A much-anthologized story that first appeared in Mugby Junction, the extra Christmas number for Charles Dickens’s magazine All the Year Round in 1866. It later appeared in a one-volume edition of all the Christmas numbers from All the Year Round (1859–1867) published by Chapman and Hall in 1868.
The story is told by a commonsensical narrator “who had been shut up within narrow limits all his life” and now wants to learn more about the railroad. In pursuit of this quest, he approaches the signalman with questions about his post. Over the course of several visits, the narrator learns not only about the signalman’s job but about the strange specter the man has seen while working. The signalman explains that several times he has seen an apparition that has tried to warn him of some danger; after the first visitation, “the memorable accident on this Line” occurred, and after the second, a train on which a “beautiful young lady had died instantaneously” passes. The specter has now returned a third time, this time without incident, and the signalman explains that he torments himself in trying to discover its meaning, expecting another disaster anytime. The narrator himself struggles with this story, judging the man to be disturbed and fearing that the worker’s unstable mind will affect his ability to perform his job. Finally, the narrator decides to leave the signalman for the night, but he agrees to return to accompany the man to “the wisest medical practitioner” the next day. As the narrator approaches the signalman’s post the next night, he sees what the man had described as the apparition—but this time, the ghost is a real man, and the narrator soon discovers that the signalman has been killed. The specter-made-real is the train conductor, and he reenacts for the narrator the gestures he performed in order to warn the signalman to get out of the way of the oncoming train. The story ends with the eerie revelation that the words the narrator conjured in his own mind as he watched the signalman’s demonstration of the specter’s warning gestures are the very words that the train conductor uttered in trying to warn the signalman of impending danger.
“The Signalman” is the last of many ghost stories Dickens wrote, particularly in his Christmas numbers, the most famous of which is A Christmas Carol (1843). He commented to Elizabeth Gaskell in 1851 that ghost stories are good for “illustrating particular states of mind and processes of the imagination” (quoted in Thomas, 15–16). The narrative of “The Signalman” achieves this goal effectively, demonstrating the trauma and agony of the railroad worker, who is warned of impending danger yet cannot discover the precise meaning of these warnings and is therefore powerless to avert disaster. The substance of this story might be connected to Dickens’s real-life trauma in a train crash in 1865, when he narrowly escaped death as the train he was on jumped the tracks, but symbolically the tale is “a powerful and suggestive image of man’s alienation by technological progress” (Mengel, 274). The railroad worker’s post lies in a sort of technological hell, within a “deep trench” made “through a clammy stone” that the narrator remarks is “as solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw.”
The intensity of this story lies in its ambiguity, as Dickens leaves many questions open to interpretation. It is never clear whether the signalman has really seen a spirit, and Dickens even suggests that either the signalman or the narrator might themselves be ghostly visitors. By leaving these issues unresolved, Dickens suggests that rational and scientific explanations of the world may not be sufficient to explain the scope of human experience.
Dickens, Charles. Christmas Books, Tales and Sketches. Garden City, N.Y.: Nelson Doubleday, 1956.
Mengel, Ewald. “The Structure and Meaning of Dickens’s ‘The Signalman,’ ” Studies in Short Fiction 20 (Fall 1983): 271–280.
Thomas, Deborah A. “Introduction.” In Charles Dickens: Selected Short Fiction. Baltimore: Penguin, 1976.