How do the narrators of "The Signal-man" and of "The Red Room" affect the reader's interpretation of theme?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Whenever a narrative is told from a point of view other than omniscient narrator, there is a limitation imposed upon the perspective of the reader. For the reader must view the narrative through the perception of a single narrator who cannot know all that happens. In the story "The Signal-Man" by Charles Dickens, the narrator reports on what the signalman tells him and what this character feels, but he notes,

He directed a most curious look towards the red light near the tunnel's mouth, and looked all about it, as if something were missing from it, and then looked at me.

This injection of his own opinion is one that later affects the reader's interpretation of theme. For example, the narrator comments,

The monstrous thought came into my mind, 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 an infection in his mind.

Likewise, the narrator of "The Red Room" imposes his opinion upon the narrative. For instance, when the narrator first arrives at the house that supposedly has a haunted room, he talks with two old men and a woman whom he describes as “grotesque custodians”:

There is to my mind something inhuman in senility, something crouching and atavistic; the human qualities seem to drop from old people insensibly day by day. The three of them made me feel uncomfortable.

In addition, this narrator does not believe anyone else in the narrative. Thus, he causes the reader, too, to be skeptical of the prospect of the Red Room being haunted. So when the occurrences of the candle flames being blown out and “the indefinable quality of a presence” exist for the narrator, the reader wonders if he has lost “the last vestiges of reason” as he says, or if these happenings are real. Later, after the narrator “remember[s] no more” and becomes conscious only after daylight, there is a suspension of belief in the reader as to what has actually occurred. Although the narrator then agrees with the old people that the room is indeed haunted, he explains that the “worst of all the things that haunt poor mortal man…is, in all its nakedness--Fear!” Because the “man with the shade” agrees--one whom the narrator earlier found repugnant--the reader is influenced to accept this opinion and this influences interpretation of theme.

In “The Signal-Man,” there is a also an original skepticism in the narrator as he listens to all that the signalman describes of the voice which warns him. Yet, there is the sense in the narrator of “the slow touch of a frozen finger tracing out my spine,” and “a disagreeable shudder” and a feeling of faintness which creeps over him along with the “remarkable coincidences” which continually occur. These sensations are much like the fear to which Wells’s narrator admits. Interestingly, this perspective later lends veracity to the concept of fear as the cause of the death of the assiduous signalman, who “somehow was not clear of the outer rail.”

The reader is clearly influenced by the limited perspectives of the first-person narrators. Seen from their perspectives, the theme of “Fear” as a powerful influence affecting the fate of the signalman and affecting the narrator’s conclusions about the "haunting" of room of the old earl is given verisimilitude (truthfulness) which thus influences the reader’s understanding of the theme.

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