Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The opening of “The Signal-Man” is striking in its modernistic evocation of existential isolation. The first sentence is a cry: “Halloa! Below there!” Instead of identifying the speaker, the text goes on to describe the reaction of an unidentified man who hears the voice but cannot determine its origin. By withholding the identities of both the first speaker and the listener (the narrator and the signalman), Dickens creates a feeling of dislocation and uncertainty that effectively communicates his theme of loneliness and human powerlessness. The narrator’s and the signalman’s brief suspicion that each may be a spirit rather than a human contributes to the eerie and mysterious mood.

In contrast to these characters’ uncertain entrance into the story, the train makes its narrative entrance with brutal vitality. Before the narrator and the signalman can make physical contact, the air vibrates with “violent pulsation,” and the train passes by in an “oncoming rush” that nearly pulls the narrator into its wake. The contrasting presentation of human characters and train underscore Dickens’s theme of technology’s dehumanizing power.

The steep incline that the narrator must traverse to meet with the signalman, the zigzag path, and the foreshortened perspectives evoked in the opening scene create a feeling of vertiginous insecurity. This mood is further emphasized by the description of the signalman’s station: a solitary post...

(The entire section is 468 words.)