The supernatural element of the story reflects the Victorian fascination with the paranormal as a reaction against the rapid advances in science and technology during the 19th century that seemed to deny the existence of a spiritual dimension to life. The story is a true mystery; it can have no solution as is about the impossibility of ever knowing what is real.
“The Signalman” is a typical ghost story and most ghost stories have several recognisable features. In this essay I will be answering the question “In what ways is “The Signalman” a typical ghost story?” and at the same time I will try and find the pattern they all seem to follow.
Ghost stories have several typical elements such as:-
1) There is sceptical, rational character one who is not at all superstitious and does not believe in ghosts and/or the paranormal.
2) There is usually an unexpected turn in events or “twist” in the story line somewhere in the story.
3) The story is usually set in a lonely, secluded and isolated place with the main storytelling taking place between sunset and the nighttime.
4) Death features in the story line, either people die in the story, or the ghost or supernatural being is the spirit of someone who is dead.
5) The “ghost” is usually intangible and there is only one man who sees/makes contact with it in the story.
“The Signalman” has all of these features. The narrator in the story is the sceptical character of (the ghost stories the signalman tells him and instead) suggests some rational explanations for the signal mans paranormal experiences.
Towards the end of the story there is a twist in the tale where we hear that the signalman has died but perhaps even more surprising is when we find out the coincidence between the driver of the train and the narrator.
The Signalman” is set in a steep cutting a good walk away from civilisation, the location is lonely without there ever being anyone else apart from the signalman, also a typical aspect of Victorian ghost stories, shadows are emphasised. Also whenever the narrator talks to the signalman, it is always between sun set and night. Death features in this story because every time the ghost appears, there is some sort of disaster with people dying as a result. Also the ghost is intangible and the signalman is unable to touch or make any communication with it.
Lets look at the story line and incidents which occur in the “The Signalman” and I’m sure that most of the incidents will be typical of any ghost story. The plot revolves around a man who one day visits a signalman who happens to be stationed on a secluded part of railway track. The signalman tells the stranger who visits (the narrator) he is plagued by a spirit that whenever it appears next to the mouth of the tunnel, there will be an accident involving a train, twice it has appeared and twice there has been an accident. The poor Signalman does not know why the ghost seems to repeat the action of waving one hand and covering its eyes.
The narrator thought it was because the ghost was trying to say something along the lines of “God’s sake clear the way”. One morning the signalman is mysteriously run over by a train, when the narrator visits the scene he is told by the driver of the train that he was trying to get the signalman’s attention by waving with one hand and shouting “for God’s sake clear the way” the narrator then realises a strange “coincidence”, the driver repeated exactly the same actions of the ghost and exactly the same words as he himself thought the ghost was trying to say.
The incidents, which occur in “The Signalman”, are reminiscent of other typical ghost stories, for instance in the story the ghost or spectre comes into contact with the signalman three times. “Three” is the magic number when it comes to ghost stories, in “A Christmas Carol” scrooge is visited by three ghosts, in “Macbeth”, Macbeth is told his prophecies by three evil witches. And in “The Red room” the central character, when waiting to visit the haunted “Red room” talks to three weird elderly people. So the number three is quite a typical aspect of a ghost story.
There’s a twist in the story line of “The Signalman” near the end when the signalman (himself) is killed by a train after seeing the spectre. But there’s an even bigger one soon after that when we find out the driver of the train that killed him was repeating the same actions of the spectre and the narrator before the train killed him. This leaves us wondering the question why was the signalman killed? And was the narrator supernaturally involved in some way? This leaves matters unresolved and makes the story a true mystery; it can have no proper solution and your left to make up your own mind.
This is similar to “Macbeth” and “The tell tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe which both have an unexpected turn of events and especially in Macbeth’s case leaves things unresolved urging the reader to ponder on the enigmatic ending and leaves things unexplained, who was the spirit? Was it all a coincidence? Why did the signalman die? This is fairly typical of a ghost story leaving the reader with an air of mystery. When the signalman actually sees the ghost, he is always alone, no one else is there with him to see it, and also he is the only person who can hear the spirit ringing the bell.
