The Signalman by Charles Dickens

The Signalman - Charles DickensIn The Signalman by Charles Dickens we have the theme of uncertainty, fear, isolation, madness, trust and respect. Narrated in the first person by an unnamed narrator it becomes clear to the reader after reading the story that Dickens may be exploring the theme of uncertainty. The narrator unlike the signalman does not believe in ghosts or spectres. He appears to be more level headed and looks for a rational reason for the signalman’s sightings. Though he can see that the signalman is frightened or fearful of the appearances he has seen. It is as though he cannot logically process them in his mind or give them reason which would help him to understand what he has seen. All that is known is that the signalman believes he is seeing a spectre or ghost and he cannot be persuaded by the narrator that there is nothing to see. That perhaps the signalman’s imagination is running wild or that the night is playing a trick on his mind. However what is certain is that the signalman is afraid and it may not help that while he is working he is isolated for long hours. Leaving time for his mind to play tricks on him. The setting of the story may also contribute to the hallucinations that the signalman sees. He has no natural light in his hut which would be not only unhealthy but would lead to the signalman’s mind again playing tricks on him.

It is also possible that Dickens is suggesting that the signalman though he has had opportunities in the past to improve his life. The reality is that his life is in as much darkness as his job. For one reason or another the signalman has had very little luck in life and may have already been tortured in his mind prior to starting work as a signalman. This sense of torture along with the isolation and the hallucinations are also unhealthy for the signalman. Not only does he have hallucinations but he also believes that the bell on the hut rings when the narrator himself can’t hear it. If anything some critics might suggest that the signalman is descending into madness. The trigger being the failures of his past and his present circumstances. The signalman only has his own thoughts to occupy his mind and those thoughts may or may not be rational.

There is also some symbolism in the story which may be important. The story is set at night time, in the dark, which in many ways mirrors what happens the signalman. Also the signalman’s hut is at the bottom of an embankment. It is at a lower level to the path that runs along it. It is possible that Dickens is symbolically suggesting that the signalman’s hut represents the deeper or lower depths of the mind where things are uncertain and can’t be easily figured out. The suspicion that the signalman has with the narrator may also be significant as it suggests that he is not only suspicious of who the narrator may be but that there is something else playing on the signalman’s mind (spectre). It is as though the signalman does not know whether or not he can trust either himself or the narrator. The continued use of the red lights in the story also lead the reader to think that something of an unkind nature is going to happen. Which it does. The signalman is killed by the train. It is as though the red lights act as foreshadowing to danger.

The end of the story is also interesting as Dickens leads the reader into believing that there will be an affable resolution to the story. That by bringing the signalman to the doctor all will be well. However in the space of a few lines the reader discovers that all is not well. The signalman has been killed while possibly chasing the spectre or at least thinking that he has seen the spectre again. What is also interesting about the signalman’s death is the narrator’s reaction. Although he only briefly knew the signalman he liked him and was attached to him. He was even prepared to go out of his way and get the signalman the medical help that the thought the signalman might need. For a brief moment in time two people sitting in a damp and dark hut shared their presence with one another and at the same time appeared to respect one another though they did not know each other. At no stage in the story did the narrator belittle the signalman or his story. He listened as a friend would listen and went out of his way to ensure that the signalman got some medical help. Where others would have viewed the signalman as being mad the narrator did not. He never inappropriately judged the signalman. He took him for his word and likewise the signalman learnt to trust the narrator. Though unfortunately it was too late for the signalman to get the help he needed.

Cite Post
McManus, Dermot. "The Signalman by Charles Dickens." The Sitting Bee. The Sitting Bee, 25 Dec. 2017. Web.


  • Thank you so much Dermot.

  • Thank you for such help.

  • Can one theme of the story also be the contrast between the supernatural and rational world? Also, does the narrator believe the signalman’s story? Because all the time he was just suggesting scientific explanations and at the end he was even going to bring a doctor? Pls reply ASAP I have an exam today!

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      I think you could be right with regard to the supernatural versus the rational. The narrator is trying to be rational but he can’t really be sure what is happening. As to whether the narrator believes the signalman’s story. I’m not sure. He does as you suggest rely on scientific evidence.

  • For the first time ,I knew that Dickens wrote any short story. I really liked this story and shocked for a while.I remember a cabin man who discharged his duties all alone nights. Today all cabins are abandoned. They remind us of haunted places. Accidents still occur. I think a man possessed with supernatural / occult disturbances can’t think reasonably. The end of the story is quite startling and shocking. I spent a whole night in the dark, cloudy rainy season in the precinct of a graveyard all alone in 1997, but could not see an apparition except a cat. Mosquitoes bit me. Could not take a nap, a flux of thoughts and memories filled my mind. Setting of eerie and spooky atmosphere takes hold of our fiery fancy and sensitive mind.

    • Dermot (Post Author)

      Thanks for that insight Sachin. It is a great story that many people are able to make a connection with.

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