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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 670

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.

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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.

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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.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

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 just outside a gloomy dark tunnel next to a dripping wall of “jagged stone” that blocks out the sky and the sunlight.

The story unfolds mainly in dialogue that is terse and urgent, creating a feeling of inexorable momentum toward a dreadful end. Beyond the initial description of the gloomy location, there is very little attempt to build atmosphere through description. The narration has a quality of reportorial objectivity that builds the reader’s acceptance of the importance of the ghostly apparitions. Although the narrator at first wonders whether the signalman is prey to nervous indispositions that give rise to imaginary visions, he discovers from his own experience at the end of the story that the ghosts have a reality independent of any individual imagination. The narrator’s attitudinal transformation from skepticism to horrified belief persuades the reader to gradually enter into the story’s spell.

The ghosts, most often appearing in the form of a man covering his eyes with one arm and waving desperately with the other, are the story’s most striking visual images. Their anonymous desperation and ineffectual passion portray the tragedy of technology destroying human agency and connection. By introducing ghostly elements into a realistic setting, Dickens transforms the modern technological landscape into a gothic setting in which horrible tragedies evade human control. This combination of elements unifies two forms of anxiety: the ancient fear of the supernatural and the modern fear of impersonal, implacable, heartless technology.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 388

In “The Signal-Man,” Dickens makes supernatural beings interact with real people in realistic situations to express concerns about human interconnectedness. His better-known story A Christmas Carol (1843) employs the same strategy. Unlike A Christmas Carol, however, “The Signal-Man” is a pessimistic story with a sad ending.

In “The Signal-Man,” a ghostly apparition either warns or belatedly informs a helpless watcher of fatal tragedies. In nineteenth century fiction, the railway was often used to symbolize anxiety about technological progress obliterating traditional ways of life and supplanting intimate social connections with impersonal technological systems. This anxiety is evident in “The Signal-Man” as tragedies occur despite of the carefully constructed means established to ensure safety: telegraph signals, red lights, flags, and bells. Dickens emphasizes the signalman’s careful attention to his duty in his faithful adherence to routine and his constant watchfulness. Nevertheless, even when they are conscientiously deployed, technological communications can be ineffectual in preventing the deaths taking place on the railway. The train seems to have an untamed power of its own, impervious to the stratagems of the people who invented it.

Loneliness and social isolation are also prominent features of “The Signal-Man.” The empty countryside and the steep zigzag pathway that separates the narrator from the signalman in the story’s beginning emphasize the sense of isolation. Neither man is given a name. Each wonders whether the other is a ghost rather than a human being. Although there are systems in place for communicating by telegraph, there are no people nearby with whom to share the fear and the worry—other than through this chance encounter between the protagonists. In contrast to the characters’ anonymity and ontological vagueness, the rushing train has an undeniable physical presence and energy. Humanity has been reduced to isolated, ineffectual, doubtfully real figures in a barren landscape in which only the train has power.

The supernatural apparitions are eerie but not dangerous. They do not threaten the human characters, but their ineffectual desperation and grief are deeply unsettling. They seem to be symbolic of human caring and empathy, an empathy that is tragically disconnected from any real power to do good. They seem to show that although the power and means to provide help and comfort are cut off, the desire to be humanly interconnected and to prevent tragedy and suffering is still strong.

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