Funnily enough scrooge is also alone whenever he sees any ghosts, as is the character “Jack” in Steven King’s “The Shining” and also in “The tell tale heart” the narrator is the only one who can hear the dead mans heart beating underneath the floorboards despite there being two other persons present who can hear nothing. It’s the same with Macbeth (although I emphasise that Macbeth isn’t an out and out ghost story) when at the banquet he can see the ghost of Banquo but no of the other witnesses present can see the ghost.
Death also features in “The Signalman”. On the first occasion the ghost appeared there was a train crash in which many people died:- “Within six hours after the Appearance, the memorable accident on this Line happened, and within ten hours the dead and wounded were brought along through the tunnel over the spot where the figure had stood. ” Then there’s the lady who dies when she is on the train and then the signalman himself who is run down by the train at the end of the story.
They are ghostly premonitions in sign “Macbeth, “The Tell Tail heart” and “Farthing house” where the ghosts are believed to be spirits of people who have died. Both characters in “The Signalman” are very typical of a ghost story, the narrator is sympathetic (towards the signalman) but a rational, sceptical character who does not believe all these stories of apparitions that the signalman describes and provides a rational, scientific explanation for the strange goings-on the narrator describes:- Resisting the slow touch of a frozen finger tracing out of my spine, I showed him how that this figure must be deception of his sense of sight. ” The narrator feels as though he is an expert in this field and acts as though he knows what is best and instantly shrugs of these stories off as being a result of some sort of mental disorder the signalman had:- “There may have been infection in his mind” The narrator feels he knows exactly what to do when he feels the signalman’s gone a bit crazy:- “What I had to had to do for the time was to compose his mind”
In “The Red Room” the main character is sceptical about the room being haunted but soon his coolness is reduced to terror. Just like the narrator in “The Signalman”. Even Scrooge from “A Christmas Carol” is sceptical of his brother, Jacob’s ghost being real. We also do not know much about the narrators past and other things such as why was the narrator in that area in the first place? There is an air of mystery about him. The other main character is the complete opposite of the narrator and is the typical victim of a ghost story. He acts strange, is solemn, subdued and nervous.
Unlike the narrator we learn a lot about the signalman’s history and day to day jobs, this is typical in other ghost stories such as “A Christmas Carol” where we find out about scrooges personality and personal life. The signalman is used to the monotony and loneliness of his occupation and passes the time learning a language and experimenting with algebra. He is “alienated” from his environment: “he is an intelligent and imaginative man who is forced to live his life deprived of sunlight, with little to occupy his mind. ” His day to day life reminds me a lot of scrooge’s.
It is typical of a ghost story to have a seemingly innocent man who has done no wrong to the world to be the victim of this terrible affliction for absolutely no reason whatsoever. The signalman tells the narrator in desperation why HE shouldn’t be lumbered with this ghost and why he hates it:- “Lord help me! A mere poor signalman on this solitary station! Why not go to somebody with credit to be believed and power to act? ” Also, the signalman is described as having an attitude of “expectation and watchfulness,” suggesting that something is going to happen.
He is subdued and always appears distracted He looked up at me without replying” “After a pause, during which he seemed to regard me with fixed attention” This is typical victim similar to the character “Jack” from Steven King’s “The Shining” who is also an intelligent character who is plagued by ghosts and eventually becomes very distressed and there is no real reason why he, instead of someone else should be plagued by these ghosts, he is not special in any way. The location of the story is very typical of a ghost story, it is set along a stretch of railway line where a lonely isolated signal box is situated next to a dark tunnel.
As described by the narrator the signal box is situated at the bottom of a “steep cutting”, with lots of shadows caused by the faint glints of sunshine in the cutting. This is the narrator description of the signalman’s appearance inside the cutting from above:- “his figure was foreshortened and shadowed, down in the deep trench” By reading that description you get a feeling of how dark it is in the cutting. The cutting itself is “extremely deep, and unusually precipitate. ” The narrator refers to the “clammy stone” and how “it became oozier and wetter as I went down.
