I thought “The Canterville Ghost” was hilarious. Or if hilarious is too strong, at least extremely amusing. The interactions between the twins and the ghost, that it’s this big, brash American family that can’t be flapped by the spirit — there’s something so charming about the subtle reversals of expectation Wilde is working with. That humor however, is distracting from the more sinister aspects of the tale, which is something Wilde seems to have a talent for — trivializing or distracting from the sinister when it suits the story, a misdirection from the actual end of the tale. Focusing on the trivialized darker details, the crime of the ghost itself is quite interesting. When confronting Virginia near the end, the ghost explains his reasons for killing his wife and remarks that “it was purely a family matter, and concerned no one else,” (196) an interesting framing considering he’s most directly haunting another family. His wife couldn’t starch his ruffs properly and couldn’t cook so naturally he took family matters into his own hands. Though the ghost killed his wife, for seemingly very little, Wilde doesn’t seem to wholly condemn him for that action. His little domestic reasons for killing his wife, that make his crime seem particularly petty, distract from the ghost’s preceding point, “Oh, I hate the cheap severity of abstract ethics” (196). In light of some of the reversals of the text, this then seems to be the most crucial and serious criticism Wilde is leveraging in this piece, a questioning of the rigidity of moral assumptions, and perhaps just assumptions in general.
Thinking further about the relationship of the ghost to his crime and the more sinister elements of the tale, I am also particularly intrigued by the end and some of the story’s final questions. The Duke says to Virginia, “you have never told me what happened to you when you were locked up with the ghost” to which Virginia replies that she has never told anyone and that the ghost “made me see what Life is and what Death signifies, and why Love is stronger than both” (204). Nothing about that is singularly intriguing, until the Duke suggests that she’ll at least tell her children one day and Virginia just blushes. I can’t put my finger on exactly what about that ending is so uncomfortable, maybe that her name is Virginia and something happened with the ghost that she’d blush to tell her children, but in some ways this unknown is the most sinister of all, the irresolution, particularly in regards to Virginia. Because of some of those outstanding questions this story is a good place to interrogate a lot of the questions that plague readers of Wilde’s work — what are we supposed to take seriously, can we take the story at its word, is it a reflection of our moral ethics or Wilde’s design that we sort of sympathize or at least lightly pity this murderous ghost, (amongst other questions)? It’s difficult to know where to stand at the end, what the story was trying to tell you (if anything at all), and some of that discomfiture is from Wilde’s clever uses of reversal, humor, and the cheap severity of your own ethics.