Hitomi Nakamura: A Farewell to the Redemptive Woman: The Traces of The Flying Dutchman in ‘The Canterville Ghost’

[Posted 16.v.2013]


Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Canterville Ghost: A Hylo-Idealistic Romance’ is a ghost story which was first serialized in the Court and Society Review in February and March of 1887. Critics have generally considered its subject matter to be the interrelation between gothic and farce, materialism and idealism, and between the ostensibly clashing cultures of England and the United States. The background to the plot has been widely discussed, and most readers are likely to trace it back to Wilde’s lecture tour in the States in 1882 and his impressions of the country. Moving away from this sort of solely biography-based analysis, the paper contributes an inter-textual approach to the existing body of criticism, by comparing the story to The Flying Dutchman (Der fliegende Holländer), a Romantic opera composed by Richard Wagner, first performed in 1843. There are some obvious affinities between both texts, suggesting that the opera played a significant role in Wilde’s development of the story.

Wilde is not as well-known as a music enthusiast as his contemporaries, Arthur Symons and George Bernard Shaw. Critic John Louis DiGaetani, in his book Richard Wagner and the Modern British Novel, refers in passing to Wilde as a ‘Wagnerite’ (26). Yet Wilde discusses his belief that music is a perfect art form in essays such as ‘The Critic as Artist’, perhaps following Walter Pater, who maintained that ‘All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music’ (135). In the light of this, Wilde’s appreciation of Wagner deserves more attention.

This paper will concentrate on listing the most significant affinities between Wilde’s story and the plot of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. It appears that Wilde got acquainted with the Flying Dutchman legend through Wagner’s opera. Richard Ellmann, in his renowned biography, notes that Wilde must have attended a performance of The Flying Dutchman conducted by Wagner himself, at the time Wilde was living with Frank Miles, between 1879 and 1881 (75). According to DiGaetani, it was not until the 1890s that Wagner acquired a reputation, not to say notoriety, in London, following a number of performances in Covent Garden (‘Oscar Wilde, Richard Wagner, Sigmund Freud, and Richard Strauss’ 176).

By way of a comparative study of plot, character design and significant motifs, this paper will bring to light that The Flying Dutchman is an undercurrent in ‘The Canterville Ghost’. It will also explore so-called Wagnerian elements in Wilde’s story, taking account of some preceding studies on the links between both artists.1 The first section will focus on the traits of Sir Simon de Canterville which seem to echo Wagner’s Dutchman. The next section will juxtapose Wagner’s self-sacrificing Senta to Virginia E. Otis, the heroine who brings salvation in Wilde’s tale. The final section will discuss Wilde’s story as a possible homage to Wagner, a homage not exempt of criticism. This is suggested by Wilde’s modification of the opera’s tale, and his subversion of a conventional plot of female redemption which places Wagner within a mainstream European 19th-century cultural discourse.

The Wandering Ghost

In the beginning of the 19th century, the legend of the Flying Dutchman acquired its literary shape at the hands of several Romantic writers across Europe. It is generally believed that the story originated in the legend of the Wandering Jew, well-known to folklorists and antiquarians (Monica F. Cohen 180). In essence, the Flying Dutchman is the tale of a Dutch captain lost in a storm near the Cape of Good Hope, purportedly in the mid-17th century. Having defied god, the Dutchman is cast ashore and condemned to roam the ocean for eternity to seek redemption. Wagner himself admitted that he gleaned the story from Heinrich Heine’s ‘Fable of the Flying Dutchman’, a retelling of a nautical legend included in the book Memoirs of Herr von Schnabelewopski (1834). In this version, the Dutchman is permitted to land every seven years, and redemption seems to be close at hand.

