What happens in The Signal-Man?

In "The Signal-Man," the narrator meets a railway signalman near the train tracks. Distressed, the signalman tells the narrator about the apparitions that he has seen on the tracks. One evening, the narrator returns to find that the signalman himself has been hit by a train.

  • The unnamed narrator meets the railway signalman while walking in the country one day. He learns that the signalman has seen a number of apparitions.

  • Each apparition has foretold doom. One takes the form of a man who says, "Look out!" just hours before a wreck. A second apparition foreshadows the death of another passenger.

  • One evening, the narrator himself sees an apparition while walking past the train tracks. He learns that the railway signalman was hit by a train that morning.

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Summary

Charles Dickens's short story "The Signal-Man" begins when the narrator, spotting a signal-man by a railway line, calls out to greet him. To his surprise, the signal-man appears unsure as to where the voice has come from, which intrigues the narrator, as it seems to him surely obvious. Asking permission to descend, he does so and, upon reaching the line by which the man is standing, feels oddly as if he has "left the natural world." He asks the signal-man why he looks at him "as if you had seen me before," to which the signal-man indicates that he thought perhaps he had—by the red danger light. This confuses the narrator, who asks what he could possibly have been doing there. When he swears he never was there, the dread in the signal-man's manner seems to lift.

For a time, the two men talk about the signal-man's occupation, his past, and his education. Within the signal-man's little box, the signal-man 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 explains to the narrator that he will elaborate on this if the narrator returns again the next day. The narrator promises he will, but before he leaves, the signal-man asks an odd 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 he thinks not.

The next day the narrator arrives again and does not call out, as he promised. The signal-man explains that he took the narrator for someone else the previous night, an apparition he has seen with an arm across its face. It had stood just outside the entrance to the tunnel and was nowhere to be found inside it after it abruptly disappeared. This figure, too, had cried out, "Halloa, below there!"

The narrator tries to explain this away as a figment of an isolated mind, but he is unsettled. The signal-man tells him further that within six hours of seeing this apparition, there was an accident on the line. A few months later, he saw the "spectre" again, and on that occasion, a "beautiful young lady" was found to have died in 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 see the apparition as a portent of death, he is very unnerved. He explains that the figure waves its arm wildly, in a gesture interpreted by the narrator as "For God's sake clear the way." The previous evening, the signal-man had heard it ring the bell twice—although the narrator did not hear this—and was at the danger light both times when the signal-man went out to look.

The signal-man is very distressed because he is sure 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 him in such a state, but resolves to come back the next evening to spend time with him, having calmed him as best...

(The entire section is 1,115 words.)