A Reading of 'The Signalman' by Charles Dickens
Apart from being a good example of an Irony -and you can read much more about Ironies in The Master Authors’ Secret Handbook and How Stories Really Work- Charles Dickens’ short story ‘The Signalman’ is useful for examining a text in close detail to see what techniques a master author uses to engage and manipulate a reader’s attention.
It’s not for nothing that Dickens is perhaps the most famous of all English novelists. When reading one of his earlier novels, The Pickwick Papers, I had the thought that Dickens is one of those authors for whom reading itself was invented. His novels are notable not only for their humour and treatment of social problems of his time, including the troubles faced by the poor in the newly expanding cities of Victorian times, and the corruption and inefficiency of the legal system, but also for their richness of style and their apparently effortless ability to engage the reader. Great Expectations (1860–61) in particular is a triumph of the Irony genre.
Dickens lived well before the age of movies or television, yet his stories are very visual and dramatic, partly because he wrote them in instalments for magazines. His characters and their settings, especially London, are well described, linger in our imaginations and come to life on the page -and there are specific reasons why.
‘The Signalman’, a lesser-known short story which Dickens wrote for a journal he was producing, called 'All the Year Round’, first appeared in 1866, when Britain was undergoing huge changes and was in the middle of what we now call the Industrial Revolution. Railways had recently been invented and had spread across the countryside like spiders’ webs; there was a glamour and a mystery about the sheer power of steam locomotives as they thundered down the railway lines which were now criss-crossing the peaceful countryside. It would have been as though flying buses appeared above our towns today -new modes of transport, promising unknown developments in society, and prompting new thoughts and images.
'The Signalman' is also a ghost story, and the Victorians loved ghost stories -but this was a time when new sciences like psychoanalysis were beginning to probe the unconscious dreams and nightmares of people. Many were questioning whether traditional forms of belief like Christianity were true or how far the precepts really extended into the vastness of the rapidly unfolding universe or the dimness of our own minds. Just what was the truth about the universe and human souls?
Dickens capitalises on all this from the very first line of the story:
'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. There was something remarkable in his manner of doing so, though I could not have said for my life what. But I know it was remarkable enough to attract my notice, even though his figure was foreshortened and shadowed, down in the deep trench, and mine was high above him, so steeped in the glow of an angry sunset, that I had shaded my eyes with my hand before I saw him at all.
We start in a void: there is none of the traditional ‘scene-setting’ common to stories. We have to interpret a kind of code to get even a vague idea of where we are: the ‘door of his box’, the ‘flag in his hand, furled round its short pole’, and then a few words later ‘the steep cutting’. The author doesn’t pause to carefully explain the setting, but just plunges us into it and expects us to put the scene together on our own. This isn’t unintentional -it’s part of the disorientation which Dickens creates to prompt a slight ‘fictive vertigo’ in the reader. This is a telltale Irony technique. He magnifies it soon afterwards with this passage:
He looked up at me without replying, and I looked down at him without pressing him too soon with a repetition of my idle question. Just then there came a vague vibration in the earth and air, quickly changing into a violent pulsation, and an oncoming rush that caused me to start back, as though it had force to draw me down.
What is happening here? Some kind of unknown, ‘vague’ but ‘violent pulsation’ enters the scene in an ‘ocoming rush’ which prompts the narrator to ‘start back’ afraid that he will be drawn down. The result? Fictive vertigo increased. It’s not until the next sentence that the source of this strangeness is explained, in a single sentence which restores some stability and order to things:
When such vapour as rose to my height from this rapid train had passed me, and was skimming away over the landscape, I looked down again, and saw him refurling the flag he had shown while the train went by.
But Dickens is a master of rhythm. Before we can gain any comfort or even get our bearings, he describes the narrator’s descent into the railway cutting in terms designed to unsettle us further:
The cutting was extremely deep, and unusually precipitate. It was made through a clammy stone, that became oozier and wetter as I went down. For these reasons, 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.
The use of words is precise: ‘extremely deep’, ‘unusually precipitate’, ‘clammy’, ’oozier and ‘wetter’ as the narrator goes ‘down’. The way is long enough to give him time to recall the ‘singular air of reluctance or compulsion’ with which the signalman had pointed out the path. It’s also long enough for Dickens’ to be able to insert that sentence, amplifying our sense of unease.Dickens takes pains to describe the exact manner in which the signalman is waiting for the narrator: ‘He had his left hand at his chin, and that left elbow rested on his right hand, crossed over his breast. His attitude was one of such expectation and watchfulness that I stopped a moment, wondering at it.’ What is this man thinking? Why point out these details to us except to undermine any certainties we might be trying to establish?
