Comparison of the Signalman by Charles Dickens and the Red Room by Hg Wells

Topics: Writer

The following sample essay compares The Signalman by Charles Dickens and The Red Room by H. G. Wells. Read the introduction, body and conclusion of the essay, scroll down.

For my essay I am going to compare ‘The Signal-Man’ by Charles Dickens (1866) and ‘The Red Room’ by H. G Wells (1896). I am going to look at how the writers have crafted their language and structure to produce a growing sense of tension and intrigue. Herbert George Wells was born on September 21st 1866, in Bromley, Kent.

He was educated at the Normal School of Science in London. He worked as a draper’s apprentice, bookkeeper, tutor, and journalist then in 1885 he became a full-time writer. H. G Wells is best known for his science fiction novels, which often depict the triumphs of technology and also the horrors of 20th century warfare.

He also wrote closely about his own experiences and ordeals. Wells died at the age of 80 years, on August 13th, 1946, in London.

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born on February 7th, 1812, in Portsmouth, but spent most of his life in London and Kent. He started school at the age of nine, but soon was removed to support his family when his father was imprisoned for debt. Dickens was humiliated by this, and in one of his novels almost completely re-told the story in ‘David Copperfield’ (1849-1850). He later returned to school, but he was mostly self-educated.

He had worked in a shoe-polishing factory as a boy; later on he worked as a legal clerk, a reporter at Parliament and then for his uncle’s publication ‘The Mirror of Parliament’.

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He also worked for another publication called ‘The Morning Chronicle’. Through this he managed to get his works published. He became hugely popular. Dickens died on June 9th, 1870 and was buried in Westminster Abbey. These two writers have a substantial time gap in writing terms. Wells is at the time when modernism is just about to appear, whereas Dickens is in the middle of the more traditional ways of writing.

He was a leading figure in Victorian realism. Dickens offers a more formal and traditional style, whereas Wells was just starting to bend them. At the time of Dickens there would not have been the excitement and fear of the new discoveries in science that was around in Wells’ time. This gave Wells a new type of horror to write about. Both writers lived near or were born in the Kent area. Their surroundings and maybe even experiences would have been very similar. These experiences often appeared in both writers works.

Each of their publications reflected past experiences and places that they had seen; although they are very far apart, the way in which they gathered information is very similar. “The Red Room” is set at Lorraine castle. The first person narrator is a middle-aged man who is investigating claims of a spectre in a certain room in the castle. Three elderly “custodians” warn him of going to the room. He ignores their cautionary words and ventures up “the draughty subterranean passage”. A frightening event happens within the room and the man is knocked unconscious.

He wakes the following morning to find the elderly people “watching” him. He has found “there is no ghost there at all” but something that we cannot control: the fears of fear itself. “The Signal-Man” is set about a “extremely deep” railway cutting in the countryside. A rambler, who is the first person narrator, comes across the cutting and finds there to be a signalman working there. They talk on and off for two nights, and to the rambler’s surprise learns that the signalman has been seeing a spectre. Each time the signalman sees the spectre an accident occurs soon after.

The signalman also tells the rambler that he has recently seen the spectre, and that it was doing a certain action. The following day the rambler finds that the “Signalman (was) killed this morning”. Although the ghost story has been around since the earliest times it came into it’s own in the latter half of the 19th century when new events were occurring such as breakthroughs in science and the disintegration of religion. Charles Darwin’s theory on evolution was changing the way in which people saw their religion; they were starting to question it more.

People were afraid of the far-reaching scientists who may go too far. A writer named Mary Shelley played on this particular fear, she created “Dr. Frankenstein” in which a scientist collects body parts and injects life into the dead limbs, so the creature lives. This links to the gothic novel in ways such as the setting, being dark and foreboding. Uncertainty was all around, people feared what they did not understand. They did not want the change that would come with these new findings. So the writers of the time played on these fears and concerns.

They explored the depths of the human psyche, which was inspired by Sigmund Freud who was just beginning to explore the mind in the late 19th century. His work prepared the ground for the breakthroughs in psychology that would contribute towards modernism. The writers were trying to get a story that would affect many people. These stories were also an escape from the harsh life of Victorian Britain. The settings of Victorian ghost stories are often a remote castle or graveyard in a wild and foreboding landscape, with night approaching or with darkness already there.

