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Dickens's short story "The Signal-Man" operates on the contrast between the practical and fast onrush of technology (symbolized by the trains) and the eerie, transient quality of the apparitions that appear in the story. At the beginning of the story, the narrator sees the figure of the signal-man "foreshortened and shadowed, down in the deep trench." It is almost as if the narrator has left the world of everyday realities and has been subsumed into a world of ghostly appearances.

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 feels a sense of sympathy for the signal-man, and he vows to bring him to a doctor. The narrator is still convinced at this point in the story that the world functions in a rational way, as the doctor is a symbol of rational Western medicine. However, after the narrator sees a figure coming out of the tunnel who uses the gestures and words that the signal-man had described—and who tells him that the signalman is dead—the story concludes in a way that endorses a belief in the supernatural.

The accident is the third to occur. The symbolic number of three—the trinity—evokes the idea that a supernatural power is at work, one that the narrator can't really understand. He merely says at the end of the story that he does not seek to extend "the narrative to dwell on any one of its curious circumstances more than on any other." Still, the story concludes on a note that questions the rational workings of the world.

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...

(The entire section is 755 words.)