Discuss the supernatural element in Charles Dickens' "The Signal-Man."

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The supernatural in "The Signal-Man" functions to underscore the anxieties felt by people of little power, cut off from human contact, who were forced to carry great responsibilities as the age of mechanization accelerated, responsibilities perhaps greater than one isolated person should have had to assume. As the signalman tells the narrator:Why not tell me where that accident was to happen—if it must happen? Why not tell me how it could be averted—if it could have been averted? When on its second coming it hid its face, why not tell me instead: "She is going to die. Let them keep her at home"

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In "The Signal-Man," the narrator, by nature solitary, feels drawn to interact with a signalman. The signalman, standing by a lonely box near the railway tracks deep in a dark gulley, has the job of waving red flags, operating lights, and sometimes even pulling a metal lever to warn trains of danger or stop them before a disaster can occur. The narrator emphasizes the isolation and forlornness of this man's job.

As they talk, the narrator learns that the signalman has become increasingly anxious and upset because he has been seeing a "spectre" that forewarns of dangers that he is unable to stop, primarily because he doesn't know the specifics of the cases.

While it might be easy to dismiss the signalman's reports of the appearance of the ghost as a figment of his imagination brought on by working all by himself in a depressing place, the signalman has witnessed too many coincidental tragedies since the appearance of the ghost for the narrator to dismiss the signalman's words. Finally, the signalman keeps hearing, from the ghost, the words

Below there! Look out! Look out! For God's sake clear the way!

These are exactly the words spoken to the signalman before he himself is killed, a chilling fact the narrator absorbs.

The supernatural functions to underscore the anxieties felt by people of little power, cut off from human contact, who were forced to carry great responsibilities as the age of mechanization accelerated, responsibilities perhaps greater than one isolated person should have had to assume. As the signalman tells the narrator:

Why not tell me where that accident was to happen—if it must happen? Why not tell me how it could be averted—if it could have been averted? When on its second coming it hid its face, why not tell me instead: "She is going to die. Let them keep her at home"? If it came, on those two occasions, only to show me that its warnings were true, and so to prepare me for the third, why not warn me plainly now? And I, Lord help me! A mere poor signalman on this solitary station! Why not go to somebody with credit to be believed, and power to act!

The ghost underscores the signalman's powerlessness over forces he can't adequately control.

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Each of the supernatural elements in the story make the scene more creepy and help to create a mood that guides the reader through the narrator's interactions with the signal-man to the moments after his death. The main supernatural elements in "The Signal-Man" are the apparitions that the signal-man sees. He says that each one came right before a disaster and now he's seen a third one. He is emotionally distraught and wondering what it might portend.

The signal-man is so scared that he's nervous about the narrator approaching him—even the greeting he calls out. He asks the man whether he was influenced to say "Halloa, below there!" by a supernatural force. The narrator, however, was just calling out a greeting. He wants to know why the man is so nervous, and the signal-man promises to explain it to him the next day.

At this point, there is already a sense of the supernatural just in the signal-man's workspace. Entering it makes the narrator feel as if he has left the natural world and entered an unnatural, wrong place. This feeling of unease sets the tone for the rest of the story when the man returns to speak to the signal-man again.

The narrator finds out that he's very similar to the apparition that the signal-man saw; even the words he spoke were the same. But that's not the end of the supernatural elements in the story.

When the narrator returns another night, the signal-man has died. He was hit by a train. The words the conductor yelled to try to get him to move were the same ones that the narrator imagined when the signal-man described the apparition's movements to him. They weren't something he voiced or something the signal-man said. Rather, they came from within the narrator.

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The supernatural element in this excellent short story seems to take the form of how ghosts or other supernatural beings interact with the human world to warn--either before or after the event--humans about a tragedy that is about to occur or has just occurred. Note how the signalman describes the first apparition that he tells the narrator about:

"One moonlight night," said the man, "I was sitting here, when I heard a voice cry, "Halloa! Below there!" I started up, looked from that door, and saw this someone else standing by the red light near the tunnel, waving as I just now showed you. The voice seemed hoarse with shouting, and it cried: "Look out! Look out!""

The strange appearance of this figure combined with the fact that in six hours after this apparition, a terrible accident occurred and the dead and wounded were placed on precisely the spot where the apparition had appeared. The supernatural element of this story thus seems to take the role of a warning of imminent danger or accidents, which tortures the signalman because of his inability to use these warnings to prevent these accidents occurring. Chillingly, at the end, the supernatural visitor indicates the death of the signalman himself.

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What is the significance of the supernatural to the plot development in Dickens' "The Signal-Man"?

In Charles Dickens' short story, "The Signal-Man," what makes the story so scary and wonderful is Dickens' use of the supernatural. This was not unheard of for Victorian writers; in A Christmas Carol, Dickens uses the supernatural extensively. The experiences Scrooge has with "ghosts" move the plot along and are responsible for his change of heart.

Dickens provides information regarding the supernatural early on in this story, creating the mood. The first paragraph alludes to supernatural forces at work. When the visitor hollers down, the signal-man can't tell where the voice is coming from—it's like a "disembodied" person speaking. Instead of looking up to where the speaker is standing above him, the man first looks down the railroad line, an unusual reaction since the voice had not come from that direction. It is here that we might first suspect that the signal-man has a problem. The signal-man is first described as "foreshortened and shadowed," almost like a creature from another world.

When the signal-man looks at the speaker, he carefully studies him—there is something unusual in that the signal-man seems as if he doesn't trust his visitor. When the narrator approaches, the signal-man is watches him carefully, almost as if the visitor is an apparition!

The railroad tracks create an unusual feeling for the narrator. The shadows and color add to their eeriness, and the speaker experiences a strong uneasiness.

So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot...and so much cold wind rushed through it, that it struck chill to me, as if I had left the natural world.

Early indications show the signal-man to be unusual—is he sane?Alone too much on the job? The signal-man explains that the visitor looks familiar, which is why he studies him. The signal-man is described as "remarkably exact and vigilant"—so he is a reliable person. Finally the signal-maker declares that he wants to share his worries with his visitor, if he will returns a second night. The visitor agrees—and in this moment, the signal-man introduces his fear for the first time. When he asks why the narrator called to him with the exact words he chose to use, and the signal-man asks:

You had no feeling that they were conveyed to you in any supernatural way?

The speaker says no, and agrees to come the next night. When he arrives, immediately the signal-man relates his past experiences. The visitor looks like an apparition that has twice appeared on the tracks, waving a warning. When the man first followed the "vision," he disappeared. The visitor tries to explain that the image was in the worker's mind, but then the man describes a similar instance with the same ghost that later heralded a woman's death on the train. The specter has now returned a third time, and the signal-man is worried: what is the warning? How can he warn or help anyone?

The following (third) evening, the visitor arrives and, looking down the track, sees a man waving as the signal-man had described: he is actually showing other men what he saw—the narrator asks and learns the signal-man was killed earlier by a train. The words the engineer used were exactly what he had heard earlier. The warning was for the signal-man.

The entire story moves along with the introduction of supernatural events: apparitions that disappear, and words and gestures of warning. It is the supernatural that creates the mood and drives the plot, for what the signal-man heard and saw foreshadowed his own death.

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