These settings have their roots in gothic novels; the traditions have simply been carried on. Quite often the victim of the story was a solitary person. In “The Red Room” the twenty-eight year old man stands in the first room with “deep-toned, old-fashioned furniture”. There is also a “queer mirror which abbreviates, broadens and makes the onlooker more sturdy” on the opposite wall, suggesting distortion to the onlooker. The presumed housekeepers’ room is warm but also has an air of age and malice to it. The door to the room is large and “Baize covered” this hints at a large holding.

The passageway is “chilly, echoing, long, draughty, subterranean and dusty” this is building tension because of the darkness and isolation that the passageway holds. The only light that is in the passageway is by candlelight, which casts “vivid black shadows” across the walls. This creates atmosphere and tension by giving the man moving, creeping shadows to walk through, “the shadows cower and quiver” and the he has no idea of what is just out of sight. When he reaches the “large sombre room” it has corners and alcoves filled with “germinating darkness”.

The darkness of parts of the room suggests that something may be hiding there, “That odd suggestion of a lurking, living thing”. Wells uses personification here to make the room alive and more frightening, suggesting that at any moment anything could appear and confront the man. Giving the whole castle suggestions of an insidious presence. The room has a “perfect stillness” which usually suggests that something is imminent, like the calm before the storm. This adds to the growing tension by making the reader have an expectation of what will happen.

The actual name of the room the red room suggests that something has happened there before, a murder perhaps due to the red part of the name which points to blood. When the candles begin to extinguish the room turns darker and more foreboding. After the man had knocked himself unconscious he woke to the daylight, now the reader knows that nothing will happen. The daylight makes everything reveal itself; things that were there in the darkness have disappeared. The daylight diminishes the mind’s questions and its panic, since it can see everything nothing can harm you.

The mind no longer runs away with itself in thoughts of the worst-case scenarios. The settings of “The Red Room” are very much the stereotypical gothic Victorian ghost story, the castle with the old and dusty furniture. The opening parts to “The Signal-Man” occur at sunset, when everything is nearing dark. This is indicative of an event happening in the near future. The cutting is surrounded by countryside, so if there were a problem you could not get help.

In “The Signal-Man” the railway cutting is very intimidating. The cutting was extremely deep” as if the rambler is going into a different world, “it struck a chill to me, as if I had left the natural world”. The only sign that the real world was still there was “a strip of sky”. The tunnel is “massive, barbarous, depressing and has a forbidding air” it is a very secluded and threatening place to be. The entrance to the tunnel has a “gloomy red light” and with the “great dungeon” behind it, it almost suggests that it leads to hell. The red light is suggestive of the flames and the tunnel, the darkness of hell.

The cutting kills all good thought and provokes depression and misery with its “solitary and dismal” depths. The small hut, which has a fire, is much more welcoming than the environment around it. Over the two nights they talk they always meet and talk at night. This is done so that the reader thinks that something may happen, which the two men cannot see since it is just out of sight. The final day occurs during sunlight, this conveys to the reader that nothing will happen, giving the reader a false sense of security.

The setting of the story is much is line with the typical gothic Victorian ghost story. But the railway cutting is different from the usual castle setting yet they still share the isolation and concealment from the world. “The Red Room” and “The Signal-Man” have similarities and differences. One thing they have in common is that both settings are dark, cold and intimidating, but “The Red Room” is more in line with the traditional ghost genre than “The Signal-man” is, since it has the typical castle and only a single character.

Each story has its own tunnel or passageway, creating mystery and tension; they pose such questions as what is in the tunnel/passageway? What is at the end of the tunnel/passageway? Both stories end with daylight, creating a ‘safer’ atmosphere in the reader’s mind. They each use the daylight to deceive the reader into thinking nothing will happen, then the writers surprise them with their twists in the ending. If the writers had ended their stories at night then the readers would have anticipated the ending, giving no surprise or shock to the reader.

The Red Room” has four characters, with one being the main character. The three elderly “custodians” who appear at the beginning and at the end of the story add suspense and set the scene. The way Wells uses the word “custodians” to describe the three elderly people is unusual because, apart from meaning that they are the caretakers of the castle, it may also imply that they hold all the keys. Custodian also suggests a prison guard, keeper or guardian; this could say that the castle is a sort of prison that men and women have died in, and that the young man is unlikely to get out either.

