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The worst of all the things that haunt poor mortal man...is, in all its nakedness--Fear! Fear that will not have light nor sound, that will not bear with reason, that deafens and darkens and overwhelms...."
These are the words of the narrator of H.G.Wells's "The Red Room," but they just as well could be uttered by the narrator of Charles Dickens's "The Signal-Man" who is puzzled at how the signalman could have had an accident when he has been so assiduous in checking the railway and who has constantly been anxious about the ghostly warnings. But, this signalman, like Wells's narrator, who is also so careful to prevent mishap, is very fearful, as the narrator in the exposition unknowing notices,
There was something remarkable in his manner of doing so [turning when the narrator calls to him] though I could not have said for my life what.
Contributing to the fear of both main characters of the two stories by is the gothic settings of both stories: the dark, dank, isolated train passageway parallels the dark, sinister castle whose winding passageway leads to the red room that has an most shadowy and drafty alcove. Likewise, he signalman, like the three "grotesque custodians, inhuman in senility" is much like a ghost himself, Dickens's narrator remarks.
With sinister settings and characters in a state of psychological disturbance, "The Signal-Man" and "The Red Room" are stories that illustrate the consequences of ghostly fear, fear that overcomes all rationality and reaps its own consequences.
"The Signal-Man" and "The Red Room" are alike in that each author, Dickens and Strindberg, respectively, takes an evaluative and critical look at his society. They are different in that Dickens does this metaphorically through a railroad signalman and a train while Strindberg does this ironically through representative characters. They are also alike in that both authors express criticism of what they see in their respective societies. They are also alike in the end results of the stories pertaining to the affect of the outcome upon the human being. However, they are different in many more points than those in which they are alike.
The short stories seem to have a foundational difference in that Dickens examines social structure whereas Strindberg examines society's cultural beliefs. Dickens builds his story around the social reality of trains, which represent the height of technological development and power. Strindberg builds his story around the weaknesses of various philosophic cultural beliefs. In "The Signal-Man," the power of technology overpowers the human being, while in "The Red Room," the power of cultural ideology overpowers the human being. Thus the difference in foundational elements leads to another similarity,which is that the affect of society upon the human being is physically and psychologically overpowering.
Another difference is that Dickens develops his story around the supernatural by making one of the primary characters a apparition, while Strindberg develops his story around people who live by different systems of ideological belief: a cynical doctor, a naive businessman, painters, actors, writers, and philosophers. In the end of Dickens' story, an optimistic potential for a well-heeded warning closes the chilling ghost story in which the signalman is overpowered by the train:
I never left off calling to him. I put this arm before my eyes not to see, and I waved this arm to the last; but it was no use.
In the end of Strindberg's story, the only optimistic sign is that the man involved in the right business and social circles progressively succeeds. This is in painfully ironic contrast to the stark failure--or at best status quo, as with the cynical doctor Borg--in the lives of the others.
Overall, while both stories criticize elements of society, Dickens offers in his story a warning with the hope that his warning against the power of unbridled technology to dehumanize humanity will be heeded. On the other hand, Strindberg offers in his story an epitaph to the loss of humanity as well as to the failure of humanity's ideological belief systems to bring about good (except for the prosperity of the individual, such as Charles Nicholas, who upholds the ideology of money and conformity).
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