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Essay: Charles Dickens’ short story The Signalman

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
  • Reading time: 6 minutes
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  • Published: 18 June 2021*
  • File format: Text
  • Words: 1,518 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 7 (approx)
  • Tags: Charles Dickens essays

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In Charles Dickens short story, “The Signalman”, he takes a conceptual and theoretical approach as he uses critical moves to suggest a mystery within the characters and the spectres portrayed. Dickens focuses on elements such as setting and environment, ambiguity, symbolism, and conflict which are employed to intensify the supernatural effects within the story.
In the first couple of paragraphs the narrator in the story focuses on the setting and environment around him which produces a supernatural sense. In the first sentence the narrator screams, “Halloa! Below there!” which is a significant line that is repeated throughout the story and is used for foreshadowing the end. However, in the beginning this line is significant in introducing the setting and environment and its effects on the characters. Subsequent to the narrator’s scream, the signalman is portrayed to be looking around in confusion as to where the voice is coming from as if it was coming from something supernatural, like a spirit or ghost. This is made evident when the narrator states, “considering the nature of the ground, that he could not have doubted from what quarter the voice came”. Here, it is suggested that the signalman thought the scream was coming from the figure he often sees in the tunnel. This is significant because it is the first sign of the mans anxiety that exists due to a direct effect of the supernatural environment and setting he is in.
The setting depicted by the narrator is an eerie engine that drives the production of the supernatural sense to this story. The most significant setting that unfolds a supernatural effect starts with the scene on page 72. This is where the narrator is explicitly describing the moment he sees the path and his entire journey down it. The first moment worth pointing out is when the narrator states, “I found the way long enough to give me time to recall a singular air of reluctance or compulsion with which he had pointed out the path”. Here the reader gets an uncanny feel of the narrator’s surroundings due to his hesitation when he sees this path. This uncanny sense creates an unsettling feeling of the path which is emphasized when the narrator slowly tells every detail about what he sees on his journey down. This can be proven through the word diction and phrases that describes this journey such as, “jagged”, “zigzag”, “dungeon”, “barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air”, “earthy, deadly smell”, “black tunnel”, and “gloomier entrance”. Through this specific detail, the narrator appeals to the senses of sight and smell which makes the reader feel as if they are in this scene. Significantly, through the sense of smell, it can be indicated that people have died there and foreshadows what will happen to the signalman in the end. Moreover, the details are being used as a tactic to generate the idea of possible danger and supernatural effects at the end of this path. This is further proven when the narrator states, “as if I had left the natural world”. Here, the narrator is highlighting this mysterious sense of danger caused by his unfamiliarity of the setting. Furthermore, it shows what the supernatural effects on the narrator are which is producing fear within him. Ultimately, the dark details of the setting and the narrator’s feeling of unease, due to the unknown, gives rise to a fearful tone in the story.
There are many settings within this story that accentuate the supernatural effects and other elements, such as conflict and ambiguity, within this story. Another setting in the story worth pointing out is when the narrator describes the signalman to be living in a place of social isolation, “His post was in as solitary and dismal a place I ever saw”. Here the narrator expresses the signalman to be in a place where he exists alone and is secluded from all other types of life except the supernatural which could lead to a depressive state. To further prove this the narrator states “this was a lonesome post to occupy… A visitor was a rarity” which accentuates the man’s loneliness in this setting. This is significant because since he is the only person to exist in this place it makes him more vulnerable and susceptible to things in the supernatural world, such as a spectre. Both the vulnerability and loneliness of the man is the stem to him becoming a victimized figure of a greater entity, in this case it is a spectre from the supernatural world.
The victimization of the signalman plays an immense role in causing troubles in his life which creates a major conflict that makes his sanity questionable. There are many significant scenes throughout this story that point to what exactly lead to that. The main occurrence that shows where the man’s troubles originate from is on page 76. This is where the signalman speaks of his first encounter with the fearful spectre who he confused the narrator to be when he first shouted down, “Halloa! Below there”. This is where this significant line in the story comes back into play as the signalman firmly suggests to the narrator not to call that out. This is due to the signalman perceiving this scream to be eerie and scary as it makes him fearful of the existing spectre in this place. You could sense his fear by the word phrases such as, “violently waved” and “gesticulating with the utmost passion and vehemence”, which the narrator uses to describe the performance of the signalman mimicking the actions of the spectre. This is significant because it makes it more dramatic and intense for the reader to feel the fear and horror this spectre bestows onto the man. Moreover, the fear is the reason for this man’s constant anxiety that prevails and increases as time goes on. Furthermore, this first encounter is also noteworthy due to the importance of the foreshadow that is being used here. All of the troubles the signalman has are a foreshadow to him being an active observant and participant in his own fate and destiny.
Exact way his fate carries out.
The combination of the man’s fear and anxiety produces irony towards the representation of the spectres he is interconnected with in this environment. The spectre’s in this story try to control the signalman’s fate by representing the ideas of safety and warning. This can be proven through the symbolism of the red light, the bell, and the line “Halloa! Below there”. Each time the bell rings it alerts the man to be silent and carry out his duties as the train is passing through. Here, we see that the bell can symbolize the spirits warning the man to stand clear of the tracks as they want to prevent the same tragedy happening to the signalman. However, when the bell didn’t ring the man “looked out towards the red light light near the mouth of the tunnel”. This can prove that the red light symbolizes the spirits being the light that can guide the signalman away from his fate of death. Finally, each time the line “Halloa! Below there” is mentioned it is usually heard as a scream or cry for help. Therefore, this action can symbolize the spirits enforce this line into the signalman’s head so that he can use it for himself when it comes down to his fate carrying out. In significance, the spirits in this story are not meant to be seen as uncanny and frightening as they exceed the boundaries of this normalized perception.
Despite the ironic representation of the spirits, the signalman instinctively chooses to perceive the spirits as eerie and dangerous. As the signalman questions the purpose of the spectre’s on page 80, it can be seen that he has a fear of the unknown which contributes to the way he perceives the supernatural. Also, this fear advances his troubles as he misinterprets the spirits to be adverse by distorting his mental state causing him harm and pain. This is significant because we start to see an alienation of the signalman’s mental world as he feels more insane, paranoid, and anxious. The emotional and mental destruction portrayed here causes a recognition of insanity which is where the ambivalent conflict of skepticism surfaces.
The ambiguity in this story comes from the principle of the distinctive line between rationality and imagination. This is the root of the narrator’s skepticism which stems from the first encounter the signalman speaks of. After hearing this encounter, the narrator portrays man’s experience to be phantasmal as it can be seen as a figment of his imagination, “disease of the delicate nerves that minister to the function of the eye”. This shows how powerful this figure is in distorting his mind which is painful and tragic for the narrator to watch. This accentuates the belief that the only logical explanation to this is what seems to be insanity. Therefore, in intellectual terms, the narrator wants to reteach , or “compose”, the man’s mind in a pedagogical sense.

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