The steep slopes and darkness of the cutting and the eerie sound of the wind in the wires all help to convey a feeling of suspense and tension typical in any ghost story. The location is an isolated place away from civilisation, it’s a lonely bleak location and cold and misty with a forbidding atmosphere like the streets of London in Dickens’s other ghost story “A Christmas Carol” although the streets are not isolated or lonely. For anyone whose ever read “The Shining you will instantly see that similarity of the location of the signal box in this story and the hotel in “The Shining” which is the main setting for that book.
They are both isolated, far away from civilisation and help, bleak and both have an evil air about them, these aspects of location are typical of a ghost story. The mouth of the tunnel is described as having “a barbarous, depressing and forbidding air. ” These details, combined with the cold wind and loneliness of the place, add up to a feeling of dread and foreboding. Also the time(s) of day used in this story is reminiscent of other typical ghost stories, it always starts at sunset around the time when it is just getting dark and then the story continues into the night.
As the story mostly takes place at night, there’ll be creepy shadows eerily made by the light of the moon creating a dark and sinister atmosphere. This is an apt setting for a ghost story as it is far away from help (if needed), it is dark with unusual shadows cast from the cutting being unusually deep, the wind would create strange noises with the telegraph wires and the fact its just so bleak like it was always Autumn or winter just gives you a feeling of unease.
The setting is quite enclosed and claustrophobic with no wide-open spaces and certainly no bright sunny days inside this cutting:- so little sunlight ever made its way to this spot” Little features like the deep, dark tunnel and the creepy red light, which makes me, feel as if it was somehow watching me make’s it feel even spookier. The language used by Dickens is suitably old fashioned, which suits it as nowadays the most popular ghost stories were written in the 19th century, the old fashioned Victorian style language is very similar to other books written at around the same time and has become quite a typical feature.
For example “A Christmas Carol”, “The Red Room” and “The Tell Tale Heart” including the signalman all have a similar formal and at times quite complex language but the style is fitting for a ghost story. Here are some examples of the old Victorian language being used throughout “The Signalman. ” When the narrator is calling to the signalman he shouts “Halloa! Below there! “, The Signalman describes the steam from the train as “vapour” The driver of the train which runs down the signalman describes his actions just before the train he was driving killed the signalman:- Ah it was a dreadful time, sir. I never left of calling to him. I put this arm before my eyes not to see, and I waved this arm to the last; but it was no use. ”
And finally after hearing the signalmans state of anguish the narrator tries to decide what to do next:- “Though in a subordinate position, still he held a most important trust, and would I (for instance) like to stake my own life on the chances of his continuing to execute it with precision? ” As you can see, the style of writing is quite complicated and written in the familiar old fashioned Victorian style (who says “halloa” nowadays? but this is standard in ghost stories, even modern day ghost stories use some old fashioned words because it seems to work better. Dickens use of adjectives to create a brooding and supernatural atmosphere is typical of ghost stories, the cutting which is overshadowed by trees leaving little light to shine through is described as a “dungeon” suggesting a claustrophobic and imprisoned atmosphere which is typical of a ghost story. Rarely are ghost stories set in wide sprawling open spaces and this is no exception.
Dickens describes the tunnel (using quite simple adjectives) as having a “gloomy” entrance and the actual tunnel itself being “black” and the signal box as “dismal”. But he then goes onto describe the mouth of the tunnel as described as having “a barbarous, depressing and forbidding air” and then the narrator feels as though he had “left the natural world” like he had entered hell, then he goes on to describe the sounds the wind blowing through the telegraph wires make:- “But do listen for a moment to the wind…. and the wild harp it makes of the telegraph wires”
Language like this adds plenty of atmosphere to this already evil location and gives it a supernatural air. Ghost stories always have plenty of atmosphere (so this is a typical feature) by using language like this the story makes you feel as though you are actually there in this evil setting with all the disturbing features present. Dickens describes the feeling of the train coming as a “violent pulsation” like it was an evil force, you get a real feeling of how noisy and powerful this thundering beast is. Dickens also uses descriptive writing when the narrator’s what its like walking down the steep sides of the cutting:- It was made through a clammy stone, that became oozier and wetter as I went down” Which suggests to me that the closer he gets to the railway line, the more evil and forbidding the location becomes as though you’ve stepping from one world to the next just by going down this steep cutting. The two characters are described very well as the narrator has an all-knowing, confident air.
