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The Signal Man

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The signal man
The Story
“The Signal-Man” describes an eerie encounter between two men, the anonymous narrator of the story and a railway signalman. The signalman confides to the narrator that he has seen some disturbing sights that he believes are ghostly apparitions. The story reflects the narrator's initial skepticism, which turns to horrified belief at the conclusion.
The story opens as the narrator is taking a walk in the country. He sees a signalman by the train track at the bottom of a steep cutting. He calls to the signalman, makes his way down a zigzag path to the track, and converses with him. The signalman is strangely fearful of the man, revealing that the man's greeting reminded him of a disturbing supernatural apparition he has seen—and heard—at the mouth of a nearby tunnel. The narrator wonders briefly if the signalman himself is a spirit because of his strange manner.
The signalman invites the narrator to return and meet him at his signal box on the following night. At that time, the signalman tells his visitor more about the apparition. It took the form of a man who appeared in front of the tunnel waving desperately and crying, “Look out! Look out!” The signalman telegraphed warnings to other stations along the line but to no avail. Six hours later, a terrible train accident occurred. On another day, the figure reappeared and assumed an attitude of extreme grief. A few hours later, a woman died on one of the trains going by the signalman's post. The signalman is tortured by his inability to make any life-saving use of these supernatural warnings. The signalman's visitor considers with deep anxiety how he might help the man but can think of nothing efficacious.
Not long after this conversation, one evening when out walking, the narrator also sees the apparition at the mouth of the tunnel, standing with his arm over his eyes and desperately waving a warning with the other arm. Running to the signal box, the narrator learns that the signalman was run over and killed by a train that morning. One of the men working by the railway tells the narrator that the signalman was standing with his back to the oncoming train. Like the ghostly apparition the narrator saw that evening, this man covered his eyes to avoid seeing the signalman destroyed while continuing to wave his arm in warning.
Themes and Meanings
In “The Signal-Man,” Dickens makes supernatural beings interact with real people in realistic situations to express concerns about human interconnectedness. His better-known story A Christmas Carol (1843) employs the same strategy. Unlike A Christmas Carol, however, “The Signal-Man” is a pessimistic story with a sad ending.
In “The Signal-Man,” a ghostly apparition either warns or belatedly informs a helpless watcher of fatal tragedies. In nineteenth century fiction, the railway was often used to symbolize anxiety about technological progress obliterating traditional ways of life and supplanting intimate social connections with impersonal technological systems. This anxiety is evident in “The Signal-Man” as tragedies occur despite of the carefully constructed means established to ensure safety: telegraph signals, red lights, flags, and bells. Dickens emphasizes the signalman's careful attention to his duty in his faithful adherence to routine and his constant watchfulness. Nevertheless, even when they are conscientiously deployed, technological communications can be ineffectual in preventing the deaths taking place on the railway. The train seems to have an untamed power of its own, impervious to the stratagems of the people who invented it.
Loneliness and social isolation are also prominent features of “The Signal-Man.” The empty countryside and the steep zigzag pathway that separates the narrator from the signalman in the story's beginning emphasize the sense of isolation. Neither man is given a name. Each wonders whether the other is a ghost rather than a human being. Although there are systems in place for communicating by telegraph, there are no people nearby with whom to share the fear and the worry—other than through this chance encounter between the protagonists. In contrast to the characters’ anonymity and ontological vagueness, the rushing train has an undeniable physical presence and energy. Humanity has been reduced to isolated, ineffectual, doubtfully real figures in a barren landscape in which only the train has power.
The supernatural apparitions are eerie but not dangerous. They do not threaten the human characters, but their ineffectual desperation and grief are deeply unsettling. They seem to be symbolic of human caring and empathy, an empathy that is tragically disconnected from any real power to do good. They seem to show that although the power and means to provide help and comfort are cut off, the desire to be humanly interconnected and to prevent tragedy and suffering is still strong.
Style and Technique
The opening of “The Signal-Man” is striking in its modernistic evocation of existential isolation. The first sentence is a cry: “Halloa! Below there!” Instead of identifying the speaker, the text goes on to describe the reaction of an unidentified man who hears the voice but cannot determine its origin. By withholding the identities of both the first speaker and the listener (the narrator and the signalman), Dickens creates a feeling of dislocation and uncertainty that effectively communicates his theme of loneliness and human powerlessness. The narrator's and the signalman's brief suspicion that each may be a spirit rather than a human contributes to the eerie and mysterious mood.
In contrast to these characters’ uncertain entrance into the story, the train makes its narrative entrance with brutal vitality. Before the narrator and the signalman can make physical contact, the air vibrates with “violent pulsation,” and the train passes by in an “oncoming rush” that nearly pulls the narrator into its wake. The contrasting presentation of human characters and train underscore Dickens's theme of technology's dehumanizing power.
The steep incline that the narrator must traverse to meet with the signalman, the zigzag path, and the foreshortened perspectives evoked in the opening scene create a feeling of vertiginous insecurity. This mood is further emphasized by the description of the signalman's station: a solitary post just outside a gloomy dark tunnel next to a dripping wall of “jagged stone” that blocks out the sky and the sunlight.
The story unfolds mainly in dialogue that is terse and urgent, creating a feeling of inexorable momentum toward a dreadful end. Beyond the initial description of the gloomy location, there is very little attempt to build atmosphere through description. The narration has a quality of reportorial objectivity that builds the reader's acceptance of the importance of the ghostly apparitions. Although the narrator at first wonders whether the signalman is prey to nervous indispositions that give rise to imaginary visions, he discovers from his own experience at the end of the story that the ghosts have a reality independent of any individual imagination. The narrator's attitudinal transformation from skepticism to horrified belief persuades the reader to gradually enter into the story's spell.
The ghosts, most often appearing in the form of a man covering his eyes with one arm and waving desperately with the other, are the story's most striking visual images. Their anonymous desperation and ineffectual passion portray the tragedy of technology destroying human agency and connection. By introducing ghostly elements into a realistic setting, Dickens transforms the modern technological landscape into a gothic setting in which horrible tragedies evade human control. This combination of elements unifies two forms of anxiety: the ancient fear of the supernatural and the modern fear of impersonal, implacable, heartless technology.

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