The first elderly man is not described in much detail, but what Wells has said about him is that he has a “withered arm” and has a “positive dislike” for the second elderly man. The woman with her “pale eyes wide open” sat “staring hard into the fire” as if she was looking for something. She sways “her head slowly from side to side” displaying an unstable, maybe even mad mind. She mumbles more to herself than to anyone in the room (“This night of all nights”), this adds to the tension and even warns the man that something will happen.

She may have even seen the event that happens later in the story. Which so disturbed her that she has turned into the state she is in currently. The third superannuated man is “more bent, more wrinkled, more aged even than the first” he adds a slight touch of antediluvian and evil to the room. With his “small, bright, inflamed red eyes” and his “lower lip, half-averted, hung pale and pink from his decaying yellow teeth”. His eyes seem to be permanently in shadow and his health appears to be failing, “he began to cough and splutter”.

When the young man leaves the room he looks back to find them “all close together, dark against the firelight, staring at me over their shoulders, with an intent expression upon their ancient faces”. This to me is quite a haunting image, the three of them together, almost like they are plotting against the him. Wells explains more about them collectively than he does individually: ” they seemed to belong to another age, an older age an age when omens and ghosts beyond denying. Their very existence was spectral”.

This increases tension by adding mystery, and commenting that they were very “spectral” may point to the reality that they were in fact the ghosts that inhabited the castle, “fashions born in dead brains”. “The human qualities seem to drop from the old people insensibly day by day” this quote says that the elderly people’s life seeps and ebbs away continually, and that there appearances are no longer human. The narrator is “eight and twenty years” and tries to keep himself “at a matter-of-fact phase” but fails when the “oddness of these three old pensioner’s” affects him in his spirit.

He is able to return to his former state of mind soon after “with an effort I sent such thoughts to the right-about”, but he then faces a dark and unsettling journey. When he reaches the corridor he stops abruptly because he has “the impression of someone crouching to waylay me” his nerves are such that he mistakes a person for a Ganymede and Eagle (a statue). When the narrator enters the room his mind is starting to fill with thoughts of previous events that had occurred in the room, events that will not help his nerves “The great red room of Lorraine Castle, in which the young duke had died”.

To make himself more comfortable of his surroundings, the young man “Began to walk about the room, peering round each article of furniture” to make sure nothing or no one was there that could harm him. He also makes sure “of the fastening of the door” to reassure himself that nothing could get-in. To reassure himself even more he “had pulled up a chintz-covered armchair and a table, to form a kind of barricade and on this lay my revolver ready to hand”. His state of mind is obviously not good, since to go to the lengths of putting a revolver in front of him ‘just in case’ is a huge overreaction.

He must believe that something was in the room; otherwise he would not take such precautions to protect himself. His mind is overreacting to the shadows and deep recesses of the room, his mind is panicking him, not the room. He knows this and states, “I was in a state of considerable nervous tension, although to my reason there was no adequate cause for the condition”. To rid himself of the shadows, he decides to bring in more candles from the corridor, seventeen in all. These were so arranged that not an inch of darkness was showing to make the man nervous. Snuffing the candles gives him a job that keeps his mind occupied.

Just after midnight the candle in an alcove went out “by Jove that draught’s a strong one” the man said to himself, comforting himself with the sound of his voice. Then consecutively, each candle seemingly extinguished itself, at the same time the narrator is “almost frantic with horror of the coming darkness”. “My self-possession deserted me” his mind can no longer retain his self-control. When the last flames distinguished the darkness “crushed the last vestiges of reason from my brain” he then tries “in a vain effort to thrust that ponderous blackness away from me”.

He then remembers the moonlit corridor just outside the door. “And with my head bowed and my arms over my face, made a run for the door”, but unfortunately he forgets the exact position of the door and strikes himself heavily on a piece of furniture. At this point his mind is in a complete state of panic, he continued to batter himself against the bulky furniture until a heavy blow on the forehead ends his blind hysteria. When he awakes the next morning his mind was much clearer and calmed.

