Dickens’ The Signalman must be one of the most enigmatic stories ever written and although students may find it difficult, they often come to recognise the art of its slipperiness! Heated debates can ensue as to who is actually haunting whom in the tale. It is a dramatically compelling way to show students the power of ambiguity in a narrative and makes students really look at a text to find the place(s) where it ‘means’ what it seems to signify.
As I have just suggested, this story tantalizes as it slips away from the reader’s grasp at ‘truth’. For where is ‘truth’ in this story? Should we believe the fears of the lonely, isolated signalman who believes he is being haunted by a figure of nemesis, foretellling death and destruction? Or should we view such terrible, repetitions of horror as the symptoms of a sick dis-eased mind, and cling to the rational observations of the unnamed narrator and visitor to the signalman’s solitary world? Who should we trust in this fallen world with its palpably fallen words?
My son is studying this text for his English Literature GCSE and I am very grateful to have a reason to reread this text which refuses to declare its full significance and which evades our ability to locate and name ‘truth’.
My first assumption centred around a dislike of the narrator who seemed a rather malignant interloper into the crypt-like world of the melancholy signalman. The narrator’s words ironically mirror those of the signalman’s nemesis and it seemed quite possible to this reader that the narrator IS the nemesis without perhaps even realising this in any conscious or direct way.
I do wonder too at Dickens’ superb ability to explore the tension between repetition and coincidence, and the ambivalence of coincidence when it becomes symbolically retranslated by an unnerved mind, as fate.
Lives are riddled by patterns(and our desire to discern and recognise patterns) and in this story the bemused and bedevilled signalman finds the revisitations of both nemesis and narrator so unsettling that it seems he chooses to embrace the certainty of literal extinction rather than the mentally destabilising uncertainty of progressive mental terror.
The Signalman, as the story’s title insinuates, explores the lonely predicament of a railway worker whose daily rituals are primarily concerned with safety. His literal ‘signals’ avert death. Yet the story’s dramatic irony reveals the strange ‘signals’ that the story’s protagonist appears to be receiving from a source unknown; a revenant perhaps or just the misunderstood manifestations of a very lonely mind?
The opening of the story of the story seems odd and unsettling and I love the disorientating feel of the setting. Where is the narrator and where is the signalman? And how are these geographical positions crucial to our understanding of the story and even its possible resolution? For the dark, deep crypt-like situation of the signalman with the damp, gloomy aspect is suggestive of hell, of a ‘fallen’ post Edenic world. Such a setting is mirrored by the feverish quality of the signalman’s words, who attaches a disturbing fatalism to the actions and utterances of the haunting figure. If Dickens did rightly ( from direct experience of a railway crash) attach considerable danger to Victorian Industrialisation and railway system, then the sinister, monstruous appearance of the steam train hurtling out of its dark, tunnel-lair fulfils many Freudian nightmares as well as contrasting the inhuman and mechanistic against the malleable and human.
The powerful irony of the first utterance of the tale, encapsulates the dilemna and problem of the tale. Who is ‘down there’ and why is such an utterance shared between several figures, all contributing inevitably to the destruction of the signalman himself? who has been lowered into this pit by circumstance and social failure).
I love the playfulness of the title. What are signals after all? Can a signal exist without an audience and even without a translator? And is it merely a sign of the signalman’s mental disorientation that he seeks the origin of the voice in the tunnel or is it in fact a gesture more revealing of the narrator’s sinister duplicity? In other words, who can we trust to tell us where the origin of truth lies?! Everything in the story is created for us by the narrator. Could he create himself to suit his story? Of course! And part of the game of the tale is its slipperiness. Its meaning always seems to slip away, to evade us.
The Signalman is after all a tale of narrative incarceration and entrapment….whatever you decide you know it is your decision and that other versions or readings haunt every turn of the tale.
How provocative the existential question:
“Is there any path by which I can come down and speak to you?”
What an ironic metaphor!
What is the answer and who can really respond to this almost Faustian question! Would you follow such a path?