Examine the settings which the writers have chosen for their stories in the Signalman and The Man with the Twisted Lip. Consider the effects that each writer has created and how they contribute to the atmosphere. Both The Signalman by Charles Dickens and The Man with the Twisted Lip by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle use setting to create a menacing atmosphere. They were also both written during Queen Victoria’s reign: The Signalman in 1866, and The Man with the Twisted Lip in 1891.
The Signalman was written five years after the Clayton tunnel crash and a year after Dickens was involved in the Staplehurst rail crash which killed ten people and injured forty-nine. Central to the Signalman are two rail accidents, preceded by the appearance of a spectre, and these are both believed to have been used as material for the story. It is, perhaps, saying that railways, a product of the Industrial Revolution and rationality, are not immune to unknown and irrational forces.
The Industrial Revolution changed the world: the Victorian era saw the rise of machine powered labour needing fewer people to do work, and mass movement of people from the country to cities. The Man with the Twisted Lip is one of Doyle’s famous Sherlock Holmes stories. Sherlock Holmes is an amateur detective who always manages to solve his cases, unlike the police of the time who were unable to catch the infamous Jack the Ripper, at work two years before this story was written. Holmes was so popular that when Doyle killed him off, the public demanded he be brought back.
Doyle used real settings for his stories, mostly in London, including Baker Street, where Holmes lived. For readers of the time, it provided a feeling that exciting things were happening in the streets they walked in; today it grants us an insight into historical London. Dickens also created many memorable descriptions of London and its people, using characters from all sections of society. This story, however, is set around an isolated stretch of railway line in an unnamed part of the countryside.
This ambiguity of location adds to the mystery surrounding the line. From the very beginning of the Signalman, Dickens introduces the sinister atmosphere of the story. There is an instant contrast between the signalman, “shadowed… down in the deep trench” and the narrator “high above (in the) glow of an angry sunset. ” The narrator, as yet unaware of the supernatural happenings, has to descend into darkness and the unknown to satisfy his curiosity. This is a common device in many mystery and ghost stories, and in today’s horror films.
By calling the sunset “angry,” Dickens hints at violence, and also the colour red, associated with aggression. This is echoed in the rapid approach of a train, suddenly growing from a “vague vibration” to a “violent pulsation,” suggesting hostility and attack, and possibly a warning to the narrator to turn away. The “rough zigzag path” is also unwelcoming, and “rough” implies that no one else uses it. The “cutting,” a man-made scar on the landscape, is “deep” and probably dangerous, as it becomes “oozier and wetter” as he goes down, again, a reason for him to turn back.
The stone is “clammy” as if it is sweating nervously and unpleasantly. As the narrator reaches the signalman, it becomes clear that this is an ominous and gloomy place. It is “solitary and dismal” devoid of hope or life. The wall of “jagged stone” is primitive and unsafe, “excluding all but a strip of sky. ” It is denying any view of the natural world above, generating a mood of claustrophobia and captivity, accentuated by the description of the setting as a “dungeon” with “dripping-wet” walls.
Dickens writes that there is “so little sunlight” instead of describing it as dark to increase the desolation by making it seem deprived of something. Dickens also describes the smell, an “earthy deadly smell” reminiscent of a graveyard, a traditional horror or mystery setting. Looking one way is only a “crooked prolongation” of this view. The adjective “crooked” suggests dishonesty and wrongness, and “prolongation” that it never ends and again, there is no escape. In the other direction is only the “gloomy red light and gloomier… black tunnel.
” By using “gloomy” instead of “dark” Dickens makes them seem dreary. Both the light and the tunnel are significant later in the story, and the narrator is already wary of them. The use of the comparative implies that wherever he looks, he can find nothing better about the place: it only gets worse. The “massive architecture” of the tunnel suggests this artificial structure is soulless and makes the narrator feel small. The atmosphere is “barbarous. ” Like the “jagged” wall this conveys the crudeness unexpected in this modern creation.
It is also “forbidding,” continuing the theme that the narrator should not be there. The sense of foreboding is strong; he says “it struck chill to me,” a worrying sensation that could be due to the ghostly presence. “Struck” suggests it is sudden and perhaps unsettling. It is as if the narrator has “left the natural world,” and indeed, there is a supernatural presence here in the spectre that appears. It suggests death, as if he has left this world and passed into another. Finally, it is a “lonesome post” forgotten by all, and he later considers this may have had an effect on the signalman’s mind.
These subtle hints of the supernatural build the tension for later in the story. Once the narrator has introduced himself to the signalman, he is taken to the “box. ” Although it is small, as implied by the word “box” itself, it has “a fire, a desk and a telegraphic instrument,” all solid, comforting and things. The fire is inviting and a great reassurance. The desk and telegraphic instrument are both symbols of the new logical world, where science increasingly explained the world. The Man with the Twisted Lip begins in Dr. Watson’s cosy living room.
It is “the hour when a man gives his first yawn” so he is not planning to do anything else tonight. However the arrival of Kate Whitney makes him leave his “armchair and cheery sitting-room. ” It is not necessary for the story to start here: Doyle could have begun it on the way to the Bar of Gold, but this location is a direct contrast to the places Watson will go to next. Swandam Lane is a “vile alley lurking” near the wharves somewhere in the East End, the poorest part of London. “Vile” suggests a repulsive atmosphere and “alley” a dark, fetid passageway.
The personification of “lurking” makes it seem either ashamed, or lying in wait, about to attack. The “slop shop” and “gin shop” are an indication of the poverty of the area. A slop shop was a place where ready-made clothing was sold which no respectable Victorian person would wear. The gin shop implies drunkenness and possible violence, as well as reinforcing the poverty of the area: gin was drunk by most working class people. It is dark, apart from the “two golden tunnels of yellow light” from a cart. “Golden” suggests something precious and “tunnels” some form of escape.
Few sounds penetrate the gloom. The policeman’s “footfall” is one, as a policeman would be needed in such a place, probably to subdue the shouting “revellers. ” These noises serve to heighten the silence around, suggesting that no one wants to stay there long. The “murky river” moves “sluggishly,” murky suggesting debris hidden beneath the surface, and the adverb “sluggishly” gives the river the same lazy characteristics of the inhabitants of the area, or the middle- and upper-class view of them, as until recently they were the only people able to read.
The steps down to The Bar of Gold have been “worn… by the ceaseless tread of drunken feet. ” This shows that people are already intoxicated when they go there to smoke opium, another indication of squalor. The steps lead down to “a black gap. ” As in The Signalman, the character must descend into the unknown. The “long low room” is “thick and heavy with brown smoke” creating an oppressive atmosphere.