How A Murderer Gains Our Sympathy: Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost”

the_canterville_ghost hesperusThe most sympathetic character in Oscar Wilde’s short story, “The Canterville Ghost”, is Sir Simon (the ghost). This is ironic because he is a murderer. Although the story is a parody of the Gothic genre with a plot and characters that should not be taken seriously, a closer examination reveals the psychology of a killer: Sir Simon gains Virginia’s sympathy by manipulating her emotions.

Sir Simon is a murderer who is responsible for the deaths of at least five people. On the floor near the fireplace is “the blood [stain] of Lady Eleanore de Canterville, who was murdered … by her own husband” (160). Sir Simon celebrates her death, wanting the scene of the crime to be remembered forever. No matter how many times the blood stain on the floor is removed, he returns to re-apply it. (168). In the three hundred years since he bcame a ghost, he lists Lord Canterville’s death among “his great achievements” (163). His other “achievements” include a butler who shot himself after seeing “a green hand tapping at the window pane,” Lady Stutfield who “drowned herself” after the ghost burnt “the mark of five fingers … upon her white skin” (163), and Lady Startup who died after “she went off into the most piercing shrieks” (171). Sir Simon reflects upon these deaths with “enthusiastic egotism” (163). Five innocent people are dead, and he feels no guilt or remorse.

Sir Simon justifies the murder of his wife with an absurd rationalization. When Virginia rebukes him: “you have been very wicked,” and “it is very wrong to kill anyone” (172), he gives the following defense: “my wife was very plain, never had my ruffs properly starched, and knew nothing about cookery” (172). He killed her because she was a bad cook. His rationalization causes him to feel no guilt.

If an act of evil is defined as intentionally causing harm to an innocent person, then Sir Simon is guilty of evil. After murdering Lady Eleanore, he commits acts of evil not only once, but repeatedly, literally scaring people to death. Because he finds pleasure in doing evil, he is evil in nature.

As a figure of evil, the ghost is associated with the devil. In his first appearance in the house, “his eyes were as red as burning coals” (162), and in a later appearance he gave “his celebrated peal of demoniac laughter” (164). The “devil” ghost has terrified countless individuals, yet no one in the Otis family is afraid of him.

Sir Simon’s inability to frighten anyone makes him a sympathetic character. When the twins attack him, he falls over a suit of armor and “rub[s] his knees with an expression of acute agony on his face” (164). Clumsy and inept, he is an object of laughter. Returning to his room, “he entirely broke down” and was “extremely ill” (165) for days. After another encounter with the twins, the ghost’s “nerves were completely shattered” (168), and he is reduced to being “almost an invalid” (170). His physical and mental suffering makes him more like a human being than a ghost. In the past, he was an object of terror to his victims, but after seeing a ghost made by the twins, he becomes a victim himself. Sir Simon utters a “piteous wail of terror” (166) and returns to his bed, “hid[ing] his face under the clothes” (167). By taking on child-like qualities, we both laugh at and like the ghost who has been repeatedly “foiled, tricked, and outwitted” (167). The ghost fails to frighten anyone because he is constantly foiled, and a failure is someone we feel for.

Virginia feels sympathy for the ghost due to his depressed emotional state. When she first encounters him, “his whole attitude was one of extreme depression” (171). After the mischievous twins outwit him, she shows him kindness. Seeing him “so forlorn,” she was “moved with pity, and determined to try and comfort him” (171). He tells Virginia how his wife’s brothers “starved [him] to death” (172), and she offers him her sandwich.

Sir Simon wants Virginia to feel sympathy for him out of self-interest. A prophecy states that if “a little child gives away its tears” (174), his soul can be laid to rest. When he tells her that he wants to die and to be buried, her “eyes grew dim with tears” (173), and this fulfills the prophecy.

If a good person like Virginia feels sympathy for the ghost, this signals that the reader should as well. However, her sympathy is misplaced. Sir Simon’s depression is because of self-pity, not the sorrow of regret for the pain he caused his victims. After Sir Simon is gone, Virginia tells her father: “he was really sorry for all that he had done” (177). This is not to be believed. Sir Simon lied to Virginia, telling her what she wanted to hear. At no point did he ever express sorrow for killing his wife. The ghost is a devil figure, and the devil is liar and a deceiver. Virginia has been duped.

In “The Canterville Ghost”, Sir Simon fails to frighten anyone, but in the end, he succeeds as an actor by giving a sympathetic performance. He does this by shifting the focus from the suffering he caused to the suffering he experienced. Virginia feels compassion for a killer who felt no compassion for his victims, whose sufferings pale in comparison, and who felt no sorrow for his crimes. If Sir Simon had been remorseful for murdering his wife and the subsequent deaths he caused, then Virginia’s sympathy would be appropriate. However, in a story filled with absurdities, her sympathy should also be considered absurd.

Works Cited

Wilde, Oscar. “The Canterville Ghost.” The Complete Short Stories of Oscar Wilde. New York: Dover Publications, 2006. 158-180. Print.


  1. Interesting post.

    Oscar Wilde had a way of mocking things and turning them on their heads; I suspect he had ulterior motives with this story, in causing the audience to empathize with and feel the same compassion for a despicable murderer, as a method of manipulating their emotions. But while I agree with your assessment that her compassion is ‘absurd,’ you could also turn around and argue that’s what makes her a Savior figure — someone willing to forgive someone undeserving…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for your encouragement. I really appreciate it. This was an Undergrad paper that I rewrote after graduation. It is a controversial interpretation that I expect many people will disagree with. However, I think it has practical application to real life. Criminals try to gain public sympathy using the same methods as the Canterville Ghost.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The “Canterville Ghost” by Oscar Wilde is one of my very FAVORITE short stories of fantasy fiction! GREAT POST!!! A BRILLIANT analysis into the characters of this MASTERPIECE of fiction! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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