Creating foreboding atmosphere and tension in The Monkey’s Paw and The Signalman

The main idea of a mystery story is to give the readers something to wonder about. You have to give them the clues one by one and lead your reader to a conclusion they weren’t expecting. A good mystery story will keep a reader guessing until they see the final twist and then everything they didn’t understand before fits into place. This is definitely true in ‘The Signalman’. One of the techniques that Dickens uses to create a feeling of uneasiness and tension can be seen right from the very beginning.

In the very first paragraph there is a sense of the unexplained: ‘There was something remarkable in his manner of doing so (instead of the signalman looking up to where the narrator stood, he turned himself about, and looked down the Line. ), though I could not have said for my life, what. ‘ The vocabulary Dickens uses also adds to the atmosphere and it is well worth a close look at this.

Words such as ‘violent’, ‘clammier’ and ‘earthly dead smell’ build up the sense that the narrator is in a dangerous location and that something terrible is about to happen.

This sort of language use can be found throughout the tale. The ‘angry sunset’ Dickens describes adds to the effect, as does the ‘clammy’ and wet stones of the way down. These are indicative of a ghost story, and even the tunnel is described in such a way as to make us wonder about it. The description of the tunnel itself could very well remind us of the mouth of hell, which is appropriate because of what happens later in the story.

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‘… terminating in a gloomy red light, and gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air.

So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot, that it had an earthy deadly smell; and so much cold wind rushed through it, that it stuck chill to me, as if I had left the natural world. ‘ Charles Dickens uses repetition quite a lot to build up the feeling of fear and uneasiness, and this is particularly effective at the end. There is also the description of place, and the damp unpleasantness like he ‘has left the natural world. ‘ The colors he uses are often associated with evil, such as red and black, and it’s with language like this that Dickens makes the audience uneasy and feeling that something is about to go wrong.

Any comments on words such as ‘monstrous’ will be useful, as will the miming of the actions. That is quite a visual effect and gives the full eerie effect at the end when the signalman dies. The repetition of words and phrases adds to the uneasiness of the story ‘Below there! Look out! Look out! For God’s sake, clear the way! ‘ The use of the references to the supernatural and the story the signalman tells all add to the feeling of fear.

Even the narrator says that he felt a ‘slow touch of a frozen finger tracing out my spine. These are techniques in ghost stories, made more chilling by the fact that they are foreshadowing what is to come. Everything about the place and the signalman seems to be unnatural and uneasy. The spot is isolated and the feeling of fear and unease is built up by the speaker’s comments: ‘The monstrous thought came into my mind as I perused the fixed eyes and the saturnine face, that this was a spirit, not a man. ‘ The signalman’s behavior is at times inexplicable and this is contrasted with the exactness with which he does his job.

There is definitely something odd about him. ‘His manner seemed to make the place strike colder to me. ‘ The man himself is most mysterious, and the narrator was uncertain of whether he was man or spirit or even slightly disturbed because, ‘there was something in the man that daunted me. ‘ All this contributes to the building of the tension, as does the eeriness of the signalman believing that he had seen the narrator before, despite the narrator’s certainty that he had never been there. The signalman himself even suggests some supernatural connection part way into the story.

The draw of the signalman is so great that the narrator goes back to hear more. For the first time the specific reference to the gesture of waving frantically to clear the way becomes so important. The signalman’s story is chilling. The language is indicative of a ghost story, like ‘damp stains’, ‘frozen finger tracing my spine’, ‘disagreeable shudder. ‘ There are also rational explanations for what had happened. The tales of the appearances of the spectre are fearful, as are the narrator’s reactions, such as pulling his chair back from the floorboards where the young lady was laid.

The wind, personified as ‘wailing’, also adds to the effect of the story. There is conflict between what the two people heard and saw the previous evening, but both agree that the spectre is not there now. The signalman gains empathy because he is aware that danger is imminent but he is powerless to do anything. Another technique that is used to prolong the suspense is the fact that the narrator could not see anyone nor hear the bell ring when the signalman claimed the spectre was there. The dismissing of events as a coincidence builds up tension, as we feel sure he is going to be proven wrong.

The twist in the tale is so effective because everything has been building towards this, but we did not fully understand what was to happen. The third evening concludes the story. The narrator sees the figure waving in the mouth of the tunnel, but it is not supernatural: ‘The nameless horror that oppressed me, passed in a moment, for in a moment I saw that this appearance of a man was a man indeed. ‘ The way Dickens talks directly to the audience in this story, is a good way of fully involving the reader in the mystery. It raises questions that he then leaves unanswered and unravels later.

The death was that of the signalman himself, and the visions he had seen had been the premonition of his own death. There is the repetition of the action and also of the words that the signalman said were haunting him. ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ is based upon the unexpected happenings of a supernatural tale. Mr. White meets up with an old war buddy and invites him to his home for an evening visit. The purpose is to complete a story he had told of a monkey’s paw and an old fakir. Sergeant-Major Morris has brought the paw with him and tells the story.

