The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens: Themes & Analysis

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  • 0:03 Themes in ~''The Signal-Man~''
  • 0:19 Resposibility
  • 1:41 Reality vs. Unreality
  • 2:46 Analysis: Helplessness
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

'The Signal-Man' is one of many ghost stories written by Charles Dickens. We'll discuss the themes in this chilling and gloomy supernatural short story and analyze their significance.

Themes in ''The Signal-Man''

Charles Dickens is best known for his novels and novella A Christmas Carol, which, like ''The Signal-Man,'' involves ghosts with warnings. However, ''The Signal-Man'' has a significantly darker outcome. We'll explore and analyze themes in this bleak tale.


A major theme in ''The Signal-Man'' is responsibility. The signalman is haunted not only by his own future ghost but by his duty to protect train passengers, conductors, and other crewmen on his line. He feels certain that the apparition he continually sees is warning him of a real danger, a belief that's supported by the accidents that have occurred after its appearance on at least two occasions. He's anxious to avoid any further tragedies, and he's so absorbed in how he can save the lives of others that he doesn't consider the possibility that the apparition might be warning him of his own death.

The narrator of the story, in turn, feels responsible for the predicament of the signalman. Recognizing the stress and agitation of this man, the narrator ''saw that for the poor man's sake, as well as for the public safety, what I had to do for the time was to compose his mind.''

Yet even after he manages to calm the signalman down in the short term, the narrator feels he should do something to help the long-term situation as well. He asks himself: ''How ought I to act, having become the recipient of this disclosure? I had proved the man to be intelligent, vigilant, painstaking, and exact; but how long might he remain so, in his state of mind?'' Eventually, the narrator decides he'll offer to go with the signalman to visit a doctor, and he visits the signalman's station the next evening - only to find that he's too late, and the signalman himself has been killed by a train.

Reality vs. Unreality

In ambiguous and stressful situations, we often question whether we're seeing things clearly, or what the nature of reality is. The stranger or more disturbing our first interpretation of events is, the more likely it seems that we are incorrect, or living in unreality.

In ''The Signal-Man,'' Dickens shows us how a logical analysis of reality can be plausible, yet still wrong. For the signalman, the reality is that he must correctly interpret the apparition's warnings or suffer the guilt of having allowed tragedy to occur.

The narrator questions this belief, certain that the apparitions and warnings are all in the signalman's head. First, he observes that the signalman works alone in an ''unhealthy damp'' and sunless environment. He tells him not to trust his senses, citing the power of optical illusions and the way that ''the wind in this unnatural valley'' makes a ''wild harp'' of the telegraph wires. However, the narrator momentarily ''[sets] aside all question of reality or unreality'' in order to comfort him. When the narrator witnesses the apparition and the death of the signalman, he realizes that neither of them had an entirely correct interpretation of reality.

Analysis: Helplessness

You're probably familiar with Dickens's most famous ghost story, A Christmas Carol. In it, the main character Scrooge is also visited by ghosts with warnings. Scrooge is rich, and each ghost clearly communicates the nature of the disaster he must avoid. These factors allow for a happy ending: Scrooge is empowered to act using the wealth and information at his disposal.

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