He now realises that he had seen and thought things that were not there, “fear that will not bear with reason that deafens and darkens and overwhelms. It followed me through the corridor, it fought against me in the room”. A famous quote made by an American president fits very well into the experience of the narrator, “there is nothing to fear, except fear itself”. The room held nothing but shadows; it was fear that made the man run after the diminishing light. “The Signal-Man” has one narrator and another main character, there are also three men introduced towards the end.

When the signalman is first addressed, he seems to ignore it and “turned himself about and looked down the line” instead of looking at the rambler above him. The signalman is “a dark sallow man, with a dark beard and rather heavy eyebrows” there is a use of repetition here to get the point of the man’s ‘darkness’ across. The first conversation the signalman and the rambler hold, is stiff and uncertain. At one point when the rambler turns he “detected in his eyes some latent fear of me” when questioned upon this the signalman asks whether or not the rambler has ever been to the red light.

He answers no and then the signalman’s manner clears. The signalman has “enough responsibility to bear; but exactness and watchfulness were required of him” he cares deeply about his work and it weighs heavily upon him. The rambler also learns that the signalman is “remarkably exact and vigilant” and is the most appropriate man for the position. Every time the electric bell rang he would break of the conversation and would not speak until all the work had been done. The signalman broke off speaking twice “turned his face towards the little bell when it did not ring” he would then look towards the red light.

When he returned, he had an “inexplicable air upon him”, so whatever he had seen had either frightened him or made him worried about something. The signalman also speaks of something troubling him, but would not disclose it until their next meeting. This may have been so that the signalman could find the right way to tell the rambler. When the men were outside, the signalman asked “when you come tomorrow night, don’t call out” a very mysterious question to ask. It may mean that he did not want to be frightened the way he had that evening.

The signalman discloses what he has been seeing the next night; he is obviously not afraid of the spectre but is afraid of what will happen after it has gone. He still has his rational thought and mind, even though the rambler suggests otherwise, but is proved correct the next morning. The rambler is a very mysterious character, we are never told what he looks like, or what he is wearing, we are only told of his thoughts and actions. To be able to suggest that the signalman was “a spirit, not a man” may show that he has some belief in the supernatural.

When he is told of the signalman’s sights he tries to stop “the slow touch of a frozen finger tracing out my spine” so is a little frightened by this but immediately comes up with a more probable explanation “the figure must be a deception of his sense of sight”. When he was informed of the first accident that occurred soon after the seeing, “a disagreeable shudder crept over me” he comforted himself by saying “remarkable coincidences did continually occur”. But when told of the second accident his “mouth was very dry” and he could “think of nothing to say” these “coincidences” had affected him.

When told of the ringing bell that did not ring he regained his composure, he took the signalman to the door to prove that it was not there. Once they resumed their seats the rambler began to think that it was the man himself that was the problem. “It was mental torture of a conscientious man, oppressed beyond endurance by an unintelligible responsibility involving life” the rambler believes the signalman; even though he precise in his work should be discharged from working otherwise he will brake under the pressure.

He does state when he has left the hut that he does “not like the red light Nor, did I like the two sequences of the accident” this shows he is still human but just does not believe the proceeding events. The following day when he is walking he experiences “nameless horror” at the sight of a man by the red light, but to his relief finds it to be just a man. In going down to investigate the tarpaulin he learns of the signal mans death, and the words in which the signalman and himself had repeated, “I said, below there! Look out! Look out! For God’s sake clear the way! were last things said to the signalman.

He now knows that the signalman was correct but paid a high price. In both stories the writers withhold all characters’ names, this adds mystery and a touch of the unknown to the stories. It makes the reader wonder about who they really are, if they’re good or not, whether they’ve just been released from prison “a man who had been shut-up within narrow limits” or are have genuine intentions. It makes the reader unsure of whom to trust, so they come into the story with an open mind instead of just trusting their narrator.

When I first read the sentence from “The Signal Man” (above quote) I thought that it might have been the narrator who was the ghost, because the “narrow limits” could also be portrayed as a coffin, in which he had just been released. Each story describes the other characters more than the main one, but the writers keep description to the minimum. The main characters in both stories are male; this may be because they were considered more trustworthy and reliable than their female counterparts who would make the stories less believable.

