How Dickens creates mystery and suspense in his short story the signalman
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The theme of the story may have been influenced by Dickens’s own involvement in the Staple Hurst rail crash on the 9th of June 1865. While passing over a viaduct in Kent, the train on which he was traveling jumped a gap in the line, causing the central and rear carriages to fall onto the riverbed below. Dickens was in the only first-class carriage to survive. His short story was then published as part of the “Mugby Junction” collection in the 1866 Christmas edition of ‘All the Year Round’ a weekly literary magazine founded and owned by Dickens.
Trains had not been around for a long time when Dickens wrote the short story therefore they were a generally scary thing; The title of the story is simple yet makes us wonder into what could happen, as the public trains were fairly new, not many people knew what a Signalman was or his job, therefore the title sparks immediate interest. Dickens’ tone of voice is simple yet low, keeping the atmosphere dark throughout the story.
He doesn’t simplify actions too much, he includes little details in smaller descriptions to ensure that the reader has taken in important or relevant information to make you think about things, for example… he touched me on the arm with his forefinger twice or thrice, giving a ghastly nod each time… ” he could’ve just said that he touched him and nodded, but instead goes into depth of how many times the Signalman touched the narrator on the arm and describes it as ghastly. This description keeps the atmosphere and tension alive and makes us think deeper of the Signalman’s actions. Another example is “glancing over his shoulder with hollow eyes”, adding little details of attitude or aspect to keep our attention focused and to show us what the character may be feeling or thinking using body language.
This line shows us that the Signalman is weary and almost skittish as a result of the recent events. The story starts with immediate dialogue in which the narrator calls down to the Signalman; this helps us to remember the words as they are important to the story as it progresses. The next few sentences spark interest as Dickens describes the Signalman’s attitude upon hearing the call, rather than looking up at the narrator, he looks down the line. Questions are generated instantly from this action, “why does he not look up? ” “Is there something there? these keep the reader engaged as they want to know the answers to the questions they have generated themselves.
The atmosphere at this point has thickened and Dickens continues to contribute to this by pushing the reader into a paragraph full of fast paced descriptions like “Violent Pulsation” and “Rapid train”. These Descriptions start off subtle, not telling the reader what is happening, letting us figure out for ourselves what is happening. The word Violent makes us think of something harmful or dangerous while pulsation gives us a vivid image of a heart beating fast, this description makes us imagine what could be happening.
Other words like Rush, force and rapid gets the paragraph and sentences moving faster and gives the whole section a sense of danger. The rapid atmosphere is then calmed again with words like skimmed and landscape as the train finally passes. Dickens describes the tunnel and surrounding area in greater detail when the narrator reaches this point. His words are much darker now, for example heavy, solitary, dismal, jagged, excluded, dungeon, gloomy, black, barbarous, depressing, forbidding and deadly. All these examples help to change the atmosphere to a dark and cold setting.
The Signalman’s attitude is from the start mysterious and confusing, he does not answer back to the narrator’s call, only points to a place where the narrator can reach him. When face to face, both men ironically think of each other as the spectre, but both relax when they confirm that neither are spirits. The Signalman’s attitude is dark and solemn towards the narrator, talking in a low voice and observing him with a kind of dread, this unsettles the narrator mildly but they soon learn not to fear each other.
The Signalman tells the narrator that he thinks he has seen him before at the red danger light; this is confusing to both the narrator and the readers, adding to the air of mystery and adding to the important information that needs to be stored for later on. The setting then changes to a warmer atmosphere when we enter the Signalman’s box, we learn much of his education and his work and we are shown that he is just a normal, well educated man who knew his job well. The mysterious atmosphere is absent for a while, while they talk about his job and related topics, but the atmosphere returns when the Signalman admits to being troubled.
The Signalman and narrator agree to meet again the next day to discuss his troubles, this makes the reader want to read on as they too would like to know what was going on and would like answers to their questions. The Signalman leaves the narrator asking why he called out in the way that he did, this is unusual and makes us ask ourselves why he would do that, it also focuses our attention on the first few paragraphs in which the narrator calls to the Signalman, this reminds us to keep our eyes open for anything concerning that greeting as it must be important.
The Signalman also requests that the narrator should not call out when returning; this is also unusual, giving the same effect as the Signalman’s first comment. The Signalman and narrator meet again as planned the following night and the Signalman straight away starts to explain the events of the day before. He explains why he looked at the narrator in dread by telling the narrator “I took you for someone else yesterday evening. ” and yet does not explain why he would be looking at said person in dread, this answers questions but creates more, and this keeps the reader engaged and the atmosphere constant.
The Signalman starts to describe to us why he is troubled, this is the point of the story that really engages the reader as it gets more exciting and interesting. The Signalman tells the narrator that he believes he is seeing spectres, this is very important to the story and this point gets the story going into full flow. There are three sightings in all, two of which are followed by an accident of some sort which is exciting to the reader and also frightening as death is introduced to the story, adding to the mysterious, scary atmosphere.
The story’s ending brings all our questions and gathered information to an end. The narrator discovers that the Signalman has been cut down by a train and is horrified to see the various men gathered at the scene making the same movements and actions as the Signalman had told him, he is also frightened that his own words were included in the Signalman’s death, used by the driver of the train to warn the Signalman.
In my opinion this ending is fantastic as we discover that the ghost where not just ghosts, but images of the Signalman’s own death. The ending is abrupt and unexpected which leaves the atmosphere dark and mysterious even when finished reading. I enjoyed the story thoroughly and would proudly call it a favourite as it takes the reader by surprise and uses brilliant techniques such as variation and change of verbs and the shock factor to keep the atmosphere and tension alive.