Everyone knows Charles Dickens. People are familiar with his novels Great Expectations, David Copperfield and a Tale of Two Cities – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . .” They remember the extraordinary characters he brought to life: Ebenezer Scrooge, Miss Havisham, Pip, the Artful Dodger, Estella, Uriah Heep, Fagin, Jacob Marley, Tiny Tim and many others. All who’ve read his work know he sympathized with the poor and that he harshly criticized the English institutions that failed them or oppressed them with, as George Orwell wrote, “a ferocity that has never been approached.” A few are familiar with his plays. And virtually every literate English-speaking person has read, or had read to them, A Christmas Carol. Those who haven’t will have seen it at the theater or on television. So, everyone knows that Dickens wrote at least one fantastic ghost story.
A far smaller number realizes that he wrote many other chilling stories. Though Dickens was skeptical of ghostly tales, he nevertheless loved to share them. John Forster, Dickens’ friend and biographer, wrote that “[a]mong his good things should not be omitted his telling of a ghost story. He had something of a hankering after them . . . .” A few years ago, the British Library created an exhibit about Dickens’ interest in otherworldly stories which, according to the Telegraph, “deftly demonstrate[d] how Dickens stimulated Victorian interest in the supernatural even as he sought rational explanations for it.”
To be sure, not all of Dickens’ spirits were as benevolent as those he conjured up in A Christmas Carol. In The Signal-Man, a railway worker also receives three visions, but they ultimately portend disaster, rather than redemption.
On its surface, this is a story about a lonely man that is oppressed by foreboding visions of doom. One of those visions seems particularly personal. In the hands of a master like Dickens, that’s material from which many chilling moments can be manufactured. To be sure, there are genuinely spooky episodes in the story. But close attention reveals something deeper – an affecting allegory about the consequences of misspent youth and opportunity. Of course, I can’t be certain that Dickens intended this interpretation of The Signal-Man. But it arises so naturally from the story, that I think he must have had something like it in mind.
“Halloa! Below there!” At the story’s outset, we learn the Signal-Man endures life within the depths of a physical space that is dark, cold and confined. The narrator first notices him standing within a railroad cutting that is “extremely deep, and unusually precipitate.” It was, the narrator tells us, “[A]s solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw.” And, at the end of this gloomy trench is the still “gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air.”
Obviously, this is an ideal setting for a story about phantoms, but I believe it’s also a metaphor for Signal-Man’s place in life. It is, as Dickens tells us, his “lonely post” where, the narrator speculates, a visitor must have been a “rarity.” Indeed, the Signal-Man concedes that “long and lonely hours” had become the “routine of his life.” That routine is dominated by his duties to the railroad and the pursuit of hobbies that consume his remaining time without contributing to his advancement.
So, how did the Signal-Man end up utterly alone and marooned in this bleak place? Dickens tells us that he had received a good education. “[B]ut he had run wild, misused his opportunities, gone down, and never risen again.” This is why the cutting is so deep and cold. This is why he spends long, solitary, and often sunless days within a cramped “box.” And this is why each day he stares with fearful apprehension into the black depths of the tunnel from which his terrible fate ultimately will emerge. These are the fruits of squandered youth and opportunity. Thus the setting is not merely physical; it’s also social and profoundly psychological. When the narrator tells us the Signal-Man appears “foreshortened and shadowed, down in the deep trench,” we see the individual’s life and his psyche, not merely his body.
Further metaphorical phrases reveal the extent of the psychological damage the man has suffered. The narrator asks, “Was it necessary for him . . . always to remain in that channel of damp air, and could he never rise into the sunshine from between those high stone walls?” These Signal-Man responds that “he did choose occasions for getting a little above these lower shadows; but . . . the relief was less than I would suppose.”
So, why does the strange vision repeatedly appear to a man that apparently has no power to prevent impending disaster? “Lord help me!” he cries, “A mere poor signal-man on this solitary station! Why not go to somebody with credit to be believed, and power to act?” Here we find the lesson I believe Dickens intended to teach. Had the Signal-Man applied himself during his youth, or even during his maturity, he might have fulfilled his potential and thereby avoided personal disaster. In other words, he could have had “power to act” had he chosen to develop it.
In a revealing moment, the Signal-Man tells the narrator “that what troubles [him] so dreadfully is the question, What does the spectre mean?” I believe Dickens meant this to be a question for his readers. And by now we know that the phantom’s call “Halloa! Below there! Look out!” is both a rebuke to those who thoughtlessly squandered opportunities and a warning of impending punishment. Nothing about this interpretation of The Signal-Man detracts from it’s power to chill readers. In fact, I think it makes the story more meaningful and consequently more haunting.
For more about Dickens’ gothic fiction, check out Historic UK.