As he developed the story, Wagner identified an essentially human feature in the legend:

The figure of the ‘Flying Dutchman’ is a mythical creation of the Folk: a primal trait of human nature speaks out from it with heart-enthralling force. This trait, in its most universal meaning, is the longing after rest from amid the storms of life. (The Art-Work of the Future 307)

Introducing Wilde’s ‘The Canterville Ghost’, John Sloan notes that the ghost story genre enjoyed an enormous popularity in the late 19th century (xiii). The Dutchman legend was undoubtedly no exception. Barry Millington has further observed that the legend proliferated in the visual arts in England, resulting in a variety of versions from the late 18th century onwards.2

It is in Wilde’s preface to the published version of his lecture ‘The Grosvenor Gallery, 1877’, that he first mentioned Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman:

… surely those who were in London last May, and had in one week the  opportunities of […] seeing Wagner conduct the Spinning-Wheel Chorus from the Flying Dutchman, and of studying art at the Grosvenor Gallery, have very little to complain of as regards human existence and art-pleasures. (5)

Shortly after, Wilde refers to music as ‘a matter of individual feeling’, which he considers to be the main concern of ‘our picturesque writers of music’. And yet, despite numerous comments such as this one, even Ellmann avoids discussing Wilde’s Wagnerian experience in his biography, dropping the subject by concluding that Wilde ‘felt more comfortable with the visual arts’ (75). There is no way of telling how impressed Wilde was by The Flying Dutchman, but we do know that Wagner was soon to be welcomed by the audiences of Europe’s largest cities with unbridled enthusiasm.

The first obvious echo of The Flying Dutchman in ‘The Canterville Ghost’ is the affinity between the two male protagonists. Wilde’s definition of ghosts is worth remembering, as it appears in his review of Yeats’s Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. The definition can be equally applied to Sir Simon and the Dutchman:

The ghosts live in a state intermediary between this world and the next. They are held there by some earthly longing or affection, or some duty unfulfilled, or anger against the living; they are those who are too good for hell and too bad for heaven. (‘Some Literary Notes II’ 409)

It is intriguing to find a correspondence in the characterization of Wilde’s ghost and Wagner’s ghost-like figure. Wagner uses the adjective fliegende to describe the ghost ship, emphasizing how it flies across the sea. In his story, the verbs Wilde employs to describe Sir Simon’s movements are ‘dash’, ‘flee’ (197) and ‘glide’ (208). Arguably, these verbs resonate with the adjective fliegende.3

A further correspondence is the fact that, while the Dutchman profanes God, Sir Simon proclaims that he has ‘no faith’ (208). Their blasphemous arrogance results in both men being doomed to wander in the sort of limbo. Canterville’s housekeeper, Mrs. Umney, tells us that Sir Simon murdered his wife in 1575 and then disappeared, leaving his ‘guilty spirit’ behind in the Chase (195). It later turns out that he died a merciless death, starved at the hands of his wife’s brothers, as we discover when his skeleton is found in a cell.

Sir Simon, just like the Dutchman, finds it tortuous to keep moving without any rest or sleep. He laments to Virginia that ‘I am so lonely and unhappy, and I really don’t know what to do. I want to go to sleep and I cannot . . . for three hundred years I have not slept, and I am so tired’ (207). This is uncannily similar to the curse put on the Dutchman, who cries: ‘Day of Judgment! Last day! When will you come to end my night?’ (113) Immortality has no appeal to either of them, being just a chain which holds them fast to the ground, so that they long for liberation. In the opening of the opera, the Dutchman says he is searching for ‘mein Heimatland (my homeland)’, which for him is an unreachable place (115). In the case of Sir Simon, it is the Garden of Death that he craves. After describing this imaginary garden to Virginia, he mutters:

Yes, Death. Death must be beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no to-morrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace’. (207)

To Sir Simon, this place satisfies ‘the longing for peace from the storms of life’ which Wagner had identified as a fundamental human need. Sir Simon’s outburst, ‘Death must be beautiful’, is a declaration of Romantic attachment to thanatos. His pining for the world outside Canterville Chase also illustrates his alienation, as we see when he is ‘sitting by the window, watching the ruined gold of the yellow trees fly through the air, and the red leaves dancing madly down along the avenue’ (205).

