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The Signalman By Charles Dickens

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  • Pages: 5
  • Word count: 1131
  • Category: Dickens

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The main points in this story are the Signalman himself, the spectre that repeatedly appears to him, to seemingly give a vague indication of impending danger, the strange connection between the narrator’s unspoken words and the spectre’s gestures, and the foretold deaths on the Line. Naturally, Dickens will need to create an appropriate setting.

The Signalman is a ghost story, so for the events in his story, he will need to create a somewhat mystical and eerie feeling, particularly at night when the spectre often appears, and he will need it to have a secluded feeling to give the impression that the Signalman is alone and so has to cope with the spectre and it’s predictions in isolation. This adds to the “ghost story image”.

Dickens starts to set the scene immediately with a reference to the unusual setting, he writes “considering the nature of the ground” which suggests that it is not normal and “the steep cutting nearly over his head” which gives the image of a valley, shadowed by one or more steep banks, helping to portray a feeling of seclusion. Dickens then says “even though his figure was foreshortened and shadowed, down in the deep trench” again giving the image of a lonely and dark situation, and he mentions an “angry sunset” which contrasts the dark valley with a fierce red glow presenting an eerie picture to the narrator.

The sunset also shows that it is evening when the narrator first meets the signalman. Dickens displays the ominous air of the Signalman’s position by referring to the “clammy stone that became oozier and wetter as I went down” and “The cutting was extremely deep and precipitate” depicting a wet, slimy and cold air about it all. Later on in the story, he depicts a dungeon-like area and that it feels as though he has “left the natural world”.

He says “a dripping-wet wall of jagged stone” and “so little sunlight ever found it’s way to this spot, that it had an earthy deadly smell; and so much cold wind rushed through it, that it struck a chill to me, as if I had left the natural world” delineating an image of an unearthly place, frozen, unnerving, haunting and ghastly, the perfect setting for this ghost story.

Dickens describes the Signalman as “a dark sallow man, with a dark beard and rather heavy eyebrows” which makes him out to be sinister looking. Dickens comments, early in the story, on “a singular air of reluctance or compulsion with which he had pointed out the path” and also indicates that, when the narrator asks about the path, “he looked up at me without replying” this suggests that he is diffident and unwilling to let the narrator come any closer and makes him seem a dubious character.

Halloa! Below! ” when this phrase is repeated, it adds emphasis and makes it stand out, almost subconsciously, to the reader. Dickens says “considering the nature of the ground” and “the steep cutting nearly over his head” to set the basics of the scene, an unusual valley. Dickens then uses “foreshortened and shadowed” in describing the Signalman’s figure to initially show that he seems dark and solitary. He then uses alliteration to enforce “down in the deep trench”.

The phrase “angry sunset” is used to add a fiery red light to his dark valley, which is shown with phrases such as “his figure was foreshortened and shadowed”, and again adding an element of mystery because the narrator says “I had shaded my eyes with my hand before I saw him at all” to first of all, introduce the spectre’s gesture, but also to give the impression that the light doesn’t reach the valley, but skims the top and he has to block it out to see into the darkness, and by using the word “angry”, he makes the sunlight seem almost intimidating in itself.

He first plants the idea of the Signalman not being all he seems, in the readers’ minds when he says, as the Signalman looks down the Line, “There was something remarkable in his manner of doing so, though I could not have said, for my life, what. But I know it was remarkable enough to attract my notice” which suggests that he is not entirely normal. When the narrator asks about a path into the valley, he says the signalman “looked up at me without replying” here, he seems to be somewhat preoccupied and maybe wary of him.

Dickens uses the phrase “skimming away over the landscape”, which sounds ghostly, to describe the vapour given off by the train. The path down into the valley is described as “extremely deep, and unusually precipitate. It was made through a clammy stone that got oozier and wetter as I went down” which proposes a wet and muddy place as well as dark, which makes it seem more dismal.

Dickens then comments on the Signalman’s earlier behaviour “singular air of reluctance or compulsion with which he had pointed out the path” which suggests that he is apprehensive and unwilling to let the narrator come any closer. Dickens uses repetition to reinforce the word dark in his sentence “a dark sallow man, with a dark beard and rather heavy eyebrows” which accents the mysterious and sinister first impression of his character.

Dickens compares the valley with a “great dungeon” which makes it seem even more desolate and unearthly, and then goes on to say “solitary and dismal place as ever I saw” and “a dripping-wet wall of jagged stone”. This all gives the valley gloomier, lonelier and more depressing feel, then to reinstate this, he says “in whose massive architecture”, making the reader think, most likely of a castle and dungeon or an immense and daunting building, “there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air.

So little sunlight ever found it’s way to this spot, that it had an earthy deadly smell; and so much cold wind rushed through it, that it struck a chill to me, as if I had left the natural world” this again give is an unearthly, solitary and altogether haunting location, which Dickens adds to by saying “This was a lonesome post to occupy” and “a visitor was a rarity”.

At later points in the story, Dickens returns to this idea and comments on the Signalman’s responsibilities but lack of actual physical work, and because he has so much responsibility, and the spectre’s predictions are so vague, he is almost driven to insanity by the helplessness he feels, which is accented by the loneliness and solitude of his station. In conclusion, it is a multitude of factors, which amount to the ghostly setting of the story, each element important in one way or another. Everything from the wording of the speech and description of the valley, to the colour of the signalman’s uniform.

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