The Canterville Ghost | Study Guide

Oscar Wilde

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The Canterville Ghost | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


The Otis Family Moves In

Despite warnings that Canterville Chase houses a fearsome ghost, Mr. Hiram B. Otis, an American minister, buys the estate, located near Ascot, England. On a lovely July evening, Mr. Otis; his wife, Mrs. Otis; their son, Washington; their teenaged daughter, Virginia; and their twin boys, "The Stars and Stripes," move into their new home, Canterville Chase. As their wagonette nears the estate, the sky darkens and it begins to rain.

As they pull up to the mansion, they are greeted by the housekeeper, Mrs. Umney, who serves them tea in the library. Mrs. Otis notices a bloodstain on the floor and insists that it be removed, but Mrs. Umney objects, explaining that it is Lady Eleanore de Canterville's blood. She was murdered in that exact spot by her husband, Sir Simon de Canterville, in 1575. She tells them that Sir Simon went on to become the Canterville ghost, and the bloodstain is of interest to tourists and cannot be removed. Washington scoffs at the notion and removes the bloodstain. Suddenly, there is a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder and Mrs. Umney faints. When she recovers, she warns the family that trouble is on the way. The Otises dismiss her concerns.

The Otises Meet Sir Simon

The bloodstain reappears the next morning. Twice more Washington removes it; twice more it returns. Finally, the Otises admit to the existence of Sir Simon, the Canterville ghost. Removal of the bloodstain becomes a morning routine, and the spot takes to assuming a different color each day, a development that amuses all of them except young Virginia.

On the fourth night at 1:00 a.m., the ghost of Sir Simon appears in the hallway, clanking his chains. Mr. Otis insists the ghost oil his chains and leaves a small bottle of Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator oil for the ghost to take. Angry at this offering, Sir Simon flees down the corridor, but before he disappears, the twins throw pillows at his head. Thoroughly unnerved, the ghost vanishes through a wall. He spends that night moping in his secret room, appalled at the degree of disrespect the Americans show him. He plans revenge.

The next morning Mr. Otis expresses bitterness over the fact that Sir Simon did not take the oil and concludes that the family "shall have to take his chains from him" if they are ever going to get any sleep. Over the next several weeks, the Otis boys conduct a campaign of harassment against the ghost to which Sir Simon retaliates with his most frightening persona. But despite his three centuries of experience as a terrifying apparition, none of his tricks faze the Otises. He is reduced to a nervous, exhausted wreck and finally gives up trying altogether.

When the Duke of Cheshire comes to stay at Canterville Chase, Sir Simon considers taking action against the family again. However, the ghost is terrified of the twins and chooses to remain in his chamber. Instead of being given a fright, the duke dreams peacefully of Virginia.

Virginia Gets Involved

Virginia Otis comes upon Sir Simon one afternoon as he is brooding in the Tapestry Chamber. He is so depressed that she feels sorry for him. He says there is no reason for him to exist if he can't clank his chains and speak through keyholes. Virginia expresses her sympathy and then berates him for using her paints to replace the library's bloodstain and for murdering his wife. Sir Simon defends his actions. He admits he has not slept in 300 years. He references a prophecy that says a "golden girl" will someday weep and pray for him, and then he will enjoy eternal rest. Virginia agrees to help him, and the two vanish through the Tapestry Chamber wall.

Suppertime arrives and the Otis family panics when Virginia cannot be found. After searching the house and surrounding area for much of the night, the family regroups in the manor. At midnight the clock strikes, eerie music plays, and Virginia returns. She is holding a coffin-shaped box of jewels the ghost has given to her. She takes everyone to his secret chamber, where his skeleton is chained up. Virginia says a prayer for Sir Simon, and this causes the once-barren almond tree to instantly blossom in the moonlight. Virginia declares this is a sign that God has forgiven Sir Simon for his sins; now he can rest in peace.

Farewell, Sir Simon

With Sir Simon's soul at rest, the Otises give his remains a nighttime funeral. Mr. Otis is uneasy with the idea of Virginia keeping Sir Simon's jewels, but Lord Canterville insists. Years later Virginia wears the jewels when she marries longtime beau Cecil, the Duke of Cheshire, in the presence of the queen. After their honeymoon, Virginia and the duke visit Sir Simon's grave. They talk about the ghost; Virginia refuses to reveal what went on between the ghost and her when he had held her in his chamber. The duke guesses that perhaps she will someday tell the secret to their children, and this causes Virginia to blush.

The Canterville Ghost Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 The Otis family takes residence at Canterville Chase.

Rising Action

2 Washington removes the library's bloodstain.

3 The Otis family meets and angers Sir Simon.

4 A series of humiliating encounters disheartens Sir Simon.


5 The boys corner Sir Simon, and he barely escapes.

Falling Action

6 Sir Simon asks Virginia to help him depart to the hereafter.


7 Virginia helps Sir Simon, and his soul finds peace.

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