At the beginning of the story, the mood is mysterious and ominous, created by these details: a cold, wet night; a house in an out-of-the-way place; a visitor tells of faraway places and strange events. Mr. White, his wife and son soon learn that the soldier had his three wishes granted and would rather have the paw destroyed than pass it on to anyone else. When pressed for more details he tells his hosts that the first owner used his third wish to wish for death and that was how he came into possession of the paw. With that he tosses the paw into the fireplace, but Mr.

White rushes to the hearth and retrieves it before it is completely destroyed. The soldier leaves and warns them to ‘wish for something sensible’. At the son’s urging, the father wishes for some money (two hundred pounds). Nothing immediately happens and they turn in for the night. Of course, only trouble can follow. Sergeant- Major Morris has warned the White family that the wishes come true almost like a coincidence, and his reactions to the paw show he is afraid of what it can do – he throws it on the fire to destroy it, he turns white when he is telling of its history and is frightened when Mrs.

White makes the joke about wishing for four pairs of hands. Once the wish has been made and the paw moved, we fear that gaining the two hundred pounds is not going to be a positive experience for the Whites. The story is neatly divided in three sections and primarily deals with three characters -Mr. White, his wife and their son. In the first section we are introduced to the wish motif and the family makes their first wish. In the second half they make their second wish. In the third and eeriest portion the husband ends their ordeal with a final wish -the only wise wish the family ever made.

The old fairy tale motifs are all present and indeed Mrs. White at one point says ‘Sounds like the Arabian Nights. ‘ There is some making fun of the whole idea and we get the idea that the family does not totally believe in the powerful magic they have come into contact with. Jacobs describes the son as ‘frivolous’ and he mocks the idea by telling his father to wish to be an emperor to escape his nagging wife, Mrs. White asks the husband to wish her to have four hands and they all laugh at the prospect of getting what one truly desires.

The reader knows only too well that this family is doomed. The foreshadowing events the author uses to prepare the reader for the events to come are: Morris says the paw has a spell on it -foreshadows negative reactions once someone wishes upon it, perhaps even Herbert’s death; Morris presses Mr. White to throw the paw away which foreshadows bad things to come, including Herbert’s Death, Herbert sees a vision in the fire and feels a shiver when he grasps the paw which foreshadows his own demise.

When Mr. Mrs. White realize that in following the son’s suggestion for money they have altered their lives in a horrible way they panic. The money comes to them as compensation for a horrible ‘accident’ at the factory where their son worked. He has died at the hands of the machinery. Mrs. White immediately wants to wish her son back to life and runs to find the paw. There is a struggle and an argument. The family is beginning to learn that there is strange magic at bother, that they truly can defy the laws of nature.

The husband is reluctant but is powerless at the maniacal urging of his wife and when he refuses to make the wish she does so herself. To some extent ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ depends on horror brought about through the death of a main character in the story. Herbert is killed in an ‘accident’ because of the first wish and we experience revulsion at the thought of him being brought back to life. The story builds up to a climax at the end, and although we understand what will happen next, it has far more impact being left at the pinnacle of the action.

It is at this point that Jacobs uses the best tool of the writer of a ghost story -the power of suggestion. We feel the terror of the husband and know the longing of the wife for her son. The terrible knocking at the door, the fact that the wife rushes downstairs while the reader remains upstairs with the husband who dare not move from his spot. While he envisions what must have happened to his son, remembering the ‘accident’ and imagining something hideous crawling out of a fresh grave, his wife frantically tries to open the door but has trouble with the bolt.

The reader is wondering as well: Will she see her son? What will happen to her? What kind of family will they be with a dead son returned from the grave? The word ‘it’ implies that Mr. White believes whatever is on the other side of the door is not human. He believes perhaps ‘it’ is his son’s dead corpse. The word ‘it’ creates suspense and a sense of fear. The husband at last makes the final and inevitable wish -the only sensible wish made while the paw was theirs those brief fateful days.

And the story ends with an eerie image complete with a poignant sound effect that sends a final frisson up your spine: ‘A cold wind rushed up the staircase and a long loud wail of disappointment and misery from his wife gave him courage to run down to her side, and to the gate beyond. The street lamp flickering opposite shone on a quiet and deserted road. ‘ It is certain that the echo of that misery-filled wail reached all the way to the cemetery where no doubt it settled like a mournful shroud on the still undisturbed grave of their hapless son.

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Creating foreboding atmosphere and tension in The Monkey’s Paw and The Signalman. (2017, Oct 14). Retrieved from

Creating foreboding atmosphere and tension in The Monkey’s Paw and The Signalman
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