Charles Dickens’ short story The Signal-Man is a macabre tale of a railroad signal-man and the visitor, the story’s narrator, to his lonely, isolated post who befriends him. The narrator soon discovers that this signal-man has a number of peculiarities, not least of which is his constant state of unease. Early in The Signal-Man, the narrator describes his initial impression of this individual as follows:
“He had his left hand at his chin, and that left elbow rested on his right hand, crossed over his breast. His attitude was one of such expectation and watchfulness that I stopped a moment, wondering at it.”
The narrator, for some unknown reason, has taken it upon himself to make this signal-man’s acquaintance, whereupon he notes that the latter is “a dark sallow man, with a dark beard and rather heavy eyebrows. His post was in as solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw.”
The signal-man, it will turn out, is haunted by apparitions, and his isolated environment smells of death. His post is t the entrance to tunnel, “in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air. So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot, that it had an earthy, deadly smell; and so much cold wind rushed through it, that it struck chill to me, as if I had left the natural world.”
The narrator, it will turn out, has left “the natural world.” The signal-man is condemned to hear, in the small shack where he works, a bell imperceptible to all other humans. Unbeknownst to the narrator, this haunted figure is hearing the warning bell that another fatality is about to occur on the railway. “
“In a word, I should have set this man down as one of the safest of men to be employed in that capacity, but for the circumstance that while he was speaking to me he twice broke off with a fallen colour, turned his face towards the little bell when it did NOT ring, opened the door of the hut (which was kept shut to exclude the unhealthy damp), and looked out towards the red light near the mouth of the tunnel. On both of those occasions, he came back to the fire with the inexplicable air upon him which I had remarked, without being able to define, when we were so far asunder.”
The narrator, while struck by the signal-man’s peculiarities, is nevertheless dismissive of his new friend’s suggestions of a supernatural presence, especially as the signal-man notes that “I am troubled, sir, I am troubled.” The narrator’s offer of assistance in connecting the signal-man with a medical professional comes to naught, as, upon a subsequent visit to the isolated signal shack, he discovers that the signal-man has been killed, “cut down by an engine.” The revelation that the signal-man was struck by an engine while standing with his back to the tunnel out of which the train had emerged is deeply troubling to the narrator. As the train’s engineer, on the scene to assist in the investigation into the accident, describes his attempts at warning the victim away, he explains that he had yelled down to the figure on the tracks “Below there! Look out! Look out!” The significance of this bit of detail lies in its resemblance to the first words spoken by the narrator to the signal-man to whom he shouted downward from his higher vantage point, “Halloa! Below there!” That this greeting from the narrator had struck the signal-man has disturbing only now can be understood.