The Signal-Man Questions and Answers
by Charles Dickens

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How does Dickens build tension in "The Signal-Man"?

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In "The Signal-Man," Dickens creates tension through the descriptions of the setting and the characters. The signal-box, for example, is described as being a "solitary and dismal place" with an "earthy, dead smell" and "barbarous, depressing and forbidding air." This almost claustrophobic setting is combined with the description of the signalman himself: he is so dark and mysterious that the narrator thinks he might be a ghost:

The monstrous thought came into my mind…that this was a spirit, not a man.

This contributes to the tense atmosphere because it suggests that there is more to the signalman than the narrator has anticipated. It is also significant as Dickens' first allusion to the supernatural. 

In addition, Dickens uses foreshadowing to build tension by hinting at the tragic events to come. This begins early in the story, for instance, when the signalman and the narrator first meet:

Just then there came a vague vibration in the earth and air, quickly changing into a violent pulsation, and an oncoming rush that caused me to start back.

This example hints at the violence which will occur in the story later on and is also effective in keeping the reader interested. 

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