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“The Signalman”, “The Red Room” and “The Pit and the Pendulum”

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‘The Signalman’, ‘The Red Room’ and ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ are all Victorian short stories and were all written in the nineteenth century. When these stories were written, there always seemed something mysterious and disturbing going on at the time. In 1843 there were links to Darwin’s theory to evolution, this theory doubted religion and caused people to question their beliefs, this was the year that ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ was written making it the oldest out of the three stories. Second came Charles Dickens’s ‘The Signalman’ which was written in 1866, at this period of time Britain moved from an agricultural economy to a progressive and technological one, which made people uncertain about the future. Finally in 1896, ‘The Red Room’ was written by H.G Wells, it was only written fours before the turn of the century, at this time people had speculations that there was going to be an apocalypse and there was fin-de-siecle angst. In this essay I will be comparing and exploring the different atmospheres and setting in these three stories. I will be looking at four main parts of the stories, the narrators, the openings, the settings and the endings of all three stories.

Looking at the three stories, you notice that they are all written in a first person narrative. This makes the stories more personalized but also makes the reader doubt how reliable the stories really are, because the reader only gets one person’s perspective of the whole story. The narrators are all anonymous and have no name or identity; all the narrators are placed in different situations and are all very different, but share the subjective mode of narration.

Firstly, the narrator in ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ is anonymous, meaning we do not know is name or his age, or anything significant about him. The narrator in the story is not religious and he is blamed for crimes that occurred connecting a rebellion against religion. From the beginning of the story the narrator lets the reader know that he is in pain and that he is suffering, “I was sick-sick unto death with that long agony” although this could mean that the narrator could be physically or even mentally sick. This could make the reader doubt the reliability of the story, because we are not sure if the narrator is in the right state of mind. Throughout the opening the narrator drops hints that make the reader wonder of how reliable the story really is. “I had swooned; but still will not say that all my consciousness was lost” this could again suggest that the narrator is deluded and deranged, existing in a twilight state.

Secondly, the narrator in ‘The Signalman’ is also left mysterious and unknown as we also learn no information about him. The narrator in ‘The Signalman’ comes across as a compassionate man who is intrigued by the signalman. When the narrator and the signalman first meet, the signalman is cold towards the narrator, but even then the narrator still comes back, proving that he cares about the signalman. The narrator respects the signalman “His pain of mind was most pitiable to see. It was the mental torture of a conscientious man, oppressed beyond endurance by an unintelligible responsibility involving life.” This suggests that the narrator is sympathetic towards the signalman, stating that the narrator is caring and logical. However, at the end of the story when the signalman has died, the narrator also has been left tormented and a little unstable “Which I myself-not he- had attached, and that only in my mind, to be gesticulation he had limited.” This quote shows how the narrator goes from being logical to unstable and how the signalman changes the narrator as a persona.

Lastly, the narrator in ‘The Red Room’ is a man aged 28 and he has to enter a room which is said to be haunted by some kind of spirit. The narrator is assured, he is determined to enter the room ad he will not be frightened by anyone, even when the man with the withered arm tells the narrator “I said -it’s your own choosing”, but the narrator seems careless of this and responds by saying, “It’s my own choosing”, the narrator seems very arrogant and sure about what he wants to do, also the fact that he’s not scared about the rumours and the allegations about the room shows his confidence.

As he enters the room, he examines it very calmly and logically, as he is ignoring any possibility that there could be any ghosts or any kind of spirits lurking around the room. But as time goes on, his mind starts to play tricks on him and paranoia takes over. “I was in a state of considerate nervous-tension, although to my reason there was no adequate reason for the condition” At this point the narrator knows he was unstable but he cannot identify why, this shows that his confidence is slipping and he is slowly sliding into turmoil. And by the end of the story the narrator is left just a broken shell of the man he was at the beginning. He went mad in the room, showing the unstable state of his mind, and yet again this suggests that the story is unreliable as we are given the perspective of an unhinged mind.

The opening of a story is very important because that is the part that captures the reader’s interest and encourages them to read on. The openings of the three short stories are all very different but they all ensure that the reader will continue reading the story by arresting the reader with a startling opening.

The opening of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ is rather chilling and suggests extreme anguish. The first sentence reads “I was sick-sick unto death with that long agony” showing that the story is about someone who is in great pain and torment. The narrator then goes on by telling the reader about all the things that he is seeing and hearing “the sound of inquisitorial voices seemed merged in one dreamy indeterminate hum.” And “I saw the lips of the black-robed judges.” These quotes suggest that this person is deluded and mentally challenged. The narrator even struggles to recall what has happened “Amid frequent and thoughtful endeavours to remember” stating that the narrator has completely lost control of his memory and his mind placing doubts in the minds of readers.

The opening of the ‘The Signalman’ starts with the narrator shouting “Hallo! Below there.” This clearly states that there is someone shouting at a stranger that is somewhere below and they are looking down on them. The story opens in a ‘dark trench’ this setting makes it all more frightening and mysterious, makes it seem like all the surroundings are quiet and dark, putting the reader on edge immediately. Charles Dickens also smartly uses the words “angry sunset” as a metaphor for the cold and unwelcoming atmosphere both of the characters create. When the narrator tries to verbally communicate with the signalman, the signalman just raises his hand, “Not even then removing his eyes from mine, he stepped back one step, and lifted his hand” This means that the signalman made no verbal communication but he continued to stare at the narrator. This creates tension as the readers do not know what is going to happen next and they can sense the enmity and hostility.

