What suspicions does the narrator have about the signalman and why?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In this crafted critique of technology, Charles Dickens writes a ghost tale entitled "The Signal-Man." For some unknown reason, the narrator is on "a steep cutting," and he calls out to the railroad signalman far below. Instead of looking up from where the sound comes, the signalman turns and looks down the tracks in a "remarkable manner." Because there is something about this man in such a "dismal place" that makes the narrator apprehensive, he wonders if the strange creature is a spirit, rather than a man. Then, when he asks the signalman if "that light was part of his charge," the man answers, "Don't you know it is?" This reply causes the narrator to wonder if the man is a ghost. The narrator has also "speculated" that the man may not be mentally well, as he seems to have "a latent fear of [the narrator]."

The solitary signalman, assigned to signal that the tunnel is cleared for approaching trains, is cloistered in damp tunnels, amid cliffs, and imprisoned by a lonely and rugged landscape. The signalman sees a figure that warns him, "Look out! Look out!" but he does not understand the significance of this warning. "I have never made a mistake as yet," he tells the narrator. Still, he fears some calamity.

kmj23 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Early in "The Signal-Man," the narrator suspects that the signalman might be suffering from mental illness, as he comments in the text:

"I have speculated since, whether there may have been infection in his mind."

In addition, he also wonders if the signalman might, in fact, be a ghost:

"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."

The narrator suspects these things because of the signalman's unusual demeanour. When he first arrives at the signal box, for example, he notices something "remarkable" in the signalman's manner which has no obvious explanation. Moreover, when the pair come face-to-face, the narrator is struck by the signalman's attitude of "expectation" and "watchfulness." Once again, the narrator is unable to account for such an attitude. Finally, when the signalman directs a "most curious look" towards the red light before looking at the narrator, the narrator's suspicions reach their peak: ghost or patient, the narrator cannot decipher his new friend.