I think that the young man in “The Red Room” is the most believable character out of all of them; Well’s displays his thoughts very vividly so you can almost feel what he is going through. “The Red Room” is written in the first person, this gives the reader the thoughts of the young man as he goes through the story. It conveys his fears, which the reader can relate to, giving the reader a sense of being there as it happens. A disadvantage to writing in the first person is that the reader knows the young man will survive the stay in the red room. The Red Room” opens in the middle of a conversation, putting the reader immediately in story. Tension would be present from the start due to the young man saying, “it will take a very tangible ghost to frighten me” this gives the reader a hint at what the story will be about. The elderly man also invites intrigue when stating that “it is your own choosing” making the presumed trip sound dangerous which heightens the tension. When the third man comes in, chilling descriptions are used to add even more tension, “red eyes” from under shade.

When the young man journeys through the passageway tension is built by his frightened thoughts “someone crouching to waylay me”. There is a ‘trough’ in the tension when he realises it is only a statue, he then feels calmer and controls his thoughts. The reader then thinks nothing will happen for a while. When he enters the room it is dark and shadowy, tension builds with his thoughts about the “remoter darkness of the place” things that could hurt him are just of sight. The revolver is there to heighten the tension; it does this by making the reader think it is going to be used, the reader expects it.

He solves his problems by bringing in candles that abolish the penumbra and dark corners. This settles his nerves and his mind; the reader then perceives that since there is light and cheeriness in the room nothing will happen, this is where there is a ‘trough’ in the tension. Then just after midnight tension rockets with the disappearing light, his actions are wild and frantic. But the tension then drops when he knocks himself out and wakes up to daylight. Nothing can happen to him in daylight. The explanation of fear depending upon the reader may cause the tension to rise or fall.

Wells uses tension to create a ‘roller coaster ride’ for the reader, one moment the reader expects nothing to happen but then it does. “I entered, closed the door behind me at once, turned the key I found in the lock within, stood with the candle held aloft, surveying the scene of the my vigil, the great red room of Lorraine Castle, in which the young duke had died” this extended sentence is there to make it sound as if the man is doing the actions, going through the paces of entering, locking the door and turning around.

This displays his minds thoughts, which are quick and short, showing unease. “The Signal Man” is also written in the first person, this enables the reader to have an insight into the narrator’s thoughts. The story opens to dialogue, putting the reader straight into the story. The reticence of the signalman to tell the rambler how to get down is suspicious and adds suspense. There is a tension between the two men when they first meet, this will also add to the suspense.

After they have finished talking and the rambler is about to leave the signalman says “I am troubled t is very difficult to impart if you make me another visit, I will try to tell you” this adds tension by making the reader wonder what is troubling the signalman. There is a ‘trough’ in the tension when the rambler leaves the signalman, but the next night there is jump in tension because the signalman is waiting for the rambler when he returns the following night. The thing that was troubling the signalman is disclosed to the rambler, the tension would rise quickly. But the narrator is doubtful and leaves some hours later, the tension would fall again.

The following evening when the rambler is walking he sees a man by the red light, thinking that it is the spectre he experiences a moment of “Nameless horror” this would relate back to the reader, increasing the tension radically. The tension would then fall, because the narrator sees it is only a man, but then sees the tarpaulin. The tension would ‘go through the roof’ when the rambler finds that the signalman is dead and what the signalman had said to him the night before came true. Dickens creates tension and then dissipates it to make the reader unsure of what will happen next, which engages the reader and entices them to read on further.

Both writers use short sentences to convey actions at a time of nervousness. Each writer makes use of the troughs and peaks of tension in their story. Making sure the reader cannot tell what will happen next. “The Red Room” is dynamic and upbeat because the storyline introduces new thoughts and actions often, whereas “The Signal Man” is slower and more stagnant because most of the story is concentrated on the conversations between the two men. The stories are written in the first person giving the reader a first hand view of what is happening.

This enables the emotions of the narrator to get across easily to the reader, making the story more real. Both stories were written in 19th century, so the language is slightly archaic, “atavistic… apoplexy”. The archaic language adds tension to the writing by giving it an old air, which is appropriate for the ghost story. “The Red Room” uses a lot of figurative language, mainly personification to create images in the readers’ mind, giving them a different way to ‘see’ the story. The reader can relate to it more if they can see a picture than just words.

