“The Signalman” is a short ghost story written by Charles Dickens and published in 1866. The story is about a signalman that works at a railway station. It explores many areas of fear including: the paranormal, the unknown, and darkness. I enjoyed the stories un-nerving and alluring structure. I feel this added to the tension and fear of the story. In a typical sense a ghost story is a novel that is based around the afterlife and paranormal, but through time the word ghost has been replaced with the word scary.
They began with stereotypical chilling atmospheres and bloodcurdling settings such as graveyards and old houses, but what Dickens achieved is making a known scene, a railway station, scary and unknown. Ghost stories for Victorians were good as they could explore subjects that the Victorians were not too educated in, or maybe subjects that were being tested by society. For example, ghost stories tested the afterlife theory, and in turn tested the bible.
Darwin was testing the Bible with his theory of evolution and consequently people began to question all aspects of religion. Ghost stories let people come up with their own views and thoughts on life not just living the life that generations before them had. They were also an alternate and fresh version of entertainment. The beginning of “The Signalman” is an unconventional but effective one. Dickens has begun the story with dialogue from the narrator.
It begins with two exclamatory sentences that instantaneously grab the reader’s attention, “Halloa! Bellow there! ” This unconventional choice is clever, as it leaves a sense of the unknown to the story, meaning that the reader doesn’t really know where they are or what is really going on. It would be normal for a ghost story to start with a descriptive piece on the setting and characters, but by leaving this until later Dickens has already captured the fear of the unknown and suspense in the reader.
Fear is provoked by the fact that by using this beginning it doesn’t make it a ghost story so the reader isn’t expecting to be scared, they just find themselves being scared at a normal novel which then creates fear of self, and fear of what they are feeling. On top of the above, fear is provoked in all reader’s as they have been placed in an unknown setting with an unknown character, and once the scene has been set, a station, then Dickens has made this recognisable place threatening and alien.
This story explores the idea of setting in a new and eccentric way. In the beginning you are given a small amount of setting, “his post was in as solitary and dismal place as I ever saw. On either side a dripping-wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky; the perspective on the way only a crooked prolongation of this great dungeon; the shorter the perspective in the other direction terminating in a gloomy red light”. In this quotation Dickens talks about the setting but mainly is setting the atmosphere.
The connotations of some of the words are so strong they could haunt you, “terminating” this word is used to show the light turn of, but the word terminating can also mean, stop and death, and death is most peoples largest fear. The slight use of these words casts a shadow of “death” over the entire story and again adds to fear in the reader. What’s more the story is set at night. The narrator likes to go for walks at night and the signalman works the night shift.
Automatically this provokes a fear as at night there is dark, both of these are two common fears, also the idea that he goes for walks at night as slightly disturbing and puts a “? ” over the character. As well as a disturbing sense that night gives, most people are awake and are about during the day so when the story is set at night is puts the reader into an unfamiliar time zone, creating a tense atmosphere as the reader isn’t too sure what to expect.
In this story there is only one setting, the railway station. This setting is very unconventional and hasn’t really been done before giving it an edge other stories. Making the reader uneasy about a familiar place is clever as it gives the story a personal touch. Plus with the unusualness of having one setting makes the reader really know the station by the end, and knowing a place and still being scared of it is almost scarier as you know that you should know what is going to happen but you don’t.
By using a station there is a slight confusion in then reader as to a Victorian reader the railway was a place for upper-class, it resembled “holiday” and to the modern reader the railway is a place where people go to get to work, see family, or travel to more interesting places, it isn’t really symbolic of a “scary” feeling, so therefore the reader at first is confused as to why they are reading about such a happy place. This confusion dangles over the story adding to the trepidation that slowly builds in the reader. In the Victorian era the railway was new and exciting, and as it was a change people feared it.
When this famous ghost story was set at a train station these anxieties were increased, so this makes the reader, not scared of the story, but of the idea that they n=might have travelled on something that is potentially dangerous. Also dickens was inspired to write this story, because he was in a train crash and was one of the few survivors. Dickens must have felt a personal connection to this story and must have let out most of his fears into it, and when the modern reader knows this that then adds a haunting feel to the story.
In “The Signalman” there are only really two characters although it may seem like three at the beginning o the story. The narrator is a first person character who we never learn the name of. With the narrator Dickens keeps much to himself for a good half a page before hints of a character seep in. The fact that for the first part of the story we don’t know what or who the narrator is, there isn’t even a hint.
He is referred to as “figures” that shakes the reader’s confidence in him, almost losing their trust. From looking down the Line, he turned himself about again, and raising his eyes, saw my figure high above him”, in this sentence the narrator refers to himself as a figure, and clearly states the signalman as a “he” making the reader feel maybe he isn’t human, maybe paranormal. By making the reader question the narrators form, their perception of the story id shaped to make them feel that maybe everyone in the story isn’t human, or it makes them not trust the narrator and therefore disagree with all of the judgments and perceptions that he comes up with throughout the novel.
This narrator isn’t very conventional as it isn’t common for a ghost story to have a narrator, normally they are written fully in the third person, all description and written through a lense but by having a narrator it almost makes the reader part of the novel. This provokes fear by instead of having the reader look at a chilling moment they are in a chilling moment. The other character is the signalman, the leading role and title of the book. The signalman is an unclear character at first, the fidgety and slightly insane vibe that he gives of creates an instant fear, and uneasy sense in the reader.
