Last Updated November 3, 2023.
Isolation as an Unnatural State
Both of the primary characters in “The Signal-Man” seem isolated by their circumstances. The Signal-man’s life is literally confined within the “great dungeon” of the railway cutting and his tiny signal box, while the narrator is adrift in the world, traveling by himself along the railways connecting to Mugby Junction. Neither man is given a name, and both briefly entertain thoughts that the other may be a ghost, highlighting how disconnected they are from the world around them. In describing their initial meeting, the narrator notes his reasons for calling out to the Signal-man:
This was a lonesome post to occupy (I said), and it had riveted my attention when I looked down from up yonder. A visitor was a rarity, I should suppose; not an unwelcome rarity, I hoped? In me, he merely saw a man who had been shut up within narrow limits all his life, and who, being at last set free, had a newly-awakened interest in these great works.
While commenting on the Signal-man’s “lonesome post,” the narrator reveals his own desire for human connection. He wishes to expand the previously “narrow limits” of his life and seems to view the Signal-man as a potential kindred spirit. In turn, the Signal-man—after ascertaining that the narrator is not an apparition—opens up about his life and even invites the narrator to visit him again the next day so that he might divulge his troubles. The narrator and the Signal-man’s fast friendship demonstrates the human impulse toward empathy and connection, something that the Signal-man and the narrator have both been deprived of.
Everything outside of the Signal-man’s box is depicted as eerie and foreboding, from the “violent pulsation” of the passing trains to the “barbarous, depressing, and forbidding” air of the tunnel. By contrast, the Signal-man’s box has a warm fire and communication instruments, the last hints of warmth and humanity in the otherwise barren and “unnatural” place. However, there is a sense of claustrophobia to the story, which is manifested most evidently in the Signal-man’s obsessive surveying of the red danger light. It is as though the gloom and cold of the railway cutting are closing in on him. It at first appears that the narrator’s appearance may prove sufficient in saving the Signal-man from his “solitary and dismal” post, but the ending suggests that the narrator’s efforts are too late. Instead, the ill-fated Signal-man is consumed by the very railway that kept him isolated from the rest of humanity.
The Limits of Logic
One of the key tensions in “The Signal-Man” is between the Signal-man’s belief in the supernatural and the narrator’s commitment to finding a rational explanation for the apparition. As the Signal-man recounts his experiences with the apparition, the narrator is plagued by unease, but he attributes this to a distaste for tales of death and destruction. Though the narrator poses alternative explanations for the strange occurrences—such as mental illness or the wind disturbing the telegraph wires—the Signal-man refuses to allow his reality to be undermined by the narrator’s logic. The Signal-man has decided to trust in his own perception, perhaps out of an understanding that any conventionally rational explanation would condemn him as a madman. Conversely, the narrator, who did not experience the apparitions firsthand, is eager to dismiss the Signal-man’s claims of supernatural intervention in order to reinforce his own beliefs about the world.
Eventually, the narrator is forced to cease his efforts to “reason [the Signal-man] out of his convictions” and instead tries to ease the man’s troubled mind.
Therefore, setting aside all question of reality or...
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unreality between us, I represented to him that whoever thoroughly discharged his duty, must do well, and that at least it was his comfort that he understood his duty, though he did not understand these confounding Appearances.
Rather than truly giving credence to the Signal-man’s fears surrounding the apparition, however, the narrator appears more concerned with the Signal-man’s mental health and its potential impact on railway safety. He resolves to accompany the Signal-man to the “wisest medical practitioner” available, highlighting his belief in the ability of rationality, here represented by Western medicine, to cure the Signal-man’s seemingly illogical belief in the supernatural. It is not until the following day, after the engine conductor recounts the circumstances of the Signal-man’s death, that the narrator is forced to confront his own biases: his desire to view the world from a logical perspective led him to dismiss the Signal-man’s account, but the “curious coincidences” surrounding the Signal-man’s death suggest that pure logic cannot account for life’s often mysterious occurrences.
The Anxieties of the Industrial Revolution
The nineteenth century was an era of rapid socioeconomic change in Britain, as facilitated by the invention of the steam engine and subsequent innovations in industrial production and transportation. Often referred to as the First Industrial Revolution, this period saw a decline in independent farmers and craftsmen as they were replaced by cheaper and more efficient machines. This gave rise to the modern capitalist factory system and wage labor. Dickens and many of his contemporaries expressed concerns about how this socioeconomic restructuring would impact humanity. One of the most prevalent anxieties was that increased mechanization, long working hours, and stricter divisions of labor would dehumanize workers and detract from family life.
The Signal-man’s solitary and subservient post epitomizes the contemporary fears surrounding industrialization. Rather than following his passions or utilizing his education, the Signal-man instead spends his days doing repetitive tasks in service of the railway. The trains passing along the railway are described as “violently pulsing” and in constant motion, full of vitality. By contrast, the Signal-man is “grave,” “dark,” and “quiet,” living an almost spectral existence. Dickens depicts a world wherein the roles of humans and machines have been reversed: increasingly complex and demanding technologies siphon the vitality away from their attendants by removing the need for passion, human interaction, and creativity in the workplace.