Then we are hit over the space of only a few lines by a disproportionate number of gloomy adjectives, nouns and verbs: ‘dark’, ‘sallow’, ‘heavy’, ‘solitary’, ‘dismal’, ‘dripping-wet’, ‘jagged’, ‘crooked’, ‘dungeon’, ‘terminating’, ‘gloomy’, ‘gloomier’, ‘black’, ‘massive’, ‘barbarous’, ‘depressing’, ‘forbidding’, ‘earthy’, ‘deadly’, ‘cold’, ‘rushed’, ‘struck’ and ‘chill’. Dickens the master author uses words like bullets. The cumulative effect is to make the narrator feel ‘as if I had left the natural world.’ And so, to a lesser but nevertheless marked degree, do we. Natural expectations and comfortable settings have been shot down.
The narrator’s attempt to strike up a ‘normal’ conversation fails at first:
‘To such purpose I spoke to him; but I am far from sure of the terms I used; for, besides that I am not happy in opening any conversation, there was something in the man that daunted me.’
And by now the narrator has been so bombarded by discomfiting sensations and responses that a ’monstrous thought’ comes into his mind that ‘as I perused the fixed eyes and the saturnine face, that this was a spirit, not a man. I have speculated since, whether there may have been infection in his mind.’
A series of rapid-fire questions and answers dispel these forebodings, but nervously:
In my turn, I stepped back. But in making the action, I detected in his eyes some latent fear of me. This put the monstrous thought to flight.
'You look at me,' I said, forcing a smile, 'as if you had a dread of me.'
'I was doubtful,' he returned, 'whether I had seen you before.'
He pointed to the red light he had looked at.
'There?' I said.
Intently watchful of me, he replied (but without sound), 'Yes.'
'My good fellow, what should I do there? However, be that as it may, I never was there, you may swear.'
'I think I may,' he rejoined. 'Yes; I am sure I may.'
What follows is a nerve-steadying couple of paragraphs of ordinariness: the signalman describes his life in the signal-box in a manner that we might expect. His life, in fact, has for the most part ‘shaped itself into that form, and he had grown used to it.’ In the room there are the ordinary things one might expect tofind in a signal-box: a fire, a desk for an official book, a telegraphic instrument with its dial, face, and needles, and a little bell. The narrator observes the signalman ‘to be remarkably exact and vigilant, breaking off his discourse at a syllable, and remaining silent until what he had to do was done’ and concludes that ‘I should have set this man down as one of the safest of men to be employed in that capacity’ except for one thing.
Dickens, settling us down with these comforting associations, now explodes them. The ‘one thing’ that deeply concerns the narrator about the signalman is that
while he was speaking to me he twice broke off with a fallen colour, turned his face towards the little bell when it did NOT ring, opened the door of the hut (which was kept shut to exclude the unhealthy damp), and looked out towards the red light near the mouth of the tunnel. On both of those occasions, he came back to the fire with the inexplicable air upon him which I had remarked, without being able to define, when we were so far asunder.
The signalman’s confession that he is ‘troubled' would lead, in the hands of a lesser author, to an unfolding of the mysteries which have been brewed for us so far. But Dickens is a master author, and so intrudes a further delay by having the narrator return to his inn for one night, promising to return the next day. There is no need for this overnight delay -the signalman could just have easily told the narrator the whole story then and there. But Dickens knows that adding time into the story at this point serves to increase the suspense.
On his way out, we are given one further chilling prompt when the signalman asks a parting question:
‘What made you cry, “Halloa! Below there!” to-night?'
'Heaven knows,' said I. 'I cried something to that effect—'
'Not to that effect, sir. Those were the very words. I know them well.’
'Admit those were the very words. I said them, no doubt, because I saw you below.'
'For no other reason?’
'What other reason could I possibly have?’
'You had no feeling that they were conveyed to you in any supernatural way?'
This interchange of short questions and answers serves to undermine the certainties about the signalman that we may have developed up to this point. It’s a technique Dickens uses throughout the story, as when the narrator returns and the signalman begins telling him of his ‘trouble’:
'No. That some one else.'
'Who is it?'
'I don't know.'
'I don't know. I never saw the face. The left arm is across the face, and the right arm is waved,--violently waved. This way.'
