What are the themes in The Signalman?Fate?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"The Signal-Man" by Charles Dickens certainly has Fate as a theme; Isolation and the Supernatural can also be motifs. And perhaps all three contribute to the final outcome of this story. 


Dickens's story opens with a railroad signalman's becoming fearful of the narrator as his call to the signalman has strangely reminded this man of the very same words that a supernatural apparition has uttered when seen at a nearby tunnel.  This ghost haunts the signalman who seeks to comprehend the meaning of his appearance and gestures and the significance of its words.  Rather than improving the signalman's attentiveness, the apparition seems to serve more to disturb the man who is already assiduous and vigilant in his duties. For, the signalman becomes increasingly disturbed and anxious that misfortune is presaged.


Contributing to the signalman's anxiety is, certainly, his terrible isolation.  Without someone with whom to measure occurrences, the signalman has come to doubt the reality of his surroundings.  The dark gloom of the tunnel as well as the loneliness of his work have wrought changes upon the signalman, whom the narrator finds initially "a spirit, not a man."  The narrator remarks that he has speculated since the initial meeting whether "there may have been infection in his mind." 


That the signalman is so cautious, so vigilant, so diligent in his duties and observation yet the tragic accident occurs nevertheless points to the possibility that there is a force that controls all living beings. The ever-meaningful third time of hearing the words is also a factor that connotes fate.






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