Analysis of Charles Dickens’ The Signal Man

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In his short story, The Signal Man, Charles Dickens creates an interaction between people and supernatural beings in real situations to depict concerns on the interconnectedness between people. The Signal Man is a short pessimistic story with a sad ending. In the story, a ghostly phantasm is either belatedly informing or warning a watcher who appears to be helpless of lethal tragedies. In the 19th century fiction, technological progress and anxiety was often symbolized by the coming of the railway. This meant obliteration of the traditional way of living and replacing it with detached systems of technology.

The anxiety is evident in the short story when tragedies occur regardless of the carefully put in place measures to ensure safety. Dickens puts emphasis on the caution taken by the signalman on his duty in sticking to routine and being constantly watchful. However, the safety means deployed are still ineffective in preventing people from dying on the railway. In this way, the train is depicted to overpower the schemes of its inventors.

This paper outlines a literary analysis of Charles Dickens’s The Signal Man. The narrator in this story is unknown but is assumed to be of high class compared to the signalman. This can be seen when the signalman calls him “sir” (Dickens, n.d). The beginning of the story is in the first person and in direct speech as seen when the narrator says, “Helloa below there!” The importance of direct speech use can be seen in the later stages of the story. Dickens’s use of direct speech helps him avoid describing the narrator, how he feels and his surroundings.

The first-person narrative device helps create an atmosphere of suspense and anonymity. It is through this technique that the reader is persuaded to think about the narrative by asking themselves questions such as who the narrator is, why he is speaking and who he is talking to. In this short story, Charles Dickens effectively uses literary devices to create an uncertain mood and a disconcerting sense of loneliness, powerlessness and dislocation. By means of personification and imagery, Dickens gives an account of when the narrator first saw the signalman.

From his vintage perspective, the narrator remarks that when he looks underneath, the signalman appears “foreshortened and shadowed” (Dickens, n.d). The storyteller is at a place above the signalman who he says stands in the “glow of an angry sunset” (Dickens, n.d). The ascription of anger, a person’s quality to the setting sun creates a sense of presence of paranormal powers in the setting. The narrator thinks about the signalman’s “air of reluctance or compulsion with which he had pointed out the path…His attitude was one of such expectation and watchfulness” (Dickens, n.d). This is an instance of Dickens depiction of mood. The use of visual imagery is also evident when the narrator arrives level with the signalman.

In the process of arriving, the narrator comes upon the “dark sallow man”(Dickens, n.d) and realizes that the signalman’s post is a bleak place. In the narrators description of the signalman’s post, we can see the use of both aural and visual imagery when he says “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…This was a lonesome post” (Dickens, n.d). The account of the signalman’s post as a great dungeon is another instance of imagery use which creates the sense of loneliness and an atmosphere of despair (Mengel,1983).

The atmosphere of powerlessness is created in the description of the ghost seen by the signalman, this is evident when he says, “For God’s sake clear the way…Below there! Look out! It stands waving to me. It rings my little bell” (Dickens, n.d). The signalman’s vision is similarly used to foreshadow the happenings of the future in short story. The presentiments of the signalman together with his inability to prevent tragedies shows how powerless people are against the advancement of technology of which the train is a symbol (Mengel,1983).

The author also makes use of various literary techniques to emphasize the main themes and develop suspense as the narrative grows. This can be seen through Dickens’s exploitation of perspective. Looking at the title of the story, one may presume the narrative will be narrated from the perspective of the signalman. However, the author uses the perspective of a visitor to narrate the tale. It is from the viewpoint of the narrator that we pick up everything we have on the signalman. In this way, Dickens creates a mysterious character in the signalman and thus creating suspense as the story continues to develop (Mengel, 1983).

The mysterious character of the signalman is further deepened when the author uses language. The use of imagery transmutes the signalman’s surroundings, into a type of surrounding that is other worldly and mysterious. This is developed by use of words such as “gloomy,” “trench” and “dungeon” (Dickens, n.d). We can also see the narrator feeling as if he is not in the “natural world” when he describe the place as “wetter” and “oozier” which is also effective in developing the sense that the place is mysterious. Dickens also exploits foreshadowing to develop suspense in the narrative.

This can be seen when the narrator says, “Just then there came a vague vibration in the earth and air, quickly changing into a violent pulsation, and an oncoming rush that caused me to start back, as though it had force to draw me down” (Dickens, n.d). This could appear like just an account of the train passing, however, it being in the narrative gives the impression that something momentous and important is almost happening (Emerson, 2015). Later in the story we learn that when the signalman and the narrator first meet their meeting signifies the demise of the signalman. A careful analysis of the words used by Dickens, can help make some relevant observations.

The writer makes use of capital letters for instance “did NOT ring” (Dickens, n.d) to create more emphasis on that negative to highlight a tragedy or strange occurrence. At first the entrance of the tunnel was just referred to as “the entrance” but it turns into a “mouth” which signals an anthropomorphic personification of the tunnel which turns out to be the mouth of a type of “monster” which underscores the mystery in the story (Emerson, 2015). Dickens has effectively used the various literary techniques in his short story. These devices include imagery, personification, foreshadowing, direct speech, and perspective to create mystery and uncertainty and communicate his main themes in the story.


  1. Dickens, C. (n.d.). The Signal Man. Retrieved 2018, from http://www.englishlibrary.org/stories_signalman.html
  2. Dickens C. (n.d) The Signal Man. http://www.englishlibrary.org/
  3. Emerson, M. (2015). The Significance of Gothic Symbols and Elements in Dickens’ Short Story The Signal-Man: A Literary Analysis of the Liminal Space between Gothic Dichotomies. GRIN Verlag.
  4. Mengel, E. (1983). The Structure and Meaning of Dickens’s’ The Signalman’. Studies in Short Fiction, 20(4), 271.

Cite this paper

Analysis of Charles Dickens’ The Signal Man. (2021, Jul 30). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/analysis-of-charles-dickens-the-signal-man/



What is the main idea of the signalman?
The main idea of the signalman is that a person's imagination can cause them to see things that are not really there.
What is the signal man by Charles Dickens about?
The Signal-Man is a short story by Dickens about a signal-man who is haunted by a figure who appears before accidents happen on the railway. The signal-man is unable to prevent the accidents from happening, and is driven mad by the ghost.
Why did Charles Dickens write the signalman?
Charles Dickens was interested in the supernatural and the paranormal, and he wanted to explore this topic in his writing. The Signalman is a short story about a man who is haunted by a ghost, and it is one of Dickens' most famous works.
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