Ghostly Markings: Aesthetic Criminality, Acts, and Supernatural Identity in Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost”

by Christie Cognevich

Note: Page numbers from the print version are indicated in brackets and should not be considered part of the text of the article.

[page 174] In his 1889 essay “Pen, Pencil and Poison,” Oscar Wilde eulogizes Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, a writer described by Wilde as “not merely a poet and a painter … an amateur of beautiful things, and a dilettante of things delightful, but also a forger of no mean or ordinary capabilities, and … a subtle and secret poisoner almost without rival in this or any age” (193). Ultimately, Wilde concludes that he finds no reason that Wainewright’s crimes might detract from his cultural contributions or artistic virtues because there is “no essential incongruity between crime and culture,” and, in fact, he suggests that Wainewright’s artistic reputation was undeserved except for his great works in poison (211). In this essay, published a year before The Picture of Dorian Grey (1891), Wilde also references Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin (1867) in which a murderer paints portraits of people that inevitably reflect the murderer’s crime by bearing strange resemblance to his victim (210). Numerous critics have thus scrutinized Wilde’s interest in the correlation between art, the supernatural, and crime, as well as how that connection plays out in Dorian Gray. I aim to redirect that critical interest to the first of Wilde’s published stories, “The Canterville Ghost” (1887), which has been largely neglected. It has been observed in passing that this comical ghost story has much in common thematically with Dorian Gray (Small 512), but these commonalities (and indeed, even what these themes might be) have yet to be explored. By interrogating “The Canterville Ghost,” I redress this scholarly oversight, exploring how artistry might spiritually redeem a phantom figure who seems otherwise impossible to salvage from sin, as well as the strange symbiotic relationship between art, sin, and the supernatural. Before Wilde mused upon the art of poison, before Dorian Gray’s murder of Basil Hallward, before the man who “killed the thing he loved” in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” there was a bloodstain on the floor of the library in Canterville Chase marking the spot where a murder occurred.

Haunting as Art and Actions as Communication

In “The Canterville Ghost,” the titular ghost, Sir Simon, enacts a theater of the grotesque in which he plays every role; his performances as characters like “Gaunt Gibeon, the Blood-sucker of Bexley Moor” and “Black Isaac, or the Huntsman of Hogley Woods” are legendary for the horror that they inspire. Can haunting be practiced as an art form in Wilde’s works? If so, what kind of productive pressure might this put on [page 175] normative constructions of what constitutes artistry and its effect on the body and soul? In what way does Wilde upend nineteenth-century discourse about ghosts? Indeed, before exploring Sir Simon’s supernatural activities, we must first explore the practical versus the supernatural role of the ghost in nineteenth-century literature and Oscar Wilde’s literary imagination.

As Christine Ferguson points out, “The Victorian fin-de-siècle was a period during which supernatural discourse was paradoxically at a zenith and on the verge of extinction” due to efforts by Spiritualists and the Society for Psychical Research to normalize the figure of the ghost as merely “a banal manifestation of [nature’s] laws” (878). Naturally, literary figures like Oscar Wilde were heavily invested in the idea of the supernatural as supernatural and viewed these efforts as an attempt to collapse the imaginative realm into the quantifiable and the rational. In one way, Sir Simon’s aesthetic haunting serves as an antidote to “the newly scientized ghost,” and his unrepentant performances are an enactment of Wilde’s “contempt for vulgar realism and mass culture” (878). Later, Wilde will revisit the supernatural as a key battleground for imaginative minds to wrest from the hands of those who would imbue it with practicality and realism; in his critical essay “The Decay of Lying” (1891), Wilde laments through his mouthpiece, Vivien, that “the dreams of the great middle classes of this country, as recorded in Mr. Myers’s two bulky volumes on the subject, and in the Transactions of the Psychical Society, are the most depressing things I have ever read. There is not a fine nightmare among them. They are commonplace, sordid, and tedious” (188). Much has been made of Wilde’s interest in the immorality/amorality of art and his staunch opposition to making art useful or practical, especially aligning himself against “those who vulgarize art by demanding from it guidance in matters practical and moral” (White 8). Yet little has been said about Wilde’s interest in liberating ghosts from practical naturalism and keeping them firmly in the realm of the aesthetic. Little also has been said about the role of this particular short story in Wilde’s development of his aesthetic theories of criminality and personality.

