The Signalman by Charles Dickens, 1866

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by Charles Dickens, 1866

Some 20 years before the publication of "Mugby Junction" and the story known as "The Signalman" (the author's own title for the story, "No. 1 Branch-Line," was dropped), Charles Dickens had become the first writer to capture the railway age for the creative imagination. In Dombey and Son the railways had been exciting, their rapid movement a symptom of an exuberant, forward-looking age. Afterward, in most of his major works Dickens reverted to the coach age, as if Dombey and Son had contained everything he wished to say about railways. When he eventually returned to the topic in "The Signalman," the contrast with his earlier treatment was marked. Sinister silence replaces the bustle and clatter, and solitude broods where gregariousness reigned; in place of the bright light of the sun, we have the faint light of the stars and the feeble red lamp that marks the entrance to the tunnel. Like so many ghost stories, this one is set at night. By the 1860s, of course, railways had acquired that tedious familiarity we associate with old novelties, like satellites and space travel today.

There is a pervasive downward movement; the narrator has a long and difficult climb down to reach the signalman, who is himself a man of education who has come down in the world. He is contrasted strongly here in general character and spirits with the cheerful, uneducated Lamps in the other parts of "Mugby Junction." Although we are told that he goes off duty and returns, the impression given is almost as if the signal box is his prison, and both the narrator and the trains running up and down the line are like visitors to a cell.

Dickens, more than other novelists, stresses and analyzes work; it is characteristic that the signalman does not rest in his horror of the spectral visitant but instead wants to know what it means. He is anxious about its effect on his duties; he is able to control his fear in the interests of his responsibility. His pain of mind is most pitiable to see. It is the mental torture of a conscientious man, oppressed beyond endurance by an unintelligible responsibility involving life.

His perplexity about what sort of alarm he shall give, what sort of danger to report, is convincing; and it functions excellently as the link between the uncanny and the normal, which represents the main technical problem in all ghost stories with a realistic rather than fantastic setting. If he reports danger but can give no facts, no details, he will not only be disbelieved but also may arouse suspicions about his reliability or even his sanity. Dickens's unequaled power of description of urban settings, which makes his London streets and Coketown in Hard Times so memorable, is used here to intensify the impression of dull, depressed, yet dutiful life: "On either side, a dripping-wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky; the perspective one way only a crooked prolongation of this great dungeon; the shorter perspective in the other direction terminating in a gloomy red light, and the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air."

The story's structure depends on the simple phrase "below there," which so neatly combines colloquial familiarity with a shadowy suggestiveness. The three occasions on which it is used mark the beginning, middle, and end of the story. The narrator uses it by accident and then finds that the same words are reported by the signalman as those of the spectral visitor. Finally, the words are used by the engine driver in warning the signalman to save himself by getting off the line. The ghostly gesture of putting the arm before the eyes is repeated by the driver, who cannot bear to look at the death his train will cause. Here lies the story's main ingenuity. There are many ghost stories in which a ghost repeats words that have before been uttered by the living. Here a living man is mistaken by the signalman for a ghost because he repeats ghostly words that have been heard before. Thus, at the end we have in very small compass a stark opposition of points of view: the driver's humane horror at being the innocent cause of death; the signalman's inability to react to obvious danger because earlier experience has made him unable to grasp that the oncoming train and driver are solidly real.

The idea of combining the inventions of the new industrial society with a ghost story is peculiarly Dickensian. Whereas the gothic novelists had generally associated the preternatural with far countries and distant ages, so that the strangeness of an esoteric setting should seem to vouch for strangeness of event, Dickens takes the opposite course. His ghost is enmeshed in the new, the prosaic, and the familiar. While we are reading, we suspend our disbelief in the transformation of our ordinary world into a place of hidden terrors.

This helps to maintain the continuity in Dickens's work between the specialized world of the ghost story and the plentiful inventions of his work in general, just as the descriptive passages about the railway line would be acceptable in a perfectly realistic narrative. Indeed, we may well feel a greater truth to life in this preternatural story than in some examples of the other aspects of his Christmas spirit, the sentimental. If so, the reason is clear; in the latter human motives and characters may be simplified or distorted. In this story, once granted the original donee, the feelings are real. We can imagine people we know acting as the signalman and the narrator do.

"Mugby Junction" was no doubt intended to be read as a whole; Dickens's annual Christmas story had long been an institution. The reader who absorbed at the same time the honest cheerfulness of Lamps and his daughter, the somberness of "The Signalman," and the comic indignation of the attack on English catering methods in the refreshment room would be able to admire once again the versatility of the great entertainer who was also the master craftsman.

—A. O. J. Cockshut