The Signal-Man Questions and Answers
by Charles Dickens

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How does the tunnel represent people's fears in "The Signalman" by Charles Dickens?

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Felicita Burton eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The tunnel represents the fears of both the narrator and the signalman. Because the story is told by the first person narrator, the reader must accept the narrator’s version of events. That is, we are encouraged to believe that the narrator actually saw this person who tells them of apparitions.

The tunnel, with its other side invisible, represents the unknown, which inspires fear in many people. Though it may represent general fear, in this instance the tunnel might symbolize fear of the future or modernity specifically: the train was then a modern conveyance, so traveling on it symbolized confidence in the technology that was the wave of the future.

The tunnel further symbolizes fear of imprisonment, as it is compared to a “great dungeon.” The interior space of the tunnel, although technically open at both ends, is compared to an enclosed space, which can indicate the narrator's fear of being confined by an unnamed force. The logical extension would be fear of death, where the tunnel is like a coffin and/or grave.

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mwestwood, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The tunnel represents people's fear as it is dark and foreboding--"a great dungeon." Also, the tunnel is crooked so that one cannot see through it to the end, and the entrance is dark and gloomy with a "barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air." 

Certainly, there is something of the Gothic about this dismal tunnel that is placed in an isolated, "lonesome post" and is so shaded from the sun that it has an "earthy, deadly smell." Such a dark, dismal, and damp channel as this lone tunnel easily can prompt a person's fears of the unknown; additionally, the signalman himself is a rather daunting figure to the narrator:

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.

Such a shadowed, lonesome, and damp place as this tunnel and a signalman who has an "inexplicable air upon him" truly generate a representation of people's fears of the mysterious and the threatening unknown which can profoundly disturb the isolated imagination. 

 

 

 

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