Certainly haunting might fall under the aegis of impractical art, and as practiced by Sir Simon, haunting is wildly immoral; in “The Canterville Ghost,” artistic production, sin, and the supernatural are all interrelated. As demonstrated by the critical essays “Pen, Pencil and Poison” and “The Decay of Lying,” both published after “The Canterville Ghost,” Wilde continued cultivating his thinking on the matter, broadening “the profile and theoretical context for the artist-as-criminal persona by further emphasizing art’s subversive energy: art, like all intellectual activity, is dangerous” (White 10). But this story is not simply an enactment of his later critical works; it serves as a rich conceptual exploration of criminal [page 176] action as expression, and subsequently, as personality. Where do potentially inflammatory acts of art and mayhem lead in this ghost story?

The story begins with a family of eminently practical Americans, the Otises, who move to Canterville Chase, an English manor home which has been haunted for centuries by Sir Simon de Canterville. According to Canterville family legend, Sir Simon murdered his wife in the home three centuries earlier and later disappeared, though his “guilty spirit still haunts the Chase” and the bloodstain in the library where he killed his wife lingers on, said to be impossible to remove (Wilde “Ghost” 40). The Otis family has been warned by Lord Canterville himself of the ghost that plagues the ancestral home, but the Americans are far too sensible and modern to be concerned by anything so Old-World as a ghost. As for Sir Simon, he is baffled by the Otis family and their incongruous reactions to his hauntings. Though he looks the part of a malevolent ghost, first appearing to the Otis family as “an old man of terrible aspect” clanking about the corridors past midnight in manacles with eyes like “red burning coals,” Sir Simon finds himself ineffective against the Americans(42). He retreats to reconsider his haunting tactics, reflecting upon the time when he gave an old woman “an attack of brain fever” after she woke to find “a skeleton seated in an armchair by the fire reading her diary;” one butler “shot himself in the pantry because he had seen a green hand tapping at the window pane;” and Lady Stutfield always wore “a black velvet band round her throat to hide the mark of five fingers burnt upon her white skin” before she eventually drowned herself (43). It is apparent that Sir Simon takes satisfaction not merely in harming others, but in doing so in a refined and creative way, with many of his hauntings clearly tailored to the individual victim’s particular vanity, weakness, fear, or sin. He leaves his mark on each, an outward physical effect clearly visible when he leaves ill women, gibbering madmen, and dead bodies in his wake.

Sir Simon believes himself an artist, suggesting that his hauntings are in fact a form of art. Perhaps what is easy to overlook in the comical depiction of Sir Simon’s many personae and his humorously grotesque roles is that Sir Simon is not just a parody of a ghost: he puts on an entire theater of the grotesque, and the quality of his performance is literally legendary. When Sir Simon recalls “his most celebrated performances,” he remembers them “with the enthusiastic egotism of the true artist” (44). These destructive, violent performances might be difficult to view as artistic, but Wilde insists upon artistic expression as necessary to life, although he does not shy from qualifying this urge to expressive art as potentially destructive as well. Wilde affirms that “the basis of life…is simply the desire for expression,” and that life “seizes on [artistic forms] and uses them, even if they be to her own hurt” (“Decay” 183). Considering his status as the stuff of actual legends, Sir Simon begets [page 177] more art, more fictions: his role as a ghost is also to serve as an origin point for stories (however dark the tales may be).

Considering haunting as an expressive act transforms it into acts of language–haunting serves not merely as conduct, a doing, but as communication, clarifying Sir Simon’s frustration at the (non)reactions of the Otis family. Failure to haunt is a failure to speak to his audience, anticipating the twenty-first century free speech debates over whether a protester’s armband or a burning cross constitutes ‘speech.’ This is an interesting take on theories of performativity, originally suggested by J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words. According to Judith Butler, in Austin’s theory, “words are instrumentalized in getting things done” (44). For Wilde, there is a reversal of emphasis when considering how incendiary acts become modes of self-expression: Sir Simon reveals how to say things creatively by doing. While Austin and Butler argue that speech acts are both expressive and performative, Wilde is focused on the way that performance is not simply performance. Later, Wilde will note that the poisoner Thomas Wainewright was first fascinated by painting in his childhood, and only later in life did he “find expression by pen or poison” (194, emphasis mine). Reconsidering later essays in light of haunting-as-art and acts-as-language ultimately revises the connection between criminal acts and expressive art, but as Simon Joyce points out, it would be reductive and misleading to simply read all criminal or subversive actions as modes of expression.