Sir Simon can also be seen as a musician, the equivalent of Wagner’s singing Dutchman. A key point to the character of Sir Simon is that he makes a series of deliberate creaking sounds every night, in order to unnerve the Otis family. In a way, this is his way of communicating with them, they are his audience. The word Otis, originally from the Greek, means ‘ear’; used as a first name, it means ‘one who hears well,’ and it has been associated with a medieval Germanic family name. In a sense Sir Simon is the composer in residence. Correspondingly, it is possible to think of the surname Canterville ― which is in fact the name of the former owner of the Chase ― as a play on the musical term canterbile, which means ‘in a smooth singing style.’ Sir Simon’s outbursts of demonic laughter, which ring out throughout the house at regular intervals, can be seen as a series of arias, the equivalent of the Dutchman’s eerie singing coming from the ship.

As we have seen so far, there are clear correspondences between the Flying Dutchman and Sir Simon, in so far as both of them are tethered and wandering forever, longing for a place where their exhausted souls could rest. Wilde’s characterization of Sir Simon may plausibly be indebted to the captain of the ghost ship created by Wagner in The Flying Dutchman. There are even more convergences to be considered between both texts, as we will see the next section.

The Redemptive Heroine

It is often believed that it was in The Flying Dutchman that Richard Wagner first introduced the motif of redemption ― in this case, the redemption of a man through the love of a woman ― a motif which recurs in most of his subsequent operas. Bearing in mind that Wagner’s conceptualisation of this motif is still tentative and undefined at this point, it is illuminating to compare the two redemptive women in the opera and in ‘The Canterville Ghost’: Senta and Virginia.

In ‘The Canterville Ghost’, much like in ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, Wilde employs a feminine character who helps a man through her self-abnegation.4 Altruism and self-sacrifice are the central themes in Wilde’s works of this period, and yet, none of his stories ever rewards a savior ― at any rate, not in this world, as is the case with the prince in ‘The Happy Prince’. In ‘The Canterville Ghost’, little Virginia plays the role of savior, and significantly, this is the first expression of female redemption in Wilde’s writings.

While sketching Virginia, Wilde seems to have been inspired by 19th century representations of women in European art and literature. Philip K. Cohen argues that this little girl can ‘enter empathetically into the ghost’s purgatory, and finally conduct him into the spiritual realm’, because she has ‘both innocence and imagination’ (68). However, I would argue that these features in the girl are not actually sufficient to grand the ghost’s redemption. Juxtaposing Senta and Virginia allows us to identify other characteristics central to the notion of a redemptive woman.

In the first place, it is not hard to see that both of them, as characters, border on the supernatural because they display a remarkable spiritual sensitivity. Act 2 of the opera begins with Senta staring at the portrait of the Dutchman, without joining the Spinning-Wheel chorus of ladies, who regard her as absent-minded. In a similar way, Virginia is different from the Otis family, as we see from the way she reacts to the strange incidents in the house. The following passage is taken from section 3 of the story, when the family discovers a blood-stain on the library floor, which, they realise, changes its colour every night:

These kaleidoscopic changes naturally amused the party very much, and bets on the subject were freely made every evening. The only person who did not enter into the joke was little Virginia, who, for some unexplained reason, was always a good deal distressed at the sight of the blood-stain, and very nearly cried the morning it was emerald-green. (198)

The reference to the ‘unexplained reason’ underlines her intuitive nature. This is reminiscent of Senta, who laments: ‘sorrows that burn within my breast, ah, this longing, how shall I name it?’ (132) In the case of both heroines, there is an inability to articulate their empathy with the ghosts. It is only through their intuition that they can recognise these supernatural beings and share in the sorrows.

A particularly important aspect of characterization in both texts is the fact that virginity and chastity are assumed to be necessary for redemption. Virginia’s unusual response to the blood-stain might be related to her awareness of the bleeding associated with the rupture of the hymen, or, given the repetitive nature of the stain in the plot, to menstruation. Similarly, in The Flying Dutchman, as we learn through the ballad sung by Senta, a young maiden’s Treue (faithfulness) is presented as an essential condition to save the Dutchman’s soul: ‘Yet this pale man may one day find salvation / if he can find a wife, who would remain true to him on this earth, until death!’ (123) In another song from the opera, the word Treue clearly connotes chastity, the devotion to a man expressed through self-sacrifice.

