The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens Quotes

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts has taught undergraduate-level film studies for over 9 years. She has a PhD in Media, Art and Text from Virginia Commonwealth University and a BA in film production from Marlboro College. She also has a certificate in teaching online from UMGC and non-profit marketing and fundraising from UC Davis.

This lesson provides a summary of Charles Dickens' ghost story 'The Signal-Man.' We will explore the tale through quotes from the story and learn about the context of the railroads in 19th-century Britain.

A Mystery, A Haunting

In the short ghost story ''The Signal-Man,'' Charles Dickens transports readers to the late 19th-century realities of work on the railway lines but under mysterious, superstitious circumstances. Written in the style of a journalist's interview, an unnamed narrator discusses recent events that have occurred in the vicinity of the signalman's post on the railway line.


The narrator is a journalist who seeks an interview with a railway signalman. In their first meeting, the signalman describes the nature of his work. His duties involve monitoring the rail lines, especially when trains are passing through. ''Signal'' refers to the telegraph dial, the bell, and the danger light, all of which are warning signs in the event of an obstruction or other problem on the line. The signalman must alert the train conductor to danger using one or all of these methods.

A signalman

During the first interview, the journalist notices a gloomy look on the signalman's face. He wonders whether it is an indication of sadness or fear. In any case, it is a mystery that the journalist is determined to uncover. ''It is very difficult to impart, sir. It is very, very difficult to speak of. If ever you make me another visit, I will try to tell you.'' To establish rapport, the journalist agrees to return a second night in order to learn the truth.

Deja Vu?

The mysterious events that have occurred on the train tracks under observation of the signalman happened on two distinct occasions. He first witnessed the apparition one year ago: '''One moonlight night,' said the man, 'I was sitting here, when I heard a voice cry, 'Halloa! Below there!' ... The voice seemed hoarse with shouting, and it cried, 'Look out! Look out!'''

The signalman refers to the ghost as an ''appearance.'' He and the journalist wonder: Was it a specter? The appearance seemed to indicate that a horrible occurrence was yet to come. ''Within six hours after the Appearance, the memorable accident on this Line happened, and within ten hours the dead and wounded were brought along through the tunnel over the spot where the figure had stood.''

Signals on the rail and a train tunnel
Signals on the rail

Six or seven months later, the ghost returns. ''That very day, as a train came out of the tunnel, I noticed, at a carriage window on my side, what looked like a confusion of hands and heads, and something waved. I saw it just in time to signal the driver, Stop!''

On each occurrence, the signalman notices that the ghost makes similar gesticulations (gestures) of warning. It rings the bell. It waves its arms. It signals the danger light. What at first seems just a coincidence hits the signalman with a sense of intense dread. Is the appearance one of deja vu? Or is it a prophecy (a prediction as the result of some fore-knowledge)? The signalman is haunted by the premonition that a terrible train crash is about to occur.

''If it came, on those two occasions, only to show me that its warnings were true, and so to prepare me for the third, why not warn me plainly now?''

The Occurrence Prophesied

When the journalist returns a third time, he discovers that a terrible accident has indeed occurred. As a result of his fore-knowledge, the signalman was able to stop a tragic accident so that nobody was hurt. But to do so, he had to sacrifice his own life.

''With an irresistible sense that something was wrong ... I descended the notched path with all the speed I could make.
'What is the matter?' I asked the men.
'Signal-man killed this morning, sir.'''

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