I followed his action with my eyes, and it was the action of an arm gesticulating, with the utmost passion and vehemence, 'For God's sake, clear the way!'
We listen, with the narrator, to the tale of spectral appearances. We resist, with the narrator, any supernatural conclusions: ‘Resisting the slow touch of a frozen finger tracing out my spine, I showed him how that this figure must be a deception of his sense of sight’.
But these ‘rational’ interruptions are a device that Dickens is using to amplify the tension. We are glued to the signalman’s tale now, our remaining resistance mirrored explicitly by the narrator:But he would beg to remark that he had not finished.
I asked his pardon, and he slowly added these words, touching my arm, 'Within six hours after the Appearance, the memorable accident on this Line happened, and within ten hours the dead and wounded were brought along through the tunnel over the spot where the figure had stood.'
A disagreeable shudder crept over me, but I did my best against it.
Again, the narrator interrupts; again, the signalman says he has not finished: ‘“This," he said, again laying his hand upon my arm, and glancing over his shoulder with hollow eyes, “was just a year ago.”’
The contact between narrator and signalman is now physical. And again we have a series of nervous questions:
'Did it cry out?'
'No. It was silent.'
'Did it wave its arm?'
'No. It leaned against the shaft of the light, with both hands before the face. Like this.'
Once more I followed his action with my eyes. It was an action of mourning. I have seen such an attitude in stone figures on tombs.
The reference to tombs is, of course, not accidental. When the signalman tells of further apparitions and of the ‘“beautiful young lady”’ who ‘“had died instantaneously in one of the compartments, and was brought in here, and laid down on this floor between us”' the reaction has become a physical action:
Involuntarily I pushed my chair back, as I looked from the boards at which he pointed to himself. 'True, sir. True. Precisely as it happened, so I tell it you.'
Now that the narrator’s reasoning powers have failed him, Dickens turns up the volume literally by having the setting step in to create further mood music: ‘I could think of nothing to say, to any purpose, and my mouth was very dry. The wind and the wires took up the story with a long lamenting wail.’
The narrator is now determined to act. He persuades the signalman to look with him for the ghost at the tunnel mouth:
I opened the door, and stood on the step, while he stood in the doorway. There was the Danger- light. There was the dismal mouth of the tunnel. There were the high, wet stone walls of the cutting. There were the stars above them.
Short, crisp, statements that serve to punctuate the scene -each one a short breath long.
When the narrator leaves again, unsure of what to do, his discomfiture has a point to focus on: ‘That I more than once looked back at the red light as I ascended the pathway, that I did not like the red light, and that I should have slept but poorly if my bed had been under it, I see no reason to conceal.’ But Dickens has now added a deeper, moral dimension. The narrator -and to that degree we as readers- are concerned about responsibilities and outcomes:
But what ran most in my thoughts was the consideration how ought I to act, having become the recipient of this disclosure? I had proved the man to be intelligent, vigilant, painstaking, and exact; but how long might he remain so, in his state of mind? Though in a subordinate position, still he held a most important trust, and would I (for instance) like to stake my own life on the chances of his continuing to execute it with precision?
Having laboured to create an effective mystery, Dickens now points us in the direction of an uncertainty: while we wonder about the nature, origin and meaning of the spectre, we are now anxious about the consequences. These are distinctly different vectors. Together they intensify the tension so that when we see what the narrator sees on his return to the site the next day, we experience a chill:
Before pursuing my stroll, I stepped to the brink, and mechanically looked down, from the point from which I had first seen him. I cannot describe the thrill that seized upon me, when, close at the mouth of the tunnel, I saw the appearance of a man, with his left sleeve across his eyes, passionately waving his right arm.
What follows is a resolution of events -the train has run over the signalman, killing him; the ‘ghost’ was a kind of premonition- but not a resolution of mysteries. The narrator explicitly has no answers to those -true Ironies never do- and concludes by pointing out that the words he attached (but never voiced) to the gestures of the spectre -‘Below there! Look out! Look out! For God's sake, clear the way!’- turn out to be the words actually used by the train driver in his attempt to warn the signalman. This final, chilling reminder connects us through the narrator to the events of the tale and removes any kind of rational conjecture we might have had: how could the workings of the narrator’s own mind have been so uncannily reflected in the events we have witnessed?
It is Dickens’ final masterstroke in a triumph of short story telling, pushing the finger of the spectre not only before our faces as readers but into our very souls.