I know well woman’s sacred duty.
. . .
In the purest innocence of my heart
I know the highest demands of loyalty.
To whomever I give it, I give it completely ―
Faithfulness until death. (134)

Similarly, in ‘The Canterville Ghost’, Virginia’s name is associated with virginity. This is emphasized by the ghost himself, who explains that ‘against the purity of a little child the power of Hell cannot prevail’, after which he kisses her hand with lips which ‘burned like fire’ (208), another sexually suggestive turn of phrase. There are enough textual allusions to indicate that Virginia’s relationship to the ghost is framed within the same context as Senta’s. In Wilde’s story, there is also perhaps a suggestion of intercourse between the girl and the ghost, at least in the spiritual dimension.

As a character, Virginia is more complex than Senta. Initially, she is a girl of fifteen who is ‘a wonderful amazon, and had once raced old Lord Bilton on her pony twice round the park’ (194). Yet she also has ‘a sweet Puritan gravity’ (206), which impresses Sir Simon. Her passionate interest in art, and her strong sense of colour in her own paintings (which she discusses at length with the ghost), marks a contrast to the passivity of Senta, whose only engagement with artistic creativity is her mesmerized stare at the portrait of the Dutchman. In this context, Virginia can be seen as a precursor of Hester Worseley, an outspoken and preachy puritan girl in A Woman of No Importance, Wilde’s social comedy of 1893. Both Hester and Virginia may be seen to represent Wilde’s view of American girls as ‘pretty and charming — little oases of pretty unreasonableness in a vast desert of practical common-sense’, as he put it in his article ‘Impressions of America’ (705).

As Bram Dijkstra has discussed in his book Idols of Perversity, the 19th century female ideal for men was a woman ‘who would . . . offer up her own being, her own soul completely to that task, a woman who would become a mere extension of himself, who would let herself be absorbed completely by him’, a figure exemplified by Elsa in Wagner’s Lohengrin (20). Senta in The Flying Dutchman is a paragon in the same sense. It will be argued in the next section that Wilde’s Virginia, by contrast, is a subversive figure.

After the Redemption

The basic fact about the plots of The Flying Dutchman and ‘The Canterville Ghost’ is that both are gothic romances involving a girl and a ghost. Wagner’s earlier text is subverted by Wilde in a number of ways apart from characterization of the female protagonists. The opening of ‘The Canterville Ghost’, a description of an old English haunted house, is rather faithful to the tradition of gothic literature. This opening is deceptive, however, because as the story unfurls, its mood shifts unexpectedly from gothic to burlesque to romantic pathos. I would like to take a closer look to the unusual climax of Wilde’s story, which begins to unfold in part 5, because it seems to deliberately challenge the Wagnerian concept of female redemption.

It is worth noting the somewhat overblown subtitle given by Wilde to his story: ‘A Hylo-Idealistic Romance’. Monica F. Cohen has argued that that ‘hylo-idealistic does have relevance when one interprets its hyphen as an indicator of opposition’ (68). Taken up this idea, we could see the hylo aspect as being embodied by Virginia and the idealistic aspect being symbolized by Sir Simon. The hyphen also suggests that the relationship between the two characters will be reduced to a romantic attachment, though it remains to be seen if it can be realised in the flesh.5

A particularly revealing point is the fact that, at the end of the story, Virginia actually returns to her husband with a more profound understanding of the nature of love. Following her supernatural abduction, she declares that Sir Simon ‘made me see what Life is, and what Death signifies, and why Love is stronger than both’ (214). Wagner’s opera, on the other hand, closes when the heroine throws herself into the sea, a self-sacrifice which brings about the Dutchman’s redemption, which allows the couple to be joined in heaven. The story of ‘The Canterville Ghost’, however, continues after the death and redemption of Sir Simon. When Virginia returns, ‘looking very pale and white, with a little casket in her hand’, she announces that ‘He is dead’ (210), and resumes her life.

