The Signalman – Charles Dickens

Author Background

Dickens is perhaps England’s best known novelist. He was also a social critic who was concerned about the condition of women and children who worked in squalid sweat-shops that were common in many of the towns of England. Most of Dickens’ stories have important characters who struggle against the adverse social conditions. Dickens also wrote several gothic stories with an element of mystery and suspense. The Signalman was one such.  The story has only two main characters both of who remain nameless.

The Relevance of the Title

The title, The Signalman is relevant to the story; he is the protagonist and at the end of the story, he lies dead. There had been a grim foreboding tone pervading the story; we expect a tragedy but when the death happens, we are taken aback. The signalman, tormented by the visions that he sees and the voice that he hears is helpless. In the two previous times that he has seen the apparition, tragedies have come fast. The signalman has not spoken to anyone; the last time, he speaks to the narrator but he cannot prevent the death that comes swiftly.

Main Themes

The Railway

The tragedy that befalls the signalman is closely tied up with the trains that pass through the tunnel that the signalman manages. The trains seem to have a power of their own though they are creations of man; they are at a stage when man is not able to control them. The train is an instrument of death in The Signalman. The railway operates using a complex system of lights, bells and flags but when the time comes, they all fail.

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Loneliness and social isolation

Social isolation and loneliness are features of The Signalman landscape. The signalman is cut-off from society. He spends his time in the tunnel where natural light is not within reach. There is no one to talk to. The suggestive power of loneliness preys on his mind. His appearance is like that of a phantom; the narrator is not sure whether he is real. Neither of the main characters is given a name making them spirit like.

Helplessness

Helplessness hangs over the whole scene like a fog. The signalman hears the warning, he sees the lantern flashing and the clanging of the bell. But he cannot prevent the two tragedies. The narrator encourages the signalman to be resolute. But he cannot keep him from violent death. The engine driver warns the signalman of the approaching train; unfortunately his physical movements and the words he utters are exactly those that prey on the signalman’s mind. He does not know which is the apparition or which is reality until the train hits him.

Characters

The Signalman

The signalman manages the railway tunnel. There is only one track so it is necessary to warn trains of movement on the track. This signalman whom the narrator chances upon during one of his walks is a deeply disturbed soul. Since a few days, an apparition has been appearing on the high banks above him and calling out to him and waving. Though the movements by themselves are not threatening in any way, the previous two times that the apparition appeared with the same gestures had been like portents. Once there was a train accident in which people died and the second time, a lady had mysteriously died on a train. When the narrator appears above him, the signalman is not sure whether he is an apparition or a human. The narrator makes the same gestures as the apparition scaring him. The signalman is harmless. He is said to be conscientious; he is educated but shut up in the tunnel, his learning is of no use to him.

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The Narrator

He is just a passer-by who gets sucked into the fortunes of the signalman. When he notices the signalman, he calls out to him in a friendly way not least expecting what follows. It so happens that the narrator uses the same words the apparition has been using when he appears before the signalman. The signalman is confused about the identity of the person. The narrator pacifies him the best he can and promises to come that way the next day. But it is too late. The signalman is dead, hit by a train. The narrator feels he has let down the signalman.

Summary

One cold evening, while on a walk, the narrator while on a high bank looks down on a railway line that snakes into a tunnel. Seeing the signalman at the mouth of the tunnel, he calls out to him. He then climbs down and approaches the signalman. He is hardly prepared for the signalman’s response. He is confused and terrified being not able to comprehend whether the narrator is a spirit or a man. Likewise, the narrator thinks that the signalman may not be human but an apparition. As he reassures the signalman that he is just an inquisitive passer-by. The signalman then tells him the harrowing story of the strange apparition that has been appearing before him. It uses the same words and gestures the narrator used as he called out to the signalman. Twice before also it had happened and on both occasions, the appearance of the ghostly figure was followed by tragedies on the railway line. The first one was a crash in which people were killed and second was the mysterious death of a young woman in a train as it passed by. The signalman does not elaborate on either incident. He is an educated person who due to personal circumstances could not make better use of his learning. He is stressed out and lonely. He is filled with helplessness. He knows that something bad is about to befall the railway line that passes by him. The narrator consoles him and promises to come again the next day to pacify him.

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The next day, when he comes there, he finds a knot of people in front of the tunnel. As he approaches them, one of them announces that the signalman is dead, struck by a train. The driver of the train had called out to him, unknowingly using the same words and gestures used by the apparition. Instead of moving away from the train, the signalman had stood there, transfixed. The narrator is filled with horror at the turn of events.

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