In The Signalman, Charles Dickens demonstrates the powerlessness of humanity in the face of technological advancement by interconnecting the supernatural to the mundanity of life during the industrial era. By attributing human qualities to the paranormal, Dickens effectively emphasises the unforgiving brutality of industrial machinery. The Signalman follows an unnamed narrator’s attempt to befriend a solitary rail worker who is plagued by a ghostly apparition whose continuous warnings lead to the rail worker’s death.
Ghosts in Dickens’ stories are almost like the light of morality which appear before those who have lost their way, such is the case for The Christmas Carol. By the same vein, the ghostly apparition in The Signalman demonstrates desperate concern for the well-being of the living. Published in 1866 in the Mugby Junction, five years after the Clayton Tunnel incident and a year after the Staplehurst rail crash, wherein Dickens was a passenger, The Signalman is perhaps Dickens’ statement on the industrial lifestyle, wherein people’s lives were no longer overshadowed by gods but machineries.
By using a first-person homodiegetic narrator who possesses a debateable degree of detachment from the plot, Dickens normalises the meta-narrative employed throughout the story, evidenced by the lines, ‘All that I have here condensed he said in a quiet manner’ and ‘Without prolonging the narrative to dwell on any one of his curious circumstances’. Moreover, Dickens’ over-employment of diegeses spawns the immortalised problem of ‘showing versus telling’.
The structure follows a linear narrative wherein events happen in a chronological order. Immediately, readers find themselves in medias res when Dickens opens the story with a dialogue — “Halloa! Below there!” — as a narrative hook. Disjunction, or the point of no return, comes when the narrator grows invested in the signalman’s life and promises to return to him the next night. One narrative strand belongs to the witness narrator whose trajectory is to shed reason upon the signalman’s troubled psyche: ‘I saw that for the poor man’s sake, as well as for the public safety, what I had to do for the time was to compose his mind’. The other narrative strand belongs to the signalman who wishes to make sense of the apparitions which appear before him, as can be seen in his cry of despair, ‘And I, Lord help me! A mere poor signalman on this solitary station! Why not go to somebody with credit to be believed, and power to act?’. The third narrative strand, however, belongs to the ghostly apparition whose purpose is to warn the helpless signalman of oncoming tragedies. These conflicting interests lead the signalman to his deterioration and demise.
Instead of serving as a convenience, technology is shown to alienate and isolate people, as demonstrated by the signalman who spends his life by a ‘dripping-wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky’, looking into a tunnel with an ‘earthy, deadly smell’ with ‘so much cold wind [rushing] through it’. Dickens effectively and vividly describes this desolate setting by calling the signalman’s post a ‘deep trench’ and personifying the ‘glow of an angry sunset’. When the narrator descends the steps, his experience is described as ‘as if I had left the natural world’. This simile evokes from the readers a sense of forebode, which further cements the surreality when the narrator wonders whether or not the man with whom he had descended to converse is human. This is shown in the line, ‘I perused the fixed eyes and the saturnine face, that this was a spirit, not a man’. This could also foreshadow the signalman’s demise, or more specifically, what he is destined to become by the end of the story.
The signalman is well-characterised as a humble man who does not pretend to be more than what he is, evidenced by the line, ‘He threw in the word, “Sir,” from time to time, and especially when he referred to his youth — as though to request me to understand that he claimed to be nothing but what I found him’. Furthermore, he is described to be ‘one of the safest of men to be employed in that capacity’ because he does his job ‘in such wise would rarely be found wanting among large bodies of men’. The narrator believes that this man may be educated beyond his mundane job. The proof of the signalman’s soundness is perhaps to help readers believe him when he later confesses to supernatural sightings. Even the narrator, who is indirectly characterised as logical and practical-minded, cannot help but become affected by the signalman’s accounts, evidenced by the line, ‘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’. Won over by his sensibility, the narrator concludes that the signalman’s distress is ‘the mental torture of a conscientious man, oppressed beyond endurance by an unintelligible responsibility involving life’. This line may also hold thematic significance.
It is the idea of human powerlessness in the age overshadowed by machinery that is consistent throughout the story. The knowledge that people have enslaved themselves to a different kind of god serves as the theme for The Signalman. Dickens connects the witness narrator, an evidently educated man with a predilection for science and logic, to the solitary signalman, a cautious and conscientious individual. Perhaps this is done to point out that people are one and the same. By doing this, Dickens compellingly stresses the cold brutality of technology, juxtaposing it against the warmth of humanity. Following this logic, it would not come as a surprise if the title The Signalman refers not only to the unfortunate rail worker but also to the unexplained apparition, alluding to its disquieting attempt to ‘signal’ oncoming tragedies. It is almost like a peripeteia when the helpless signalman, who has been watching people die with no way of preventing it, dies himself.
‘With an irresistible sense that something was wrong — with a flashing self-reproachful fear that fatal mischief had come of my leaving the man there’, this line from the narrator almost mirrors the helplessness, responsibility and guilt the signalman feels. Even logic and reason cannot save the narrator from the universality of human conscience, possessed even by the spirits, yet absent in the manmade god named Machinery. The story closes off with an almost contrived diegetic epilogue where the narrator once again employs ‘telling’ as opposed to ‘showing’ which, in our day and age, would have got Dickens punched in the career by agents and publishers alike.
Personally, this story feels to me like a self-fulfilling prophecy; if the apparition has not appeared before the man, would he have died in such a gruesome manner? When it is mentioned that, ‘You almost make me think I have met with a contented man’, I wonder if the signalman would have stayed contented if he had not the knowledge of unpreventable deaths. Or do these premonitions only accelerate his psychological deterioration because his solitary responsibility over countless lives would have driven him mad regardless? In this sense, it is perhaps logical to conclude that the supernatural apparition symbolises human powerlessness in the face of technological advancement.