it in a couple of hours. And for those of you who could not and would not get enough of it (like me!), you can find several stage and screen adaptations of the short story. Honestly, you really have to be living under a rock to not be familiar with Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. But if you are, do check out his other remarkable works like The Importance of Being Earnest, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and The Happy Prince.