Characters

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The Stranger
The stranger is a man waiting for a train at a deserted station. The first of the two characters in the story, he is a foreigner to the area, as indicated by the switchman's question, "Haven't you been in this country very long?" When he is first introduced, the stranger is out of breath and sweating profusely from the effort of carrying his suitcase. He urgently needs to get to the town of T__ by the next day at the latest, and initially he is dejected at the possibility that he has missed his train. He asks the switchman if the train has already left, and when he first hears the story of the rail system in this anonymous country, he is incredulous and horrified. He questions the switchman methodically, insisting upon the logic that he has purchased a ticket, so he must be able to reach his destination. Over the course of the story, however, he comes to accept the switchman's logic, and by the end he has changed the name of his destination to fit the absurdity of the situation and is identified as a traveler.

The Switchman
The switchman for whom the story is named is actually a retired switchman, who comes to the station to "remember the good old days." He appears out of nowhere, carrying a red lantern so tiny it looks like a toy. When the stranger asks him if the train has come and gone, the switchman advises him to book a room at the inn for as long as possible, suggesting it may be a long time before a train comes through the town. Thus begins his absurd account of the rail system, which he delivers in a matter-of-fact way and without irony. Throughout the dialogue, the switchman is kind and congenial, committed to his bizarre story, and patient with the stranger's protests and questions. He offers the stranger advice and encouragement in a good-natured way, and when the train shows up, he runs at it, gesturing wildly with his lantern, and vanishes into the morning.

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