When thinking of what to do next after listening to the signalmans stories, the narrator thinks to himself:- “I had proved the man to be intelligent, vigilant, painstaking and exact; but how long might it remain so, in his state of mind? The confident narrator uses quite long, complex, fluent sentences as if he knows what he was talking about and is not at all fazed by the ghost stories he had been told and does not even consider the signalmans stories to be true. He stands by the idea that he is right and what he knows what to do next. The narrator says when commenting on his past education says to himself:- “He had run wild, misused his opportunities, gone down and never risen again” Suggesting that he would never rise to the same level as he (the narrator) was on and that it was a shame the signalman had missed his chance.
The narrator seemed to have summed the signalman up before he’d got to know him personally or heard any of his past, like he was judging a book by its cover. The reticent, jumpy, nervous air of the signalman’s conversations puts a message across to me that this man is scared of something. He is described as having an attitude of “expectation and watchfulness,” suggesting that something is going to happen. He speaks in much shorter “bursts” of sentences, no long passive ones here “At the danger light”, “It WAS there”, “No it was silent”. The signalman also shouts to get a point across like he is agitated and on the edge.
It is typical for ghost stories for the confident character to use long and fluent sentences and the nervous victim, to use short sentences because he has a lot on his mind, is distracted and does not have time to think. In the first half of a ghost story words such as “calm” and “confident” are used to describe the thoughts and feelings of the sceptical character. But the end of the story uses words such as “terror” and “horror” used to describe his feelings and thoughts. This is because the sceptical character is not sceptical anymore or confident because he as experienced something terrifying.
This is typical of a ghost story for the words to describe his/her state of mind to change completely by the end of the story. The signalman himself is described as “dark”, “sombre” and with “heavy eyebrows” which reminds me of Scrooge’s appearance in “A Christmas Carol. ” One other typical aspect of ghost stories is there is never any detailed description of the ghost itself at all (if there is one in the story, it may just be a ghostly presence), the story uses suggestion. This is how the signalman describes the ghost:- “and I saw this someone else standing by the red light”
Was the figure dark? Was it a woman or man? All we know from the text was that it was intangible, you have to use your imagination for the rest. This is also typical of ghost stories where you have to use you’re imagination. Conclusion Is “The Signalman” a typical ghost story? I think most of you already knew the answer to this one-of course it is. It has so many of the patented features of ghost stories, the dark, bleak and isolated setting (away from civilisation and help), the spirit appearing one moonlit night, which also means strange shadows.
Then there is the two main characters-one nervous and subdued, one confident and rational. The ghost only appears when the victim’s alone. There is nothing the signalman can do to get rid of the spirit and the ending of the story is typically enigmatic leaving an air of mystery. The list goes on, but the typical elements are what makes it such a good read, without these features it would not be a proper ghost story in my opinion, it would be very hard to write a ghost story without any of these features. Personally I thought “The Signalman” was a brilliant ghost story which really made me shiver.
It’s the little details such as the gloomy red warning light, the way the telegraph wires made a noise when it’s windy and the dark, gloomy tunnel were the factors which were particularly disturbing for me. The fact that it was set in such a lonely place made it all the more scarier, but the surprising twist at the end was probably the best part of the story (where we find out the strange coincidence between the driver, the narrator and the ghost). I prefer stories (such as this) which have a surprising ending, which leaves an air of mystery and makes you think and question the issues in the story, long after you have turned the last page.
Although they are quite different in terms of the actual story, I’d say that “The Signalman” is probably not as accomplished and well-rounded as Dickens’s other story “A Christmas Carol”(“A Christmas Carol” has more of a feel good ending than “The Signalman” which I preferred to this quite sad one). None the less, “The Signalman” is more disturbing and scarier and creates a better atmosphere than “A Christmas Carol” which is an essential part in any ghost story. A brilliant typical ghost story.