Tina earned an MFA in Creative Writing, has several published novels and short stories, and teaches English and writing.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In his box, ''there was a fire, a desk for an official book in which he had to make certain entries, a telegraphic instrument with its dial, face, and needles, and the little bell. . .'' It is from here that the signal-man conducts office business, like reading and sending messages he is alerted of from the ding of the little bell. Most of his business, however, is conducted on the tracks. ''There was the Danger-light. There was the dismal mouth of the tunnel. There were the high, wet stone walls of the cutting. There were the stars above them.'' It's a lonely job in a lonely place, the perfect spot for a ghost story.
The tone of Charles Dickens's ''The Signal-Man'' is somber and dark, and that's reinforced by the setting. The air is cold, and the stinks of death. The valley is treacherous, the tunnel gloomy. It's no wonder it's the perfect backdrop for our signal-man to disclose the dark figure who appears before death occurs on the tracks.
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