The Signal-Man Themes
by Charles Dickens

Start Your Free Trial

Download The Signal-Man Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The Signal-Man Themes

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 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...

(The entire section is 1,403 words.)