The beginning of the story he doesn’t respond to the narrator’s speech, making him slight perturbed. “”Halloa! Below there! ” When he heard a voice thus calling to him, he was standing at the door of his box, with a flag in his hand, furled round its short pole. One would have thought, considering the nature of the ground, that he could not have doubted from what quarter the voice came; but instead of looking up to where I stood on the top of the steep cutting nearly over his head, he turned himself about, and looked down the Line… Halloa! Below! “… He looked up at me without replying. ”
Here you can see that he ‘narrator calls twice after the signalman doesn’t respond but simply just looks around. From then on the reader has a question mark over that character but when it is revealed that the signalman has been seeing things he can’t explain and that he is scared the reader can almost relate to him, but by finding out that he is scared triggers fear into the reader as they have discovered that there is something to be scared of.
Also by finding out that he is scared you almost feel sympathetic and sorry for him, like you want t o reassure him that it is okay, even if you don’t believe it. When the signalman finally begins to talk he speaks in as low voice, “he answered in a low voice, – “don’t you know it is? “”, a low voice adds fear as a high voice so symbolic of a young happy child and a low voice is much the opposite. The Signal man is surprisingly quite a conventional character to fit into the ghost story genre, this makes sense though as he is the “main” character.
His jumpy and unnerving behaviour adds to his creepy quality and his not talking is a normal convention to a scary novel. In Dickens’ time books weren’t really published unless they were non-fiction. Normally stories were published in instalments, weekly magazines/newspapers, and the Victorian soap opera of you like. Allot of Dickens’s story were published in this was and The Signalman was no exception. The story was published in three chunks/episodes. Each episode ended in a cliff-hanger, an ending of suspense.
It is normally when you just find out a piece of plot changing info or when a sudden change occurs and the reader has no idea what is going to happen next, but still really wants to know. This way of publishing made it much easier for the lower class people get hold of novels and also made the read much lighter. Instead of sitting down with a 3000 word book you could sit down with a magazine and read a small section of text without really realising. This increased the popularity of literature really making the business blossom.
The idea of leaving the story on an edge of a cliff really got the reader into it, now and in Victorian times. Also suspense is an easy and affective way of creating fear, as again, it creates the fear of the unknown. Dickens created these suspense moments by suddenly changing the story for example, when the signal man suddenly talks would be a good point, or when the story goes from a slow passed almost silent story to a running scene, a fast passed panting scene. In the story the signalman has a vision, a ghost, of a man covering his face and having is arm.
This vision is spoken about in the middle of the story and is described as an illusion. When the “ghost” is first written about the narrator isn’t too sure what to make of it and sort of forgets about it. But when the signalman reveals that this is what he is afraid of the reader knows that it is significant. The Signalman believes in this figure and tries to figure out what it is but when he can’t his fear grown and it almost eats him up. In this story the majority of the fear is created as the reader figures out allot for themselves.
In the begging the signalman fears that he narrator is a ghost and vice versa, but the n the reader figures that they are both human. And that fact that the ending leaves the reader discovering why things happened in the story and it all seems to fall into place. The ending to the signal man is slightly unclear and ironic. The whole way through the story both characters have a fear of ghosts, at first they fear each other maybe and then they fear the signalman’s vision/ghost without realising that they are really afraid of themselves.
There is a definite conclusion but not really a resolution. The sudden end leaves the reader with a chilling feeling that can haunt them. The idea of witnessing your own death before it happens really provokes fear in all readers, especially the Victorian reader as the concept of death really was being tested in the 19th century. The narrator realises that the signalman had been visualising his death for a long time, and the reason why he was so scared of the narrator was because the narrator utters the words that the signal man said “haunted him”.
The beginning line in the story is “haloa below there” and it just so happens that these are the words that conclude the sorry as well. These words are the words that end the signalman’s life and for that the narrator feels slightly guilty for the signalman’s death as he says them and contributes to his fear. This ending contributes and reignites the Victorian fear of railways as it makes the stories that people can die on the railway true as a man that worked and knew the railway like the back of his hand somehow managed to wind up on the tracks and as a consequence a target for an oncoming train.
The Signalman is based around the supernatural, and it tests and explores its many forms, from ghosts to visions. In the 19th century the idea of the supernatural really blew out of proportion as the bible was being tested by many scientists with new theories. Dickens believed in the idea of the supernatural and pondered about what happened after death, whether is was the end to all or if there was something after death.
Many Victorians also felt this way and The Signalman add to that unsure knowledge of death making many Victorians think, and therefore remember the story and remember Dickens. As for the modern reader the story doesn’t have the same question mark hanging over it as we are much more clued up on many different theories but it can be used as evidence or a source as maybe Dickens writing the signalman saw his own death means that you life does flash before your eyes before you die, or that Cod had a vision of his train crashing.
It can never be said but I feel any reader of any age or any era is going to question death after this story. I feel that this interesting and chilling novel is a fantastic contribution to the ghost story genre as it doesn’t quite fit the mould but somehow is still exceptionally unsettling and haunting. The untypical structure makes the original plot even more exiting and the twisted finish polishes the stories unnerving scheme perfectly.
The not so evolved Victorians would have pondered about this story for a long time and I feel the most fear provoking part of this story is the fact that there are many different ways of perceiving it making the reader question itself, and this conversation staring novel gets the reader finding out how they really feel about death, making it almost educational. All in all I feel Dickens achieved what he set out to do with this novel and it shall defiantly bag itself a place on my bookcase.