Why is the signal-man unable to respond to the warning?

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Myrtie Barton eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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"The Signal-Man" by Charles Dickens is a tale in the tradition of the Christmas ghost-story that was popular in the Victorian era. The narrative chronicles the haunting of a railway signal-man, who sees three ghostly apparitions. The first two apparitions are followed by a bloody accident and a tragic death. When the narrator first meets the frightened railway worker, the isolated man is quaking at the mysterious appearance of a phantom for the third time. The signalman describes the actions of the ghost when it appears at the Danger-light.

It calls to me, for many minutes together, in an agonizing manner, "Below there! Look out! Look out!" It stands waving to me. It rings my little bell . . . .

The signal-man laments his inability to leave his job or warn others, as he knows his visions will not be taken seriously by his superiors. The next day, the narrator learns the signal-man has been killed by a train. The Engine-Driver describes his futile attempts to avoid the tragedy.

I said, "Below there! Look out! Look out! For God’s sake, clear the way!" Ah! It was a dreadful time, sir. I never left off calling to him. I put this arm before my eyes not to see and I waved this arm to the last, but it was no use.

The parallel between the ghost’s behavior and the actions of the Engine-Driver is obvious. The ghost predicts the manner of the signalman’s death.

The warning you reference in your question is interesting, as it could have two answers, depending on your interpretation. You could argue that the apparition was attempting to warn the signalman about his impending doom. The ghost mimics the actions that unfold in all three tragic deaths. Perhaps the ghost is benevolent and is futilely trying to help the living. If the signal-man couldn’t understand the ghost’s warning, how could he heed it?

An alternate view is that the signalman was unable to hear the warning of the living Engine-Driver because he was distracted or hypnotized by the ghost. If the ghost is malevolent and causes these tragedies, the signalman would have been unable to respond to the shouts and pleadings of the engineer because he was under some supernatural influence.

I hope this helps!

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David Morrison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The signalman is unable to respond to the warning because he never quite grasps its meaning and so cannot act upon it. He knows that danger is on the way; every time the ghost makes an appearance a tragic incident inevitably follows. But the signalman doesn't realize that the ghost's latest appearance foreshadows his own tragic demise. In any case, the poor man is caught in a bit of a bind. He can't very well warn his boss of a potential railroad accident on the basis of a ghostly apparition; he'd be carted off to an institution in the blink of an eye. At the same time, he can't ignore these apparitions, either. So the signalman finds himself stuck between a rock and a hard place, unable to take steps to avoid his tragic fate.

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