The opening of ‘The Red Room’ is pretty predictable, “The long, draughty subterranean passage was chilly and dusty, and my candle flared ad made the shadows cower and quiver. The echoes rang up and down the spiral staircase” This opening is very descriptive of the surroundings as they often tend to be in haunted mansion stories. The way that the narrator has described the house is a very typical environment for a haunted place. In the opening the readers are introduced to three old characters that live in the mansion. Even the way these characters are described goes with the whole scary setting. As the narrator describes one of them as “the man with the withered arm” which makes him sound scary and frightening, he also describes one of them as “pale eyes wide open” which makes them sound very ghostly and haunted. This shows the contrast between these three old cripples and the narrator who is a young man aged 28 and the caricatures of Gothic literature are explored without irony- they are stereotypes.

The setting is a very important aspect of these stories, this is because all three stories have a scary, mysterious type of atmosphere, and in these kind of stories it is important to have an enigmatic setting. The setting is different in all three stories, but adds to the air of disturbing and distressing events.

‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ is set in a chamber of torture. “I saw clearly the doom which had been prepared for me, and congratulated myself upon the timely accident by which I had escaped;” This quote shows that the place is primarily concerned with death and destruction but he is managing to survive past all that. He is tied up, and he notices a huge pendulum and he knows that this pendulum could kill him. Not as if this all is bad enough, he is the attacked by “enormous rats” that “come in troupes” and that have “ravenous eyes”, knowing that the rats could start feeding themselves on his flesh, adds that extra tension and danger that the narrator is in. He then becomes very paranoid and is in great fear that the pendulum is going to attack him. He describes the pendulum as “that of a razor.” He then goes in to destruction and he starts to believe that death is all around him but it’s not taking him. The narrator then becomes completely unstable and allows the rats to eat him alive in hope that he will be free from this torture “They withered upon my throat; their cold lips sought my own…plainly I perceived the loosening of the bandage. I knew that in more than one place it must be already severed” This states that he is being tortured at this time, this creates tension because the readers would be very tense reading that the narrator is allowing rats feeding on him, yet again we are unclear as to whether this is real or imaginary, the hallucinations of a deluded individual.

‘The Signalman’ is set on a railway track; the reader knows that this kind of area would be lonely, dark, isolated and creepy. “His post was in as solitary and dismal place as ever I saw. On ether side, a dripping wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky” This quotation describes the place as very damp, and enclosed, it’s dark and there is only one little bit of day light allowed in. He then describes the railway as “great dungeon” and “black tunnel” and that it has “barbarous, depressing and forbidding air” these descriptions of the railway create that extra gloomy and claustrophobic atmosphere. “There was the dismal mouth of the tunnel” this personifies the tunnel, saying that the mouth of the tunnel is sad and a place of enclosed melancholy.

Lastly, the setting in ‘The Red Room’ is spooky and creepy, I think as it should be when talking about a haunted mansion, even when you look at the title ‘The Red Room’ the colour red resembles blood, pain and evil. “Looking around the large sombre room, with its shadowy window bays, its recesses and alcoves, one could well understand the legends that had sprouted in the black corners” He describes the room being very mysterious, creepy and ghostly, saying that the room does look like it would have been haunted. Also when the narrator is walking to the room he hears noises which add that extra tense and frightening atmosphere. Also the fact that he is trapped in the room could portray that he is trapped in his own mind, he also says “I have a vague memory of battering myself thus…of a cramped struggle” he is recalling having to have struggled in the room because of the space, suggesting claustrophobia and enclosure driving someone mad through the terror of imprisonment.

The ending of a story usually summarises the story, answering all the question. But its different when it comes to these three stories because the endings do not give you any answers, they make you ask even more questions, but as the stories have ended the questions that you ask become rhetorical and lead you to frustrating confusion instead of conclusions.

The ending of ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ from the narrator’s perspective ends in the general saving him “As outstretched arm caught my own as I fell, fainting, into the abyss. It was that of General Lassalle” The fact that he was rescued by a general from a torture chamber is very doubtful, which is why the reader is not sure whether to trust the narrator at this point in time. It just seems more psychological, more like he is on the verge of dying a slow and tortured death, he has been tortured and he is paranoid and I think that he has hallucinated an arm coming to save him. So although it seems like a closed ending it would still leave the reader asking questions.

The ending of ‘The Signalman’ is also left unsolved; the narrator is left broken and tormented. The readers are left unsure if the narrator was on actual person or just some kind of spirit. “Not only the words which the unfortunate signalman had repeated to me as haunting him, but also the words which I myself-not he- had attached, and that only in my mind, to the gesticulation he had imitated” it’s like he was a part of the signalman. Overall there was no closure at the end of this story and no apparent solution for the narrator who is left in limbo.

Finally, in the ending of ‘The Red Room’ the narrator is left destroyed and emotionally scarred. When the narrator comes out of the room he is left traumatised by his experience “The worst of all the things that haunt poor mortal man… and that is, in the nakedness- Fear! Fear that will not have light that deafens and darkens and overwhelms. It follows me through the corridor, it fought against me in the room.” Here he is saying that there were no ghosts and no spirits, the thing that destroyed him in the room was just plain and simple psychological fear. Although another character in the story disagrees “A power of darkness. To put such a curse upon a woman!” He is saying what it must be a ghost or a spirit that haunts the room. Overall in the end the ending does not give the reader closure, because all the questions are left unanswered and we have two competing and conflicting interpretations.

To conclude, ‘The Red Room’, ‘The signalman’ and ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ are Victorian stories that are similar in many ways, for one they are all written in the first person and characters all experience delusion and depression. Two stories revolve around death in the end and one in mental breakdown, and all three stories are psychological, exploring how a person’s mind can play tricks on you, and leave you in turmoil, yet as readers we never know for sure what has gone on which is an excellent metaphor for the doubts, anxieties and confusion seen in the Victorian era.

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