The Signal-Man Questions and Answers
by Charles Dickens

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What do readers come to learn about the signalman himself?

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We learn quite a bit about the signalman, not only from the narrator's perspective but also from what he divulges about himself. At the beginning of the story, the signalman seems to be keenly aware of his surroundings and has a particular interest in the speaker. We know this from the manner in which the narrator describes the signalman's initial reaction to him. He states that the signalman's response to his shout was "remarkable," that "he seemed to regard me with fixed attention" and, furthermore, that "His attitude was one of such expectation and watchfulness that I stopped a moment, wondering at it."

We learn from the narrator that the signalman is particularly meticulous about his job and, therefore, "one of the safest of men to be employed in that capacity." We also discover that he is intelligent, for he has been developing a language to ease his loneliness. He is also loyal to his post and performs all the tasks, however mundane, required of him. Furthermore, he confesses that he lacks mathematical ability and states that he had been studious as a young man. He mentions, though, that he had lost his way and "gone down." He could not regain himself and lost out. It is apparent, however, that he is not too regretful of the mistakes he had made for he accedes that "He had made his bed, and he lay upon it."

The reason for the signalman's primary unnerving attitude is revealed later. It becomes apparent that he possesses supernatural ability. He is aware of a spirit in his area of work, and he has the ability through the apparition to predict disaster or tragedy. He tells the narrator that the presence had twice warned him about impending misfortune. In both instances, the signalman could not prevent the unfortunate events because, in the first place, he did not know what to make of the ghost's warning and, in the second, a woman had died in a carriage even though he was able to stop the train.

The signalman is obviously unhappy about his current situation and tells the narrator that the spirit has manifested again. He has been overwhelmed by its constant appearance but does not know what to make of it. The narrator is acutely aware of his distress and offers to help the poor man. Unfortunately, upon his return, he discovers that the signalman was hit by a train and died. It becomes ironically apparent that the poor soul had predicted his demise.  

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While the story is told from the perspective of the narrator, the reader can use his observations to learn about the character and life of the signalman.

First of all, the signalman is relatively well-educated. He was a student of natural philosophy, for example, and attended lectures. But he "ran wild" in his youth, squandered this opportunity, and became a signalman instead.

Secondly, the appearance of the ghost has destroyed the enjoyment of his work, as the narrator tells us:

Said I, when I rose to leave him, “You almost make me think that I have met with a contented man.”

“I believe I used to be so,” he rejoined.

Thirdly, the signalman is competent at his job, though he makes some small mistakes. As the narrator observes, for instance, he could be called one of the "safest" of his profession, except that he looked at the bell twice when it did not ring and opened the door of the hut, letting in the "unhealthy damp."

Finally, the appearance of the ghost has had a profound effect on the state of the signalman's mind. As he himself says, he is "troubled," and this is further supported by the narrator's observations:

His pain of mind was so most pitiable to see. It was the mental torture of a conscientious man, oppressed beyond endurance by an unintelligible responsibility involving life. 

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