The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens: Themes & Analysis

‘The Signal-Man’ is one of many ghost stories written by Charles Dickens. We’ll discuss the themes in this chilling and gloomy supernatural short story and analyze their significance.

Themes in ”The Signal-Man”

Charles Dickens is best known for his novels and novella A Christmas Carol, which, like ”The Signal-Man,” involves ghosts with warnings. However, ”The Signal-Man” has a significantly darker outcome. We’ll explore and analyze themes in this bleak tale.

Responsibility

A major theme in ”The Signal-Man” is responsibility. The signalman is haunted not only by his own future ghost but by his duty to protect train passengers, conductors, and other crewmen on his line. He feels certain that the apparition he continually sees is warning him of a real danger, a belief that’s supported by the accidents that have occurred after its appearance on at least two occasions. He’s anxious to avoid any further tragedies, and he’s so absorbed in how he can save the lives of others that he doesn’t consider the possibility that the apparition might be warning him of his own death.

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The narrator of the story, in turn, feels responsible for the predicament of the signalman. Recognizing the stress and agitation of this man, the narrator ”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.”

Yet even after he manages to calm the signalman down in the short term, the narrator feels he should do something to help the long-term situation as well. He asks himself: ”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?” Eventually, the narrator decides he’ll offer to go with the signalman to visit a doctor, and he visits the signalman’s station the next evening – only to find that he’s too late, and the signalman himself has been killed by a train.

Reality vs. Unreality

In ambiguous and stressful situations, we often question whether we’re seeing things clearly, or what the nature of reality is. The stranger or more disturbing our first interpretation of events is, the more likely it seems that we are incorrect, or living in unreality.

In ”The Signal-Man,” Dickens shows us how a logical analysis of reality can be plausible, yet still wrong. For the signalman, the reality is that he must correctly interpret the apparition’s warnings or suffer the guilt of having allowed tragedy to occur.

The narrator questions this belief, certain that the apparitions and warnings are all in the signalman’s head. First, he observes that the signalman works alone in an ”unhealthy damp” and sunless environment. He tells him not to trust his senses, citing the power of optical illusions and the way that ”the wind in this unnatural valley” makes a ”wild harp” of the telegraph wires. However, the narrator momentarily ”[sets] aside all question of reality or unreality” in order to comfort him. When the narrator witnesses the apparition and the death of the signalman, he realizes that neither of them had an entirely correct interpretation of reality.

Analysis: Helplessness

You’re probably familiar with Dickens’s most famous ghost story, A Christmas Carol. In it, the main character Scrooge is also visited by ghosts with warnings. Scrooge is rich, and each ghost clearly communicates the nature of the disaster he must avoid. These factors allow for a happy ending: Scrooge is empowered to act using the wealth and information at his disposal.

However, the signalman doesn’t have these luxuries. His apparition gives no useful information that would help him to prevent tragedy. Instead, he’s left to ask: ”’What is its warning against? …What is the danger? Where is the danger?” Unlike Scrooge, he’s not powerful enough to order whatever changes to the railroad line are needed. He also can’t pass the warning to other crewman on the line. ”If I telegraph Danger, on either side of me, or on both, I can give no reason for it… they would think I was mad.” He adds that this would also cost him his job while still not preventing an accident.

This helplessness causes the signalman considerable anguish: ”And I, Lord help me! A mere poor signal-man on this solitary station! Why not go to somebody with credit to be believed, and power to act?”

Similarly, the narrator wants to prevent the signalman from having a mental breakdown, but arrives too late to take him to see a doctor. Despite his best efforts to help a near-stranger, the narrator, like the signalman, is forced to witness a tragedy he had no way of foreseeing.

In some ways, the signalman and the narrator represent the average human and the human condition: they struggle to do their best and use logic in an ambiguous and alarming situation where the answers aren’t clear. Like most of us, they don’t have adequate access to information or power, but dutifully strive to help others with the means available to them. Like these characters, we sometimes have to accept that we may fail through no fault of our own.

Lesson Summary

We’ve learned that two major themes in Charles Dickens’s ghost story ”The Signal-Man” are responsibility and reality vs. unreality. The signalman feels an intense sense of responsibility to train passengers, conductors, and fellow crewmen. He’s certain that the apparition he consistently sees is giving him warnings and that he must decipher them in order to prevent the next tragedy. The narrator, too, feels responsible for the mental and emotional strain the signalman is under, and resolves to take him to a doctor. Each of them believes in a different reality: the signalman in supernatural powers, the narrator in the deceptive nature of the imagination. We’ve analyzed these themes in terms of the human condition. As humans, we often lack the information or power we need to act in a heroic or optimally productive manner, and we have to accept that our roles and abilities in some situations may be ambiguous.

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