Simon Joyce’s “Sexual Politics and the Aesthetics of Crime: Oscar Wilde in the Nineties” hones in on the “aesthetic interest in crime by focusing on and around” Dorian Gray and seeks to debunk the myth of the Wildean cultured criminal (503). His work critiques the generalization that Wilde believes crime to be a mode of sophistication, concluding that a straightforward reading of “Pen, Pencil and Poison” misses Wilde’s suggestion that “the cultural kudos which come from a criminal reputation cannot finally compensate for a lack of artistic talent” (505). Joyce calls for a more nuanced reading of criminal acts, one which posits that “crimes … can be supported only as a response to material need and suffering” (507). Crime, then, is a mode of expression or communication, but only justifiable as a cry for help rather than motiveless acts of sheer pleasure. Sir Simon turns to his creative acts of terror out of need; in fact, Sir Simon claims that he is compelled to his acts by virtue of his status in life (death?), much like the impoverished classes which Wilde absolves of responsibility for their crimes. He informs young Virginia Otis that he must haunt as he does; it is “absurd asking me to behave myself … quite absurd. I must rattle my chains, and groan through keyholes, and walk about at night … It is my only reason for existing” (Wilde, “Ghost” 53-4). It is also only through his hauntings–a purposeful method of artistic expression–that he achieves salvation. [page 178]

At the end of “The Canterville Ghost,” it is Sir Simon’s creative capacity as an artist, one that communicates through need, not pleasure, that allows his spirit to rest. In the end, the story unexpectedly veers into heavily moralistic, didactic territory; it is ostensibly Sir Simon’s repentance and Virginia Otis’s sweet nature that allow her to shepherd his soul to heaven and God to grant him mercy. But the subtext of Sir Simon’s journey, first to a supernatural afterlife and then to salvation, is his creative capacity as an artist, achieved through inventive crimes. Furthermore, the young woman who delivers his soul is not just good, but an artist. Initially, it is Virginia’s sensitive nature that is spotlighted when she is described earlier in the story; she is shown as “always being a good deal distressed at the sight of the blood-stain, and very nearly cried the morning it was emerald-green” (“Ghost” 44-5). But when she finally speaks to Sir Simon, rebuking him for stealing her paints to restore the erased bloodstain in the library, we find out a new detail about Virginia: she is a painter. By recognizing Virginia’s position as an artist in her own right, we can begin to see how her participation in the process of Sir Simon’s redemption transforms the act into a more creative endeavor than the initial religious reading might reveal. “She alone takes him seriously and participates in the secret rites that exorcise him peacefully into the beautiful Garden of Death, an imaginative realm whose mystery and aestheticism stand in stark contrast to the tedious banality of [other] accounts of the afterlife” given in Victorian religious and supernatural discourse (Ferguson 879). Together, Sir Simon and Virginia reveal how art, even in non-moral and non-traditional forms, can effectively satisfy spiritual necessities. It is clear that subversive acts committed in service of a need are expressive, and they ultimately will serve as expressions of identity in place of the corporeal body Sir Simon lacks.

Reading Acts as Personality: Conjoining Criminality and Identity, (Dis)Figuring the Body

“The Canterville Ghost” demonstrates that even at the very start of his creative publishing career, Wilde is thinking provocatively about how actions communicate, as well as actively decoupling art from traditional conventions of morality and playing with the juxtaposition of “‘criminal’ predilection and the aesthetic sensibility” (White 9). Thus, this story proves an ideal starting place for investigating his budding fascination with “art’s subversive potential” (9), the subsequent question of acts-as-identity, and revising the relationship between acts and subjects. It has been suggested by Richard Ellmann and others that Wilde experienced his first homosexual encounter in 1886; Yvonne Ivory believes that following this major life experience and his newfound involvement in sexual “criminal activity,” Wilde found new inspiration from the coadunation of [page 179] criminality and cultivation of the self. She suggests that at this time, Wilde “began in his writings to consider seriously ways of exonerating criminal acts. He developed a theory of personality that defended crime and sexual dissidence in the name of self-realization” (518). Ellmann also suggests reading Wilde’s works as evidence that he identified with criminality, claiming that “forgery was a crime which perhaps seems closest to Wilde’s social presentation of himself” (282–83). However, this reading effectively limits interpretations of Wilde’s stories and critical essays as defenses of his identity/lifestyle.

