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“The Signal-Man” is a gothic short story published in 1866 by English author Charles Dickens. It was one of several stories included in the Mugsy Junction collection in the Christmas edition of the periodical All the Year Round. The story revolves around the titular “signal man” (so named because his primary duty is to signal trains with lamps, lights, and flags, as well as to communicate via telegraph with fellow signal men) and his desperate attempts to interpret and act on the warnings of a seeming ghost on the track. The terror of the story lies in the railway man’s ignorance of how to act on these omens and thus ensure the safety of those for whom he is responsible, which tortures him. The story explores themes of The Burden of Responsibility, The Supernatural and the Limits of Human Understanding, and Communication, Connection, and (Social) Mobility.
“The Signal-Man” has inspired numerous television and radio adaptations. In 1953, Boris Karloff and Alan Webb starred in a TV version for the famous American franchise Suspense, which also aired a radio version. The BBC has adapted the story several times, most recently in December 2022. It has also recently been adapted for the podcast Shadows at the Door and for a Hindi radio drama in India. This study guide refers to Project Gutenberg’s e-book Three Ghost Stories by Charles Dickens, transcribed from the 1894 Chapman and Hall edition of “Christmas Stories” by David Price.
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The story begins with the unnamed narrator calling out “Halloa! Below there!” into a railway cutting (a channel often excavated at the entry to tunnels) to the unnamed signal man below (312). The signal man does not look up at the narrator but instead looks into the train tunnel, which the narrator finds strange. Nevertheless, the signal man invites the narrator below to the bottom of the cutting from which he works. The narrator descends a treacherous zigzag path cut into the stone walls and speaks with the signal man in his “box”: a small office that contains a desk and fireplace. The signal man explains that he wasted his academic opportunities and so must be content with his current position. The post, as the narrator describes it, does not require much physical labor but carries significant responsibility, as the signal man’s job is to ensure the safety of all on the track.
The signal man impresses the narrator as extremely conscientious and attentive to his duties. The narrator notices, however, that he is repeatedly distracted by the telegraphic electric bell; he glances at it with concern as they talk, which is odd because the narrator does not hear it ring. At the end of this conversation, the signal man reveals that he is “troubled” and that his trouble “is very, very difficult to speak of” (315). If the narrator comes back another time, though, he will try to tell him. The narrator insists that he will return the following day, and the signal man asks him not to call out to him again when he returns.
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As promised, the narrator returns the next evening and does not call out. During this second visit, the signal man reveals the specifics of his “troubles.” He explains that over the last year he has repeatedly seen a ghost at the red danger light near the rail tunnel. The first time the ghost appeared, it held its left hand across its face with the right hand waving frantically, calling out in a “hoarse” voice, “Halloa! Below there!” (the same words the narrator yelled in greeting the day before), then “Look out! Look out!,” and again “Halloa! Below there! Look out!” (316). The signal man ran into the tunnel toward the ghost, but it disappeared, and he could find no traces of it after thoroughly searching the area. He telegraphed that he had received an alarm, but the response was “All well” from both directions. Six hours later, however, what he calls “the memorable accident” occurred on the line (317), with people being both wounded and killed.
The signal man explains that he afterward did not see the ghost for six or seven months and “had recovered from the surprise and shock” (317). Then one morning he saw the ghost again near the red light. This time the figure appeared to be in mourning; later that same day the signal man noticed a scene of “confusion” in one of the carriages as the train passed by, and he called for the train to stop. He ran after the train as the brakes were applied but found he was too late: “A beautiful young lady had died instantaneously in one of the compartments, and was brought in here, and laid down on this floor between us” (318).
The signal man explains that the ghost has once again come back and for the last week has been at the red danger light sporadically. This has left the signal man in a state of torment: “I have no peace or rest for it. It calls to me, for many minutes together, in an agonised manner, ‘Below there! Look out! Look out!’ It stands waving to me. It rings my little bell—” (318). The signal man does not know how to prevent the suffering that, judging by the last two incidents, is imminent.
Although he does not share the signal man’s belief in a ghost, the narrator decides to help him, as he feels responsibility toward both the signal man and the train passengers. He decides that he must immediately calm the signal man’s mind and, longer term, find and accompany the railroad man to the best medical expertise available. They plan to meet the next day.
The narrator returns the third day and initially thinks he sees the ghost. However, the figure is actually an engine driver, Tom, standing over the body of the signal man, who has just been “cut down” and killed on the track. Tom is demonstrating the various warnings he gave the signal man to the small congregation gathered around the body. Tom explains that the signal man did not respond at all to the train whistle, so he instead started to yell, “Below there! Look out! Look out! For God’s sake, clear the way!” (321), covering his eyes so as not to see the signal man killed but continuing to wave his other arm in futile warning. The narrator notes the “coincidence” of the similarity between Tom’s gestures and verbal warnings and those of the ghost (as well as the words he himself imagined Tom saying before learning the particulars).
By Charles Dickens