The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens: Summary & Overview

The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens: Summary & Overview
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  • 0:01 The Story
  • 0:23 Setting
  • 0:45 Principal Characters
  • 1:33 Plot Summary
  • 4:12 Analysis
  • 5:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ben Nickol
In this lesson, we take a look at one of the lesser-known works of famed English novelist Charles Dickens. 'The Signal-Man' is a story of supernatural powers and of the men who believe, and struggle not to believe, in them.

The Story

'The Signal-Man' (1866) is a short story by the English writer Charles Dickens (1812-1870). In the story, a practical-minded narrator meets a railway worker who has been seeing supernatural visions. The narrator doubts the man at first, but at the story's conclusion a strange event makes him a believer.


The entirety of 'The Signal-Man' takes place in a narrow gorge through which passes a railway line. At one end of the gorge is a dark tunnel from which trains emerge. Farther up the line is the hut where the signal-man works. His job is to communicate with other signal-men up and down the line and to warn the engineers of trains if there's some danger ahead on the tracks.

Principal Characters

The story has only three principal characters:

  • The Narrator: The story doesn't provide a great deal of biographical information about the narrator, but we know that he is intelligent and friendly and also that he is very practically-minded. Whenever the signal-man mentions some supernatural detail, the narrator thinks of a realistic explanation for it.
  • The Signal-Man: The signal-man is a late- to middle-aged individual who works alone in the narrow gorge. His age and solitude contribute to the narrator's skepticism about his supernatural visions.
  • The Ghost: As with many Charles Dickens stories, this one has a ghost. The ghost appears to the signal-man (and only the signal-man) at the mouth of the tunnel and waves his arm, as if to warn the signal-man to get out of the way of something.

Plot Summary

The story has a simple plot. It opens with the narrator (who for unexplained reasons has chosen to pay a visit to the signal-man, whom he doesn't know) standing at the edge of the rail gorge, shouting down to the signal-man in his hut. The words he shouts, twice, are 'Hello! Below there!' While that seems like a simple enough greeting, it winds up carrying significance. These very words, we discover later, have been shouted to the signal-man by the ghost he's been seeing. Because of this, the narrator receives a cold welcome when he hikes down and greets the man.

The narrator and the signal-man eventually become friendly though, and spend some time talking about the signal-man's life. By the second visit, the signal-man feels comfortable enough with the narrator to confide in him that he's been seeing a ghost. What the ghost does, the signal-man explains, is appear at the mouth of the train tunnel and shout to him (in the same words the narrator used at the story's beginning) and then waves his arm, as if to indicate that the signal-man should get out of the way. This on its own is not very creepy, but then the signal-man explains that after each appearance of the ghost some tragedy has occurred. First, there was a railway accident that killed or injured a number of people. Then, a woman on a train died suddenly, with no explanation. But what really terrifies the signal-man is that the ghost now has appeared a third time, and he doesn't know what tragic thing is about to happen.

While the signal-man relates this story, the narrator listens intently but skeptically. He likes the signal-man and wants to believe him, but the narrator at heart is a practical, realistic person. He doesn't believe in ghosts. Instead, he thinks the signal-man is hallucinating. The ghost's voice, the narrator thinks, is just wind moving through the gorge. The tragedies are a coincidence.

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