I do not wish to defend Sir Simon’s criminal deeds as supernatural art by drawing correlations between Wilde’s lived experiences and his theories; this critical approach essentializes Wilde’s sexuality and experiences and joins act and identity in an inversion of the Foucauldian model, which resists said collapse of subject and action. As Michel Foucault points out, the medicalization and pathologization of homosexuality in the nineteenth century led to a refiguring of sodomy as not an act, but an identity: “The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species” (43). Foucault suggests that the pathologizing of sex acts subsumes sodomy and the sodomite, retroengineering “a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology” (43). He cautions against identifying and falsely historicizing subjects as anything more than mere perpetrators of an activity. Joyce takes up this concern, noting that he is “suspicious of readings of Wilde that retrospectively position the author as a criminal aesthete and thus Dorian Gray as a kind of exercise in self-justification” (511). Thus, I am less interested in reading Wilde’s personal history as subtext to his stories than in how Wilde himself links acts to his characters’ own identities. I focus on Wilde’s own resistances to a Foucaultian view, his curious insistence on acts as personality in “The Canterville Ghost,” and how he anticipates speech-act theory with Sir Simon’s communicative needs.

Sir Simon’s communicative impulses are urgent because he lacks a permanent body–the traditional mode of conveying messages, whether by audible speech, written language, or gestures. J.L. Austin suggests that words are “uttered as (merely) the outward and visible sign, for convenience or other record or for information, of an inward and spiritual act … the outward utterance is a description, true or false, of the occurrence of the inward performance” (9). Sir Simon haunts as an expressive art, and by haunting, enacts his personality–the inward performance all turned outward. According to Judith Butler in Excitable Speech, “speaking is itself a bodily act,” but an act that is troubled by the difficulty of extracting the physical body from its linguistic representation (10, emphasis hers). Accordingly, Shoshana Felman notes: [page 180]

If the problem of the human act consists in the relation between language and the body, it is because the act is conceived–by performative analysis as well as by psychoanalysis–as that which problematizes at one and the same time the separation and opposition between the two. The act, an enigmatic and problematic production of the speaking body, destroys from its inception the metaphysical dichotomy between the domain of the “mental” and the domain of the “physical,” breaks down the opposition between body and spirit, between matter and language. (94)

The body cannot be understood except as it is made aware to us through thought–language–and physicality cannot operate within consciousness unless it is named and accounted for by language. The body, then, is a site of excess, one that breaks down distinctions between communication and physical matter and creates confusion between the two.

This confusion between the material and the immaterial has not gone unremarked in recent criticism. As Maureen O’Connor points out in “The Spectre of Genre in ‘The Canterville Ghost’,” the story is a destabilizing mix of satire and the “genuinely … ghoulish, and is at many points effectively, movingly melodramatic” (330). She refers to “The Canterville Ghost” as “an uneven and disorienting admixture of comedy and gothic melodrama” that serves to “yoke the material and the fantastic” (330). In O’Connor’s view, this comingling of the physical with the spectral is part of the gothic narrative’s “unburiable” recursive return to itself: a structure built around disturbing returns of the haunting figure and what she terms “dismembered remains” of many scenes of haunting and unease (330). But she also points out that that tale’s status as satire also compliments the fragmented and repetitious nature of the gothic: its “recursive structure and force of memory is at once essential to parody–in order to succeed, its audience must have some familiarity with the material being satirised” (330). Therefore, wrapped up in Sir Simon’s own repetitious, fragmented communicative performances are the similarly recursive, disruptive motions of the gothic and the satirical within the story. When performing himself verbally, Sir Simon creates the memory of his body and identity, and by doing so he also creates the historical memories, recalling layers of tales of haunting, necessary for both the story’s ghoulish gothic narrative and its parodic recollection of that same gothic narrative to succeed.

Furthermore, the ghost’s incorporeal nature renders him a perfect model for Wilde’s theories of personality and self-development; lacking a fleshly vessel or surface to contain his personality, he is wholly personality. If this is the case, then personality is a surface quality, one determined in the eye of the beholder. Because he has no set form or corporeal limitations, the apparition must act out his disfigured faces and roles, shift [page 181] into new manifestations, and demonstrate himself again and again through his crimes (Sir Simon is well aware of this, recalling his earlier plea to Virginia that haunting is his only means of validating his existence.) Consequently, Sir Simon’s appearance and his acts come to define him. As O’Connor points out, Sir Simon’s “ghostly visitations are never made in his own ‘character’, Sir Simon de Canterville,” but instead his “spectacular appearances through the years have been drawn from a repertoire of hackneyed gothic melodrama characters” (332-333). He can never be himself unless he is pretending as someone else. Inverting Foucault, acts cum communication cum personality: Sir Simon must act out his identity in order to overcome the immateriality of his body. Without these acts, Sir Simon cannot be seen or known.