This is reminiscent of another motif in The Flying Dutchman. Senta’s devotion to the Dutchman, her father expects, will result in the securing of the treasure chest which the ghost keeps in his ship. In ‘The Canterville Ghost’, Virginia’s reappearance holding a jewelry box given to her by Sir Simon subverts the literary precedent of the opera. In Wagner, there is a suggestion that the woman has been exchanged for the treasure, while in Wilde the woman returns in full possession of the jewels she has earned. This indicates that there is no longer any need for a woman’s altruism and faithfulness if a man’s wandering soul is to be saved.6

Heine claims that the moral of the Dutchman legend is that women should ‘take care not to marry a Flying Dutchman’ (Barker 174). Virginia, who cherishes her memories of her brief romance with the ghost, keeps the story to herself and grows to become an independent woman, an interesting counterpart to the character of Lady Alroy in Wilde’s ‘The Sphinx without a Secret’. Wilde discussed his views of the United States in essay form in two articles published in a British journal.7 Yet his lecture tour ignited his imagination in a different way, and he used his story ‘The Canterville Ghost’ to counteract conventional portraits of women at the fin de siècle. Wilde was subsequently appointed editor of The Lady’s World magazine ― the title which he changed to The Woman’s World ― from the November issue of 1887, the year in which the story first appeared. Virginia, in this context, represents an evolved and unchained heroine, Wilde’s anticipation of the New Woman.


Wilde once declared that Wagner was a Christ-like figure, in so far as he had ‘realised his soul in music’ (‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’ 1087). The traces of The Flying Dutchman in ‘The Canterville Ghost’ can be seen as a form of homage to a composer Wilde felt a kinship with. Considering ‘The Canterville Ghost’ through the lens of The Flying Dutchman, we come to realise that Wilde’s story has a depth which tends to be overlooked by critics, who often see it as a light-hearted and humorous tale.

By contrasting the plots, characters and motifs of both works, we see that Wilde has not only incorporated Wagnerian elements into his story, but he has also subverted them. It is of particular significance that, in Virginia, Wilde constructs a new type of redemptive heroine. Given his endorsement of Pater’s hailing of music as the supreme art form, Wilde’s engagement with a musical form in a piece of fiction is particularly fascinating. The relevance of sound to the story, especially in the ghost’s performances for the Otis family, can be seen as an attempt to merge music with writing. Bringing The Flying Dutchman to bear when considering ‘The Canterville Ghost’, proves that we require a wider scope to read Wilde. This is true of so-called minor works, and also of major works such as The Picture of Dorian Gray, another text full of musical references. Our understanding of Wilde’s craftsmanship will be greatly enhanced by adopting a socio-musicological perspective.

  • Hitomi Nakamura is a Doctoral Candidate in English and American Literature, Graduate School of Letters, Ritsumeikan University, Japan.


1 Cf. Stoddard Martin, Wagner to ‘The Waste Land’: A Study of the Relationship of Wagner to English Literature (London: Macmillan, 1982) 33-54; Amelia A. Rutledge. ‘Flowers of Love, Death, and Redemption: Wagnerian Motifs in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Fisherman and His Soul’ and ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’’. The Oscholars A Giant’s Garden: Special ‘Fairy Tales’ Issue (2009), 29 November 2011.  On line.

2 Cf. Barry Millington, ‘The Sources and Genesis of the Text’. Interestingly, there is also a controversial view that the tale of the doomed Dutch ghost ship stems from a British literary tradition itself. Cf. Theo Meder, The Flying Dutchman and Other Folktales from the Netherlands (Connecticut: Libraries Unlimited, 2008) 119.

3 Richard Wagner. ‘The Flying Dutchman’, trans. Charles Osborne. The Flying Dutchman: A Guide to the Opera, ed. Frank Granville Barker (London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1979) 109-146; Oscar Wilde. ‘The Canterville Ghost: A Hylo-Idealistic Romance’. Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (London: Harper, 1989) 193-214. All subsequent citations are from these editions and will appear parenthetically in the text.

