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.

'Halloa! Below!'

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.'

‘Where?'

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?’