The Signal-Man Summary
In Charles Dickens's short story "The Signal-Man," the narrator meets a railway signal-man who is plagued by paranormal occurrences.
After impulsively calling out to the signal-man, the narrator learns that the man is unsettled by something. The signal-man promises to confide in the narrator if he returns the next day.
The next day, the signal-man explains that he has seen two apparitions, both of which have foreshadowed disaster. He has recently begun seeing a third apparition. The narrator departs, disturbed.
On his way to visit the signal-man again the next day, the narrator is shocked to learn that the signal-man was killed by a passing train that morning.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806
“The Signal-Man” is a short story by English writer Charles Dickens, first published in the 1866 Christmas edition of Dickens’s literary magazine, All The Year Round. It is part of a collection of short stories collectively titled Mugby Junction, written by Dickens and collaborators Charles Collins, Amelia B. Edwards, Andrew Halliday, and Hesba Stretton. The collection centers around the travels of a man who, after retiring from his unsatisfying job, decides to explore the railway lines surrounding the titular Mugby railway junction.
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"The Signal-Man" begins as the narrator, spotting a Signal-man by a railway line, calls out to greet him. To the narrator’s surprise, the Signal-man appears unsure as to where the voice is coming from, which intrigues the narrator, as it seems obvious to him. Asking permission to descend, he does so. Upon reaching the line by which the Signal-man is standing, he feels oddly as if he has "left the natural world." The narrator asks the Signal-man why he reacted so strangely to the narrator’s appearance. The Signal-man indicates that he thought perhaps that he had seen the narrator before—by the red danger light. This confuses the narrator, who has never been to this section of the railway before. When the narrator says as much, the dread in the Signal-man's demeanor seems to lift.
For a time, the two men talk about the Signal-man's occupation, past, and education. The Signal-man shows the narrator the signal box and explains how he operates the lights, holds out flags for passing trains, and pulls the occasional iron handle. Twice during the conversation, he gets up seemingly for no reason and goes out to look at the danger light, which prompts the narrator to ask if he is “contented.” The Signal-man admits that he is “troubled.” He tells the narrator that he will elaborate on this if the narrator returns the next day. The narrator promises he will, but before he leaves, the Signal-man asks a question: why had the narrator called out "Halloa, below there!" when he first arrived, and had those words been "conveyed to him" by some "supernatural" means? The narrator, bemused, says that they were not.
The next day the narrator arrives again and meets the Signal-man at the bottom of the path. Once they enter the signal box, the Signal-man explains that he mistook the narrator for someone else the previous night: an apparition he has seen with an arm across its face. It stood just outside the entrance to the train tunnel and was nowhere to be found after it abruptly disappeared. This figure, too, had cried out, "Halloa, below there!"
The narrator tries to explain this away as a figment of the Signal-man’s isolated mind, but he is unsettled. The Signal-man goes on to explain that within six hours of seeing this apparition, there was an accident on the rail line. A few months later, he saw the "spectre" again, and on that occasion, a young lady was found to have died aboard the passing train. Only a week ago, the specter had once more returned and was waving sporadically under the danger light. Given that the Signal-man has now begun to view the apparition as a portent of death, he is unnerved. He explains that the figure waves its arm wildly, in a gesture interpreted by the narrator as meaning "For God's sake, clear the way!" The previous evening, the Signal-man had heard the spectre ring the bell twice—although the narrator did not hear any ringing—and it stood by the danger light both times when the Signal-man went out to look.
The Signal-man is very distressed because he is sure that some danger is to come but knows he cannot telegraph danger when he does not know what that danger will be. The narrator regrets having to leave the Signal-man in such a state but resolves to come back the next evening to spend time with him, having calmed him as best he can.
The following evening, however, the narrator arrives to find a group of men on the railway line, assembling a sort of small wooden "hut.” When the narrator questions the men, they tell him that the Signal-man has been hit by a train and killed. The narrator is aghast. The engine driver tells the narrator that he waved his arm and tried to get the Signal-man to move: "I said, 'Below there! Look out! Look out! For God's sake, clear the way!' "
What horrifies the narrator most about this is "the coincidence that the warning of the Engine-Driver included, not only the words which the unfortunate Signal-man had repeated to me as haunting him, but also the words which I myself—not he—had attached, and that only in my own mind, to the gesticulation he had imitated."