The use of figurative language starts when he is in the passageway. The shadows cower and quiver” this is a good use of personification; it makes the shadows move like they were alive. “Cower and quiver” are actions that something does when they are scared, so if the shadows are scared then it does not bode well for the young man. “A shadow came sweeping up after me” and “one fled before me into the darkness” are both quotes of personification, the shadows move quickly and alarmingly about the man. Lifting the tension because there is almost a point of no return for the man, since they are behind him as well as in front, this also gives the reader a taster of things to come.

On one page there are three metaphors, “germinating darkness” this makes the darkness like an infestation that spreads quickly about the room, it could also mean that the darkness vegetates in his mind making it larger and darker than it really is. “My candle was a little tongue of light in its vastness” making the room huge and the darkness overwhelming, the candle is not enough to explore all of it’s hidden depths. “And left an ocean of mystery”, the ocean means a vastness, endlessness of mystery, with nothing moving or making a sound. But his mind is still full with thoughts.

It is the stillness that is frightening, the stillness is not right to his mind; things should be moving or making a sound, but are not. The candles in the room are “cheery” and “reassuring” but after midnight the “Black shadows sprang back”, personification is used here to create the effect of a rapid and sudden darkness that fell upon the room. The fear of the man is portrayed in mostly personification, such as “the shadows I feared and fought against returned, and crept in upon me” a lot of tension is added with the word “crept” it suggests a quiet and slow advance of the shadows, that would prolong his ‘nightmare’.

Like a ragged storm cloud sweeping out the stars” is a fantastic simile, it conjures a great storm raging above in my mind. The images of the storm blocking the starlight are great, they are perfect comparisons to the darkness and light. The extended piece of figurative language towards the ending, “darkness closed upon me like the shutting of an eye, wrapped about me in a stifling embrace, sealed my vision, and crushed the last vestiges of reason from my brain” reflects the sheer panic and terror the man is going through. The writer has used similes and personification throughout the sentence.

The first few words of the line describe how quickly the darkness came, the shutting of the eye may indicate death and now that he is in total dark he will not get out alive. Darkness wrapping about him means that the blackness is total and all around, the stifling embrace of the darkness about the man means that it holds him tightly and will not let him go. Crushing the last vestiges from his brain indicates that he has lost complete control of his thought, his mind is thinking on it’s own and not producing any good thoughts. The writing is long and dynamic, which is a reflection on how fast and how out of control his thoughts are.

This reveals the narrator’s mind and body are out of control. The penultimate paragraph describes the man’s “black fear” as an extended piece of personification, “followed me lurks creeps follow deafens”. This amount of personification is needed to reinforce the idea that fear is a human attribute that we make, not a room or house. The very last line is cryptic “there is fear in that room and there will be- so long as this house of sin endures” the reader then asks themselves a number of questions. What has happened to the room/house to make it sinful?

How has the sin of the house made people fear that particular room? This ending makes the story unfinished, as a reader this is annoying, but it also makes the story more sinister and malign. Dickens uses more literal language to craft his narrative. Although he does make use of figurative language it is far less apparent than his application of literal language. His descriptions of the environment and character’s are very controlled and precise. He relies heavily upon the choice of noun, verb, adverb and adjective to craft his vivid imagery.

The narrative shows that Dickens is a Realist writer since it is precise and exact. The description of the cutting has adjectival imagery littered throughout, such adjectives as “angry deep violent deadly”. These are negative adjectives implying darkness and evil. They get a clear message across that the cutting has a malicious air. The tension of the story is done almost completely on the use of adjectives. Adjectives set the tone for the story; they also add tension and darker tones to it.

Dickens uses adjectival images throughout the story, some include “daunted damp arbarous monstrous” these continue to keep the story sombre and morose. The use of figurative language is limited to just a few instances, one being an “angry sunset” personification is used to give the atmosphere an even more menacing air. This story was written in 1866, the writing is very cynical maybe the rambler thoughts were the writer’s own. This was a time when people were starting not to believe ghosts and the supernatural.

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Comparison of the Signalman by Charles Dickens and the Red Room by Hg Wells. (2017, Oct 14). Retrieved from

Comparison of the Signalman by Charles Dickens and the Red Room by Hg Wells
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