Last Updated November 3, 2023.
Victorian Gothic Literature
Victorian gothic literature is often considered an offshoot of Romanticism, a literary movement that explores human experience by attending to imagination and subjectivity. Gothic literature has a similar focus, but with a particular emphasis on macabre topics; death, and how humans relate to it, is its fundamental subject. Though Dickens wrote for a more mainstream audience, the gothic genre’s influence can be found throughout his works. In “The Signal-Man,” Dickens applies the aesthetics of traditional gothic literature to a more urban setting in order to explore contemporary anxieties surrounding the relationship between humans and technology.
When the narrator first sees the figure of the Signal-man, he describes him as "foreshortened and shadowed, down in the deep trench." As the narrator descends into the railway cutting, he notes the gloomy darkness and comments on the unnatural chill that overcomes him. The Signal-man himself is described as “saturnine”—that is to say, somber and dour—and the narrator momentarily wonders if the man is a “spirit” rather than a human being. After entering the cutting, it is almost as if the narrator has “left the natural world” and found himself in a space that exists between life and death.
As the story progresses, the reality of accidents that occur on the trains is punctuated by the supernatural tales that the Signal-man relates of having seen an apparition warning him of the disasters before they occurred. The narrator sympathizes with the Signal-man but is unwilling to credit the apparition as anything more than the product of an “infect[ed]” mind. However, through the eerie “coincidences” surrounding the the Signal-man’s death, the story concludes in a way that endorses a characteristically gothic belief in the supernatural.
Historical and Biographical Context
Though the events of “The Signal-Man” are fictitious, they have a strong basis in both the everyday realities of Victorian England and the life experiences of Charles Dickens. The nineteenth century saw a major expansion of railroad travel throughout the world, and rapid technological innovations meant that trains were traveling faster and more consistently. Though this allowed for greater freedom of mobility, it also meant more room for error. Major railway incidents occurred several times a year, typically resulting in numerous deaths and injuries.
Dickens was involved in one such incident, known as the Staplehurst rail crash of 1865, which occurred one year prior to the publication of “The Signal-Man” in 1866. En route to London, the train derailed while going over a bridge. Ten casualties and over forty injuries were reported, with Dickens coming away relatively unscathed. However, despite avoiding major injury, the crash had a major impact on Dickens, and he thereafter avoided rail travel as much as possible. Many scholars have theorized that the menacing portrayal of the railroad in “The Signal-Man” was drawn from Dickens’s own experiences with rail travel.
The Postindustrial Transformation of the Human
The Signal-man, an intelligent and educated person, works a relatively menial job on the railway, which results in his spending much of his time alone. It is evident that he rarely receives visitors, and though he claims to be “contented” with his life, the narrator believes that so much isolation has diminished his well-being. The tasks the Signal-man performs seem to render him a servant of the railway itself: he is to "change that signal, trim these lights, turn this iron handle," and he is “at all times liable to be called by his electric bell.” As opposed to bringing about the social mobility and freedom that many early industrialists promised, the Industrial Revolution seems to have had the opposite effect for the Signal-man: instead of putting his intellectual talents to use or pursuing his passions, he has instead become the solitary retainer of a mechanical master. Read in this light, the Signal-man’s death takes on a greater symbolic resonance: rather than portraying the death of one solitary signal-man, Dickens instead conveys the idea that the rapid onrush of technology represents the metaphorical “cut[ting] down” of human nature.