Dickens’ mechanical ghosts

In ‘The Signal-Man’, one of Charles Dickens’ final stories, the author is haunted by the world of the machine and the inability of humans to stop its destructiveness.

Box Tunnel, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the 1840s.
Box Tunnel, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the 1840s. Credit: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

George Orwell, writing in the essay ‘Charles Dickens’, famously imagines the great Victorian novelist as a laughing face. Orwell’s Dickens laughs at society but does not have a realistic sense of how it might be improved, in large part because he is not ‘mechanically minded’ and has a limited understanding of, or anxiety about, class. For Orwell, Dickens and Christmas were inseparable, and perhaps nothing better represents his Dickens than the story of Scrooge, a ‘good rich man’. So it is all the more curious that it is in one of the final stories which Dickens published, written at this time of year, that we see a very different writer, one haunted by the world of the machine – and what it does to the people who live and work inside it.

In the winter of 1866, Charles Dickens published ‘The Signal-Man’ in the Christmas edition of his magazine All the Year Round. A nameless, gentleman narrator meets a railway worker who is haunted by a spectre which seems to be warning him of a deadly accident on the line. Two accidents have already taken place, each foretold by a ghostly presence. It would be one of the final chapters in a tradition of supernatural Christmas stories most famously represented by A Christmas Carol (1843). Christmas, for Dickens, is a time of celebration, as well as moral confrontation with our past and future selves. But there is something diabolical about ‘The Signal-Man’, an unnatural chill that implies a true haunting and leaves no room for joy or humour.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the story is its modernity. The entirety of the action takes place on the tracks, precisely the kind of mechanism about which Orwell suggests Dickens had previously shown no interest, in an ‘extremely deep’ railway cutting made in the ‘clammy’ stone which becomes ‘oozier and wetter’ as the narrator descends to the signal-man’s hut, a few metres away from the entrance to the ‘massive architecture’ of a ‘barbarous’ black tunnel. The narrator is struck by the mechanical nature of the signal-man’s tasks and fixates on the ‘little bell’ which tells him he must change the signal. This bell is also the first sign that something sinister is taking place. Twice, the signal-man responds to it without it ringing. The haunting here is twofold, the strange behaviour is only an echo of his ordinary duties, which cause him to break ‘off his discourse at a syllable, and [remain] silent until what he had to do was done’ whenever the bell rings.

What scares the signal-man most of all is the knowledge that there is nothing that he can do to prevent another disaster. When the narrator returns a second time, a sense of trust develops between the two men and the signal-man unburdens himself with a terrible urgency:

‘This is the way it would work: Message – “Danger! Take care!” Answer – “What Danger? Where?” Message – “Don’t know. But, for God’s sake, take care!” They would displace me. What else could they do?’

It is, the narrator concludes, ‘the mental torture of a conscientious man, oppressed beyond endurance by an unintelligible responsibility involving life.’ Five years before ‘The Signal-Man’ was published, England witnessed its worst train crash to date. Three trains left Brighton within seven minutes, against regulations, and a series of miscommunications led to one ramming into the back of the other in a tunnel. Twenty-three passengers died and hundreds more were injured. The signal-man at the tunnel’s mouth had been working a twenty-four-hour shift, in order to qualify for a day off (the signal-man in the story is severely sleep-deprived). Dickens has captured the psychological pressure, which is one step away from terror, of being a cog inside a machine.

The story’s true horror, however, lies in the slippery, ghostly relationship between the signal-man and the narrator. Where has the narrator come from? Why is he so keen to encourage the signal-man to tell his story? The only account we are given is a brief autobiography, in which he describes himself as ‘a man who had been shut up within narrow limits all his life, and who, being at last set free, had a newly-awakened interest in these great works’.  From the outset, the signal-man is distrustful, observing the narrator descend with ‘watchfulness’ which the narrator, in turn, cannot understand but which the reader quickly comes to empathise with. At first, in fact, it is the signal-man who believes the narrator is the ghost, a supposition which is encouraged by a curious trick in the syntax in the first few lines, which read as if they were written in the third-person.

The narrator’s ‘interest’ never seems entirely innocent, and his efforts to learn more about the signal-man have more than a whiff of managerial supervision. He dwells on the ‘exactness’ with which the signal-man performs his duties and is struck by the fact that he is educated ‘perhaps above’ his station. The narrator’s attention to the signal-man’s exactness is a function of the ghost story: we must believe he is a reliable witness. But the narrator, like the reader, also knows that the ghost cannot be real, so once he has teased out the man’s story, he is presented with a problem. Is the man so disturbed that leaving him in post would be a danger to public safety?

The terrible irony is that this is precisely the response to his admission that the signal-man is most afraid of. When he asks, desperately, why the ghost had appeared to him, a ‘mere signalman’ rather than ‘somebody with credit to be believed’, we know that he believes that the narrator is the answer to these prayers. Why else trust him? But the signal-man’s anxiety is contagious, and all the narrator can think of is his own responsibilities. It is an astonishing trick: the exactness of Dickens’s representation of the interaction between class and managerial responsibility compels us to believe in the ghost, because, as sure as we know a ghost story, we know that by betraying the signal-man’s trust in him, the narrator has made the final tragedy – the signal-man’s death – inevitable.

Some ghost stories, perhaps, are more haunted than others. A year before ‘The Signal-Man’ was published, Dickens was travelling with his mistress Nelly Ternan and her mother when their train derailed over a viaduct. He climbed out of the window of the carriage to tend to the injured, some of whom died while he was with them, then lost his voice for two weeks. Orwell’s Dickens is, literally, speechless about society: ‘His whole “message” is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.’ Yet it is precisely speechlessness which haunts ‘The Signal-Man’, most obviously in the words which the narrator hears in his head before they become reality in the final accident: ‘For God’s sake, clear the way!’ Dickens, who rarely talked openly about his own background, perhaps, knew better than Orwell just how difficult it is to ‘clear the way’ between men in the age of the machine. The Staplehurst derailment took place on 9 June 1865. On 8 June 1870, Dickens suffered a stroke. He died the next day.


Jeremy Wikeley