T’Pol’s Book Club #6: The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde

“He met with a severe fall” from Wallace Goldsmith’s illustrations to Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost (1909).

Is it logical to believe in ghosts?

For most of our favorite Star Trek characters, I imagine the answer would be no. Starfleet officers are scientists, and it’s part of the job not to believe anything without proof. On the other hand, it’s also part of the job to admit that there are things we’ll never know. This tension between logic and mystery makes for fascinating ghost stories. Even if the “ghosts” are explained at the end of the episode as something more appropriate to sci-fi, like alien telepathy, what they represent—old memories that refuse to be forgotten—needs more than a tricorder to handle.

Logic and mystery also collide in Oscar Wilde’s 1887 short story, The Canterville Ghost. When American diplomat Hiram Otis buys Canterville Chase, an English country estate everyone says is haunted, he and his family are determined not to believe in ghosts. Even when an old man with rusty chains and a hoarse laugh starts literally floating through walls, the Otises still deal with him in material, un-spiritual ways. The adults offer him oil and cough medicine and politely admonish him to be quiet. The kids play tricks on him, throwing pillows and setting tripwires. The ghost, Sir Simon de Canterville (played, incidentally, by Patrick Stewart in the 1996 film adaptation) has never been so humiliated in 300 years. All he really wants is to rest in peace, but no one seems to understand that … except maybe 15-year-old Virginia Otis, the only person in the house willing to listen.

Sounds like something a starship crew would enjoy playing on the holodeck, right?

SNW s02e05 “Charades”

T'Pring and Spock in "Charades"

Oscar Wilde was in a unique position regarding London’s elite. As a famous author, he got invited to their parties and could observe them from the inside, but as an Irishman (with a male lover, at a time when that was illegal), he knew he didn’t fully belong. This gave him plenty of targets for satire: aristocrats who would judge him for his heritage and/or personal life, while their own ancestors, like Sir Simon, won power through violence, or social climbers like the Otises who talk about “Republican simplicity” while living in a castle. “Charades” also calls out snobbishness in the form of Vulcan lady T’Pril, who puts Spock through an ordeal of scalding hot tea and scathing criticism to prove whether he is Vulcan enough to marry her daughter. Spock, whose Vulcan DNA is temporarily missing (long story) passes all the tests while fully human, proving just how meaningless they are.

DS9 s01e14 “The Storyteller”

The Storyteller in DS9

Sir Simon sees his hauntings as “performances”, taking up to three hours to get in costume. He considers it a “solemn duty” to remind the British Empire of its violent history. The American Otises, who don’t care much about any history before George Washington, are the wrong audience for this art. Like Sir Simon, the Sirah – the titular “Storyteller” of the episode – channels his audience’s fears into visible shape, so that the emotions can be confronted and released. When the dying Sirah appoints Miles O’Brien, a stranger to the village, as his heir, the distrust between storyteller and listeners makes their fears get out of control in the shape of a lightning storm. Only by reestablishing the connection between artist and audience – in Miles’ case, letting someone else speak; in Sir Simon’s case, finding a sympathetic listener – can their performances have the impact they’re meant to have.

TNG s07e18 “Eye of the Beholder”

Troi looks distressed in "Eye of the Beholder"

Sir Simon murdered his wife; her brothers locked him up and starved him to death in revenge. Since then, he has been using his ghost powers to punish the sins of his descendants, like adultery or cheating at cards. He cannot move on until someone hears his confession and discovers his remains. Like Canterville Chase, the Enterprise-D also has its ghost: an “empathic echo” which forces others, including Deanna Troi, to relive a murder/suicide through the perpetrator’s eyes. Whether or not ghosts exist in the real world, patterns of violence do repeat in the same places, until the original cause is forgotten. It’s up to historians and archeologists to unearth hidden truths, as Virginia and Deanna do in these stories, in the hope that the repetitions will someday end.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How do you draw the line between adapting to a different culture, like the Otises in England or Amanda on Vulcan, and compromising yourself to meet someone else’s standards, which T’Pril expects Spock to do?
  2. Sir Simon is an objectively terrible person – he’s proud of all the people he frightened to death; he killed his wife and still complains about how unattractive she was – and still Virginia Otis feels compassion for him after hearing how much he’s suffered. Have you ever felt this way about someone, fictional or real?
  3. How would you treat a ghost if you met one?

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