Sir Simon’s favorite roles are named characters that he plays through actual bodily transfigurations, exceeding a simple mask or pseudonym. When he draws up his plan of action as revenge against the Otises for their insults, his scheme revolves mainly around his disguises. He devotes a day to costuming, “ultimately deciding in favour of a large slouched hat with a red feather, a winding-sheet frilled at the wrists and neck, and a rusty dagger” (Wilde “Ghost” 46). It is in this guise that he will terrorize one of the Otis sons and the Otis parents. To the Otis twins, however, he plans to appear “in the form of a green, icy-cold corpse” (47). This performance culminates in the moment in which he plans to

throw off the winding-sheet, and crawl around the room, with white, bleached bones and one rolling eyeball, in the character of “Dumb Daniel, or the Suicide’s Skeleton,” a rôle 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.” (47)

As Wilde says in “The Decay of Lying,” “what is interesting about people … is the mask that each one of them wears, not the reality that lies behind the mask” (169). Sir Simon’s masking works in excess of reality, literally defying the limits of the corporeal body. In this sense, his insubstantial body is capable of this art in an even greater degree than the ordinary living being.

O’Connor reads Sir Simon’s defeat at the hands of the young Otis twins, who terrify Sir Simon with their own ghostly effigy created out of ordinary objects like a bed curtain and a hollow turnip, as a materialistic “parodic duplication” that makes clear Sir Simon’s “relegation to the category of exchangeable commodity” (334). For O’Connor, their specter is an inversion of the material and spiritual that makes clear to Sir Simon that his “illusion of romance and tradition” has been heartily “dispelled by the reality of gross and heartless commercialism” (334). It is an insulting cheapening of Sir Simon’s tireless theatrical planning at self-representation, rendering his problematically excessive body into the most [page 182] simplistic and crass of material displays. But I read this moment as something more: it is the first time that Sir Simon has ever really seen himself since his death. He has seen the many faces of his ghastly identities, but never his own. Upon first viewing the figure, he is horrified: “Never having seen a ghost before, he naturally was terribly frightened, and, after a second hasty glance at the awful phantom, he fled” (Wilde, “Ghost” 48). It is only through the Otis twins’ artistic representation–itself an act of creation and communication, however crude–that Sir Simon meets himself and finds his own face. Unsurprisingly, he does not like what he sees. This is a pivotal turning point in which Sir Simon’s communications finally garner a response, a productive conversation. From this point on, the story’s trajectory changes from satire to an actual examination of Sir Simon’s original crime and his eventual renewal at Virginia’s hands.

These themes of immorality, criminality, and aesthetic salvation prove significant because “The Canterville Ghost,” Wilde’s first published story, sets an important precedent in themes that the author will explore in greater depth later in his career, including crime and murder as an aesthetic experience in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,” “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.,” and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” Wilde will continue to develop ideas of the obscene in art, upholding “the established Romantic position that art, if it be art of consequence and scope, should be difficult, complex, unpopular” (White 15-6). But, as Sir Simon shows, transgressive art opens up new potential for humankind, an “expansion of art’s subject matter and formal innovation of the kind that can lead to cultural progress … possible only when the critical instinct pushes creation beyond any ordinary ability or desire to appreciate or ‘understand’ it” (10). Through the ghostly figure of Sir Simon, Wilde questions and problematizes the relationships between acts and speech, acts and identity. Ultimately, Sir Simon’s lifetime exceeds our human understanding of the boundaries of lived experience, his collapsing of mind/body distinctions defies Cartesian logic, and his art proves problematic, perverse, and uncontained by any general definition of beauty or art. Through art, he communicates, and by communicating, he is. Though art in this manner is hard to explain or understand, it is precisely its lack of definability or comprehensibility by traditional means that makes the spirit-artist so intriguing for Wilde.

Works Cited

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MLA citation (print):

Cognevich, Christie. "Ghostly Markings: Aesthetic Criminality, Acts, and Supernatural Identity in Wilde’s 'The Canterville Ghost.'" Supernatural Studies, vol. 2, no. 2, 2015, pp. 174-183.