‘The Signalman’ by Charles Dickens tells a ghostly story, set in the Victorian era, which pictures a relationship between two men of different social classes – middle and upper class. The signalman is far less educated than the narrator; therefore, the narrator is much more real and analytical than he is. The Signalman explains his experience of the supernatural, a popular theme in Victorian Literature, and ironically it is the Signalman himself who suffers from the narrator’s lack of belief.
Dickens employs a first person narrator to shape out reactions and thoughts, this is showed in the text, and I quote: “I cannot describe the thrill that seized upon me” and “Resisting the slow touch of a frozen finger tracing out my spine”. This last statement provokes fear in the Victorian reader, as it is written in the first person it makes the feeling more personal, horrific and intense. It makes the story more ghostly as it was us living that fear. The use of personification here also brings life to the fear, turning it into a tangible experience with the power to hurt and possibly destroy.
The author uses pathetic fallacy to good effect, an example for these statement is: “He who often passed along winters nights there alone and watching,” , “On either, a dripping-wet wall of jagged stone…” . Pathetic fallacy is used here to suggest the environment as a living part of the action and atmosphere – that is what Dickens does – he uses the cold night to create fear. He takes advantage of the environment to make the story mysterious and frightening, to create a creepy scenario: “…that become oozier and wetter as I went down”. The imagery of the cold, wet, dank stone sets a scene of unhealthy dark places, the perfect setting for a ghost to appear. Again, this would be a scenario with which the Victorians would be familiar in numerous industrial areas full of death and disease.
At the end, the story has a twist in the tail as it says “Signalman was killed this morning, sir”. It is a twist in the tail because readers weren’t expecting that to happen. We weren’t expecting that the main character would die, so it was a shock to all who read the story. Furthermore, the fact that when the signalman died, the man who drove the engine told the signalman to clear the way saying – “Below there! Look out! For god’s sake, clear the way!” waving his hand, the same thing the spectre told the signalman when he saw him, cleverly links all aspects of the story. It was the spectre who was warning the Signalman of his own impending doom, only tragically, the message was lost.
Overall, the main point is that the story raises doubts about the after life, fate and free will. Where will we go after dead? Can we decide our fate? Is there any life after being gone? These were some questions that tormented the Victorians. The whole story has supernatural presences and deadly ideas. No Victorian knew if they would become ghosts or even whether ghosts existed, however that’s what Charles Dickens suggested. All this doubts provoke fear on the Victorians. The story will also provoke fear to the Victorian as it has a tragic ending, as it keeps them thinking “Will I end up the same way?”