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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

The Narrator

The unnamed narrator appears throughout the Mugby Junction collection as he relates the stories of various individuals he encounters during his travels. Having recently retired from an unsatisfying job, the narrator’s loneliness and desire for human connection are his most prominent traits in “The Signal-Man.” He calls out to the Signal-man after being “riveted” by the isolated nature of the man’s post, perhaps sensing a kindred spirit. His obvious concern for the Signal-man’s mental health further supports the idea that the narrator is familiar with the ill effects of loneliness. 

The narrator quickly grows attached to his new friend, even referring to him as “my signal-man” prior to what would have been their third meeting. He also intends to help the Signal-man seek medical help and does his best to calm the man’s anxieties in the meantime. However, the narrator’s desire to help the Signal-man proves insufficient: just as the Signal-man was powerless to stop the tragedies that the apparition foreshadowed, the narrator is powerless to save the Signal-man from his apparent fate. Ultimately, both the Signal-man and the narrator seem to lack agency in the world, only able to passively observe rather than intervene. This is symptomatic of the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution, as machines slowly replaced the need for human craftsmanship and collaboration.  

In another reflection of nineteenth-century cultural trends, the narrator and the Signal-man represent the conflict between rationality and superstition, with the narrator representing the Western tradition of objectivism. The narrator needs to believe that the Signal-man has gone mad, because the only alternative is the existence of the supernatural. Blinded by his belief that the world operates logically, the narrator fails to comprehend the imminent danger that the Signal-man is in. It is only after the engine driver speaks the narrator’s own thoughts aloud that he is faced with uncomfortable proof of the Signal-man’s strange visions, leaving him to wonder at the “curious coincidences” surrounding their encounter.

The Signal-Man

On account of his job, the Signal-man leads a lonely existence, spending most of his time alone in the signal box. He has been using this time to teach himself a new language and study algebra, and he admits to being well educated, having studied natural philosophy at university. However, he has "gone down"—having been expelled from university—and has never "risen" again or returned to his studies. He says he does not regret this, and the narrator remarks that he seems a contented man, to which the Signal-man agrees that he once was.

The recent appearance of the apparition has “troubled” the Signal-man deeply, and he agonizes over his inability to prevent whatever tragedy the apparition portents. This suggests that the Signal-man feels an inflated sense of responsibility for the affairs of the world, something that his relatively subservient occupation does not allow for. Though the train is a human invention, it seems to have taken on a life of its own, as it dictates the lives of railway employees and passengers. Its path is cut directly out of the natural environment, replacing sunlight and fresh air with “gloom” and oppressive darkness. The Signal-man himself seems to represent the dominance of machines over humanity, plagued as he is by the dread of unavoidable calamity brought on by the trains. His sense of helplessness is indicative of the broader anxieties that plagued the working class in the nineteenth century, as people realized that they were powerless to stop the onrush of technology and mechanization.   

From the initial depiction of the Signal-man as a “spirit” to the “deadly smell” that pervades the railroad cutting,...

(This entire section contains 910 words.)

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the Signal-man’s death seems inevitable. The descriptions of his “lonesome post” evoke images of a grave or afterlife, and his assertion that it is “too late” for him suggests that he is resigned to his spectral existence. His death punctuates the story, leaving the narrator and readers with a sense of disorientation. Whether he died as a result of supernatural intervention, suicide, or pure coincidence is left up to readers’ interpretations, but regardless, the railroad  stands out as a menacing and unstoppable force that indiscriminately “cut[s] down” its loyal servants. 

The Apparition

The nature of the apparition is left ambiguous. If “The Signal-Man” is read as a straightforward ghost story, then the apparition is a menacing presence, foreshadowing—or even causing—death. However, whether it is truly a malignant presence is debatable, as its actions seem more sorrowful than threatening. The Signal-man describes the apparition’s behavior prior to the second railway accident as resembling “mourning.” By this interpretation, the apparition is as powerless as the Signal-man himself, able to foresee calamity but unable to prevent it.   

Adopting a more symbolic interpretation, the apparition can be read as a manifestation of the Signal-man’s dissatisfaction and anxiety. The atmosphere of the railway cutting is already oppressive and claustrophobic, hidden away from the sun and fresh air. The apparition seems almost to be an extension of this atmosphere, giving the gloom of the Signal-man’s solitary post a physical presence. Its relationship with the railroad, exhibited by its apparent ability to predict disasters, reinforces this idea. Though the Signal-man is described as being overeducated for his job, he is nonetheless responsible for the safety of many people. The apparition, then, embodies the stress that looms over potentially deadly circumstances.