What is the significance of the supernatural to the plot development in Dickens' "The Signal-man?"

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booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Charles Dickens' short story, "The Signal-Man," what makes the story so scary and wonderful is Dickens' use of the supernatural. This was not unheard of for Victorian writers; in A Christmas Carol, Dickens uses the supernatural extensively. The experiences Scrooge has with "ghosts" move the plot along and are responsible for his change of heart.

Dickens provides information regarding the supernatural early on in this story, creating the mood. The first paragraph alludes to supernatural forces at work. When the visitor hollers down, the signal-man can't tell where the voice is coming from—it's like a "disembodied" person speaking. Instead of looking up to where the speaker is standing above him, the man first looks down the railroad line, an unusual reaction since the voice had not come from that direction. It is here that we might first suspect that the signal-man has a problem. The signal-man is first described as "foreshortened and shadowed," almost like a creature from another world.

When the signal-man looks at the speaker, he carefully studies him—there is something unusual in that the signal-man seems as if he doesn't trust his visitor. When the narrator approaches, the signal-man is watches him carefully, almost as if the visitor is an apparition!

The railroad tracks create an unusual feeling for the narrator. The shadows and color add to their eeriness, and the speaker experiences a strong uneasiness.

So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot...and so much cold wind rushed through it, that it struck chill to me, as if I had left the natural world.


Early indications show the signal-man to be unusual—is he sane?Alone too much on the job? The signal-man explains that the visitor looks familiar, which is why he studies him. The signal-man is described as "remarkably exact and vigilant"—so he is a reliable person. Finally the signal-maker declares that he wants to share his worries with his visitor, if he will returns a second night. The visitor agrees—and in this moment, the signal-man introduces his fear for the first time. When he asks why the narrator called to him with the exact words he chose to use, and the signal-man asks:

You had no feeling that they were conveyed to you in any supernatural way?

The speaker says no, and agrees to come the next night. When he arrives, immediately the signal-man relates his past experiences. The visitor looks like an apparition that has twice appeared on the tracks, waving a warning. When the man first followed the "vision," he disappeared. The visitor tries to explain that the image was in the worker's mind, but then the man describes a similar instance with the same ghost that later heralded a woman's death on the train. The specter has now returned a third time, and the signal-man is worried: what is the warning? How can he warn or help anyone?

The following (third) evening, the visitor arrives and, looking down the track, sees a man waving as the signal-man had described: he is actually showing other men what he saw—the narrator asks and learns the signal-man was killed earlier by a train. The words the engineer used were exactly what he had heard earlier. The warning was for the signal-man.

The entire story moves along with the introduction of supernatural events: apparitions that disappear, and words and gestures of warning. It is the supernatural that creates the mood and drives the plot, for what the signal-man heard and saw foreshadowed his own death.