4 Basil Hallward in The Picture of Dorian Gray may be another example, as the painter is the one who could have prevented Dorian with his genuine affection towards him. This of course is noteworthy given the fact that Wilde was homosexual.

5 The original subtitle was ‘A Hylo-Idealistic Romance: the Redemptive Heroine’ when the story appeared in the magazine. Although Wilde deleted the latter part in 1891 edition, it still emphasizes Virginia’s nature as the redemptive woman.

6 As another example of Wilde’s adoption of Wagnerian motif, we can take his reference to almond into account. It is an echo of Tannhäuser that the barren almond tree blooms at Virginia’s return, which Philip K. Cohen (67) and Vicki Mahaffey (58) also recognise. Almond flowers work as a token of the remission of sins, as Virginia lays ‘a large cross made of white and pink almond-blossoms’ (212) at the funeral for Sir Simon.

7 In Court and Society Review, Wilde published ‘The American Invasion’ and ‘The American Man’.


Barker, Frank Granville, ed. The Flying Dutchman: A Guide to the Opera. London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1979.

Cohen, Monica F. Professional Domesticity in the Victorian Novel: Women, Work and Home. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998.

Cohen, Philip K. The Moral Vision of Oscar Wilde. New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1976.

DiGaetani, John Louis. ‘Oscar Wilde, Richard Wagner, Sigmund Freud, and Richard Strauss’. Ed. Robert N. Keane. Oscar Wilde: The Man, His Writings, and His World. New York: AMS, 2003. 175-82.

――. Richard Wagner and the Modern British Novel. New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1978.

Dijkstra, Bram. Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1988.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. London: Penguin, 1988.

Mahaffey, Vicki. States of Desire: Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, and the Irish Experiment. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

Martin, Stoddard. Wagner to ‘The Waste Land’: A Study of the Relationship of Wagner to English Literature. London: Macmillan, 1982.

Meder, Theo. The Flying Dutchman and Other Folktales from the Netherlands. Connecticut: Libraries Unlimited, 2008.

Millington, Barry. ‘The Sources and Genesis of the Text’. Ed. Thomas Grey. Richard Wagner, Der fliegende Holländer. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 25-35.

Pater, Walter. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. Library ed. London: Macmillan, 1910. New York: Johnson Reprint, 1967.

Rutledge, Amelia A. ‘Flowers of Love, Death, and Redemption: Wagnerian Motifs in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Fisherman and his Soul’ and ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’’. The Oscholars A Giant’s Garden: Special ‘Fairy Tales’ Issue (2009). 29 November 2011.  On line.

Sloan, John, ed. Oscar Wilde: The Complete Short Stories. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010.

Wagner, Richard. ‘The Flying Dutchman’. Trans. Charles Osborne. The Flying Dutchman: A Guide to the Opera. Ed. Frank Granville Barker. London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1979. 109-146.

Wilde, Oscar. ‘The Canterville Ghost: A Hylo-Idealistic Romance’. Originally appeared in Court and Society Review. 1887. Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. London: Harper, 1989. 193-214.

――. ‘The Grosvenor Gallery, 1877’. Miscellanies by Oscar Wilde. Originally appeared in Dublin University Magazine. 1877. Vol. 10 of The First Collected Edition of the Works of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Robert Ross. 15 vols. London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1969. 5-23.

――. ‘Impressions of America’. Originally delivered in 1883. The Prose of Oscar Wilde. New York: Cosimo, 2005. 697-706.

――. ‘Some Literary Notes Ⅱ’. Reviews by Oscar Wilde. 1908. Originally appeared in Woman’s World. 1889. Vol. 14 of The First Collected Edition of the Works of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Robert Ross. 15 vols. London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 406-420.

――. ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’. Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Originally appeared in Fortnightly Review. 1891. London: Harper, 1989.

1 Response to Hitomi Nakamura: A Farewell to the Redemptive Woman: The Traces of The Flying Dutchman in ‘The Canterville Ghost’

  1. Aintzane L. Mentxaka, Lecturer at School of English, Drama, and Film --- University College Dublin says:

    An excellent article. Persuasively argued and well researched.

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