The Signalman By Charles Dickens

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In this essay I am going to examine how Charles Dickens creates suspense. Written during Victorian times, Dickens wrote the piece after being personally involved in a train crash. The Signalman is themed over the gothic supernatural and The Industrial Revolution. The Signalman is about a signalman who foretells different accidents and events on his line.

Later he foretells something far more sinister. The piece was at the time when Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelley. The Signalman opens in the first person.

This immediately creates suspense not just through the person its wrote by the words used these being: Halloa Below there” The person who shouts this is the narrator. With the reader not knowing what’s going on it causes natural apprehension. At this early stage we do not know which of the men, if any are ghosts, as they have not verbally interacted with each other.

When the narrator does call to the Signalman he only reacts physically not verbally: “He looked up without replying” This creates a mood of great tension for the reader, as they don’t know what is about to happen. The story is set at the mouth of a tunnel along a railroad. The tunnel is dark inside and unwelcoming.

When Was The Signalman Written

This helps to create mystery.

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As readers we are intrigued by this opening, as we don’t know what is going on in this tunnel. This suspense is made even tenser through the way the story is written. Dickens uses many devices such as first person narrative, the detailed description and the swapping between first and third person views. Suddenly a steam train, often an emblem of the Industrial Revolution, exits the mouth of the tunnel. Dickens describes it as: “Vague vibration in the earth and the air, quickly changing into a violent pulsation and a oncoming rush….

Vapour as to rose to my height this rapid train had passed me” This phrase reflects the fear of the steam trains during the Industrial Revolution era. As the narrator approaches the signalman he describes the setting and journey through detailed description. I particularly like this: “A clammy stone that became oozier and wetter as I went down” These descriptive adjectives bring interest and even more immediate suspense to the story and sentence.

This technique is used to great affect to create huge amounts of suspense to describe the location of the signalman’s box on the line: On either side, a dripping wet wall of jagged stone excluding all view but a strip of sky…. the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing a forbidding air” This again demonstrates the technique Dickens uses to create the suspense required for this story which was set in the Gothic supernatural period. Dickens also uses detailed description of the senses: ” Earthy, deadly, damp smell” This description of his sense of smell creates a vivid picture of rottenness for the reader. Dickens also describes how dark it is in the setting: So little sunlight ever found its way to this spot” This detailed description like the one before uses very interesting adjectives to create a picture of horror, rottenness and really a sinister setting for the reader which is typical of the story’s genre.

These descriptions make the narrator feel uncomfortable with the way the situation is going for him. The time period for which “The Signalman” is set is over a 3-day period of time the story never really leaves this setting; the characters always meet at the mouth of the tunnel the only safe way to get there being: “…. rough zigzag descending path notched out,” This creates suspense though the word “zigzag” in particular as it gives the impression of a Z-shape path which I think adds to the impression of being sinister. The story of “The Signalman” this title is also the name of the main character. He has a very important but boring job. He has to maintain safety on the line the signalman and takes his job very seriously: “In the discharge of his duties I observed him to be remarkably exact and vigilant, breaking off his discourse at a syllable and remaining silent until what he had to do was done ”

So the signalman took pride in his job and cared about his job and the safety of the passengers on the line. At the first meeting of the characters the signalman does not respond verbally to the narrator. Perhaps the signalman is slightly sacred and this adds anxiety to the story as many people might think a visitor would be a rarity. The narrator first describes the signalman as: “Dark sallow man, with a beard” Which gives a very sinister impression, which causes great suspense for the reader. Dickens doesn’t stop there with his description of the signalman: “….

Saturnine Face…. ” This gives us the impression of evil and of gloom these descriptive adjectives add great suspense to the story. The narrator, as the story progress realises that the signalman is very intelligent. So intelligent that he attended university but had gone wild and had got kicked out probably. “…. Had attended lectures…. But he had run wild…. Gone wild gone down and never risen again. ” This shows the signalman wasted his life and opportunities. So he was stuck in his job as a signalman. The Signalman takes his job very seriously he has to.

The travellers lives are in his hands so he would do all his jobs then carry on talking with the narrator: “Remaining silent until what he had to do was done” This shows the signalman really does care when he is doing his job. The signalman’s manner is one of caring, fear and intelligence. This fear is his evident fear of the bell: “Turned his head to the bell when it did not ring” This shows the first bit of sinister activity from the signalman. This creates tension for the reader. This bit of madness is also picked up by the narrator. The fear of the bell plays a significant role within the story.

