The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens Setting Analysis

Instructor: Tina Miller

Tina earned an MFA in Creative Writing, has several published novels and short stories, and teaches English and writing.

Charles Dickens's 'The Signal-Man' is a short story of mystery, intrigue, sadness, and death on the railroad. The signal-man has his work cut out for him. The setting for this tale is appropriately dark and dismal.

Grim Responsibility

Taking place presumably in the mid-19th century, Charles Dickens's ''The Signal-Man'' revolves around the interactions between a signal-man, who controls the signals that direct trains, and another company official, who is our narrator. The signal-man discloses his secret of seeing a ghost several times; that same ghastly figure has preemptively alerted him of death on the tracks - but it's the signal-man's job to keep people alive. It's a somber tale, and the setting adds to the grave plot.

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens

Life on the Rails

When the narrator approaches the train tracks, he looks towards the signal-man, ''his figure was foreshortened and shadowed, down in the deep trench, and mine was high above him, so steeped in the glow of an angry sunset.'' Dickens's description of the environment and lighting sets the tone, or mood, of the story. The trench is deep, the man shadowed, and the sunset angry. Such details add to the general feeling of darkness.

The Signal-Man
The Signal Man

This ambiance, while macabre, is fitting for the railroad tracks. The winds are alive, as cold air rushes through the ''unnatural valley.'' The wind makes a harp of the telegraph wires. Trains rumble and pulse; they are forces to be reckoned with. As the narrator heads towards the signal-man, ''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. . .this rapid train had passed me, and was skimming away over the landscape.'' These are signs of the life on the tracks.

Unsettling Landscape

There's more to the railroad than just the tracks. Surrounding the tracks is a valley: ''The cutting was extremely deep, and unusually precipitate.'' In this valley is the signal-man's post. The narrator tells us that the outside of the signal-man's post is ''as solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw.'' The walls are damp and, at times, dipping-wet; ''. . .it had an earthy, deadly smell.'' It's a dungeon. In one direction, there's a gloomy red light and the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a ''barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air.'' This concave leads to the signal-man's box.

Railroad Tunnel
Railroad Tunnel

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