Themes and Meanings
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.