The signalman has numerous conversations with the narrator. The first being the one where the signalman tells the narrator he use to be “contented but is now a man of trouble: “…. But I am troubled sir, I am troubled. ” This immediately shows he’s distressed and creates suspense for the reader, as they want to know what is troubling the signalman. The Signalman tells the narrator he will tell of his troubles if he ever returns so they agree to meet the next day at 11:00 PM. The signalman tells the narrator not to yell down when he arrives at the top path the next day. We as readers wonder why? This natural wonder creates great uncertainty.

When the narrator does return the signalman tells of his troubles with the “spectres” and of his past experiences with them on the line. He also tells of the memorable accident on the line. As he talks he is adamant he saw a figure on the spot where the dead and wounded where carried. “…. Within ten hours the dead and wounded were brought along the tunnel over the spot where the figure had stood. ” These few lines create immediate suspense for the reader as this will have been a remarkable coincidence and the reader will be keen to know more. The signalman also tells us about his second spectre appearance months after the first.

Only this time the signalman’s spectre appeared at the mouth of the tunnel in an impression of mourning. Later that day as a train passes his box the signalman sees panic in one of the carriages and stops the train and a: ” A beautiful young lady had died instantly in one of the compartments. ” This would cause much more tension and suspense for the reader, as this will be yet another coincidence. In this second visit by the narrator we learn why the signalman is so scared. As only a week ago he started to see the spectre and he keeps seeing it at the mouth of the tunnel: “The spectre came back a week ago.

Ever since then it has been there by fits and starts” This causes even more apprehension for the reader, as they, like the signalman want to know what the spectre is doing here. What both the Signalman and the reader don’t know is that the Signalman is seeing his own tragic and sinister death. The Signalman also believes he is the only one who can see the spectre. As after the recent appearances the narrator can not see it. Which suggests the signalman has gone mad. The Signalman’s state of mind by this time is one of aggressive madness, which the narrator describes as “most pitiable”: “His pain of mind is most pitiable to see”

After reading this the reader I think will be saddened and feel pity for the signalman in his madness. I think Dickens uses the character of the signalman to put across suspense in the story. We now move on to analyse the character of the man who tells the story the narrator. In my opinion at the time he would have been a Victorian man interested in the stream trains who wanted to take his interest further. He goes to a signal box to find out more. The narrator’s account of “The Signalman” changes from first to third person and back again frequently. This creates increasing suspense and tension for the reader.

The narrator holds many different feelings and thoughts as his friendship with the signalman blossoms. For example when he hears of the signalman’s evident fear: ” His pain of mind was most pitiable” This shows that the narrator feels sorry for the signalman as he may be going mad. He also feels an urge to help the signalman. After hearing both accounts of the signalman’s spectres the narrator, an intelligent, formal man wants to help the signalman overcome his madness. He reacts similarly as he did after he heard the first account: “…. Across his temples in extremity of feverish distress…. ”

This again shows the narrator is at his wit end with what to do to help the signalman. The narrator in my opinion is a “kind intelligent man”. From the signalman we are able to work out what class of person the narrator is as the signalman refers to the narrator as: “Sir” From this we know the narrator is middle class and is a man of common sense and intelligence. So after there second meeting they decide to meet again. This itself shows two things one that he cares and two he’s curious. We as readers now feel he is the mysterious wise old man. “Men of common sense did not allow for coincidence in making the ordinary calculations of life”

This shows the narrator is an intelligent man of logic who thinks with common sense. After hearing of the recent ghost he is evidently scared and disturbed. So after much deliberation the signalman agrees to accompany him to a physicist. So the narrator leaves and the signalman, in his absence dies after being mowed down by a train. In my opinion the narrator becomes wiser.

There is a certain twist in the tale that the signalman’s prediction was actually a premonition of his own death as he told the narrator the exact words the train driver said after he had mowed the signalman down: Below there! Look out! Look out! For gods sake clear the way” We can therefore see how Dickens created suspense and tension in “The Signalman” These devices ranged from suspense through the characters actions to the swapping of the views (First and Third) I think “The Signalman” is a bit dull compared to today’s literature for example Philip Pullmans Dark Materials. It was written 100 years ago and the language and expectations of today’s readers have obviously changed.

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The Signalman By Charles Dickens. (2019, Dec 07). Retrieved from

The Signalman By Charles Dickens
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