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Handout # 3

Quaid-e-Azam Law College Lahore

Instructor: Ms. Iram Farid


Short Story:

The Signal Man


(Charles Dickens)


About Author
Why he selected his title
Brief description of story
Main theme

Authors Background:
Charles John Huffam Dickens ( 7 February 1812 9 June 1870) was an English writer
and social critic. He created some of the world's best-known fictional characters and is
regarded as the greatest novelist of the Victorian era. His works enjoyed unprecedented
popularity during his lifetime and by the twentieth century critics and scholars had
recognised him as a literary genius.

'The Signal-Man' is a story of supernatural powers and of the men who believe and
struggle not to believe in them.
Brief description of Story:
'The Signal-Man' (1866) is a short story by the English writer Charles Dickens (1812-
1870). In the story, a practical-minded narrator meets a railway worker who has been
seeing supernatural visions. The narrator doubts the man at first, but at the story's
conclusion a strange event makes him a believer.

The story has only three principal characters:

The Narrator :

The story doesn't provide a great deal of biographical information about the
narrator, but we know that he is intelligent and friendly and also that he is very

Whenever the signal-man mentions some supernatural detail, the narrator thinks
of a realistic explanation for it.

Skeptical of Signalman

Finds him reasonable as the story progresses

Becomes close- acquaintances (My signalman)

At his death- narrator is mortified and depressed.

The Signal-Man:

The signal-man is a late- to middle-aged individual who works alone in the

narrow gorge.

His age and solitude contribute to the narrator's skepticism (attitude of

questioning and doubt) about his supernatural visions.

Depicted as a sallow man

Then is built up as a literate and educated man

His helpless situation is revealed

His real state of mind is revealed

Past trauma is revealed

The Ghost:

As with many Charles Dickens stories, this one has a ghost. The ghost appears to
the signal-man (and only the signal-man) at the mouth of the tunnel and waves
his arm, as if to warn the signal-man to get out of the way of something.

The entirety of 'The Signal-Man' takes place in a narrow gorge through which
passes a railway line.
At one end of the gorge is a dark tunnel from which trains emerge. Farther up the
line is the hut where the signal-man works. His job is to communicate with other
signal-men up and down the line and to warn the engineers of trains if there's
some danger ahead on the tracks.

Plot Summary:
The story has a simple plot. It opens with the narrator (who for unexplained reasons has
chosen to pay a visit to the signal-man, whom he doesn't know) standing at the edge of
the rail gorge, shouting down to the signal-man in his hut.
Gradually the story progresses by accompanying the actions of the signal man along
with the narrator and ultimately at end we come to know about the tragic death of
signal man.

As Dickenss language is rather obscure for modern eras, the first module is an
adaptation into modern English.

Formal: The writer uses a formal tone in the short story The Signalman
This is clearly apparent in the lines, My good fellow, what should I do there?
The tone is very formal as both, the signalman and narrator refer to each other as
sir. He threw in the word Sir from time to time, and especially when he referred to his
And, but I am troubled, sir, I am troubled.
And, I have made up my mind, sir.

He feels helpless because he knows danger is lurking nearby but does not know what to
do about it.
This is evident in lines His pain of mind was most pitiable to see. I was the mental
torture of a conscientious man, oppressed beyond endurance by an unintelligible
responsibility involving life.
And, An I, Lord help me! A mere poor signalman on this solitary station! Why not
got to somebody with credit to be believed, and power to act.
And also, Some dreadful calamity will happen. It is not to be doubted this third time,
after what has gone before. But surely this is a cruel haunting of me. What can I do?

The atmosphere and the surroundings in short story, The Signalman are predominantly
gloomy, eerie (natural) or depressing. This is evident in descriptions the author has
provided, like comparing the tunnel to a great dungeon( a strong underground prison
; the shorter perspective in the other direction terminating in a gloomy red light , and
the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel.
Phrases like Barbarous, depressing and forbidding air also add to the overall image of
depression and gloom.
Also, Was it necessary for him when on duty always to remain in that channel of damp
air, and could he never rise into the sunshine from between those high stone walls?
The red danger-light:- Red signal light symbolizes danger or warning for red is the
literary colour universally used for death, warning and danger.
The Apparitions:- The apparitions the signalman keeps seeing symbolize human
beings caring and wanting to save each other but are helpless in the face of ones pre-
determined fate
The Train:- The train symbolizes the power of technology and how it has more power
than human beings possess. he was cut down by an engine proves it.
The signalman represents mankind because he wants to help but can do anything to
prevent the inevitable.

An unnamed narrator comes to a deep cutting in the earth, and calls down below to a
signalman whose job is to live in a box-like small house by a railway track and provide a
signal for people on and working a train of its coming, going, and state. He persuades the
signalman to let him come down to his dark place below, and he and the signalman talk.
The signalman is in a bad way: he tells the narrator of an apparition he has seen twice: a
man stands by the track with one hand over his eye and the other waving at a coming
train; each time this vision appears death follows soon. After the first time it was a
ghastly train accident; after the second a young woman died. The signalman is
distraught because he cannot save the person/people. He is lonely, he is educated,
intelligent and has no one to share his thoughts or learning (math, algebra) with. He
once had an opportunity to better himself, but missed out because of private events he
wont go into anymore. The narrator goes off but says he will return on the narrators off
hours again these off-hours are not much use to the narrator as he has ever to be
alert for the bell. His duties to pull the bell are light, yet he is a slave to it. He lives a life
of anxiety. The next time the narrator shows up (next day?) he looks below, seems to see
the apparition himself, hears the train coming, and then rushing below finds the
signalman has died run over.

The main theme of this enigmatic (mysterious)short story is the contrast between
the 'real world' and the 'unreal world.' The theme would be that "truth is stranger
than fiction.
The Signal-Man, Dickens makes supernatural beings interact with real people in
realistic situations to express concerns about human interconnectedness.
Loneliness and social isolation are also prominent features of The Signal-Man.
Love and affection for humainity.

. Loneliness/ Social Isolation

His post was in a solitary and dismal a place as I ever saw.
A mere poor signal man on this solitary station.
he merely saw a man who had been shut up within narrow limits all his life

as I perused the fixed eyes and the saturnine face, that this was a spirit, not a man.
I have never confused the spectres ring with the mans. The ghosts ring is a strange
vibration in the bell that it derives from nothing else.
Technology being the reason of helplessness
As the engine came out the tunnel, his back was towards her, and she cut him down.
I telegraphed both ways. An alarm has been given. Is anything wrong? The answer
came back, both ways, All well.
The main idea of the ambiguous short story 'The Signalman' is the contrast
between the 'Real world ' and the 'Unreal world'.
Another main idea is human beings caring for each other but are helpless in the
face of a persons pre-determined fate. An example of this is the signalmans desire
to help prevent the accident from happening but can not do much
Incompetence of technology is also a main idea. The train stopped 150 yards after
the signalman had motioned for it to stop and in that time the lady had died.
Comment on the themes in the Signalman
How has Dickens built up the atmosphere?
Comment on how tone contributes to the atmosphere.
Discuss the signalman's character.
Discuss the use of symbols and images.
Comment on the themes of suspense and horror.
Comment on the theme of mystery and confusion.
Comment on the theme of social isolation.
How has Dickens portrayed man's desire to help one another?
How has Dickens portrayed the helplessness of man in the face of technology?
Why was the Narrator at the station in the beginning of the story?
Were the apparitions real or not?
How did the signalman die?

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