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The Signalman


The syllabus requires you to show awareness of the social and historical context in which your set texts were produced.


1.What can you say about the context of this story?






2. What can you say about the language and style of this story?


·         It is written in a formal, quite elaborate style, with a demanding vocabulary (find example).  There is great subtlety, such as using the word 'ghastly' to suggest to a practised reader the word 'ghostly', or the description of the train passing which has suggestions of hellfire, sulphurous smoke, death and damnation.

·         As in 'D.O.T', its main events are related through casual conversation - which makes them the more shocking. This is a standard horror genre technique.

·         Though this story revolves around the supernatural and 'D.O.T.' is set in the real world, both are in the horror genre; we can tell from the settings and atmosphere.

·         It makes use of anti-climax (the signalman is NOT a ghost, or abnormal in any way)

·         It's title is not a clue to its message UNLESS the signalman is signalling to us in a rational age that reason perhaps CANNOT explain everything.


3. What can you say about the setting of this story?


·         Remote –the Visitor leaves normal world behind Suggestions of hell

·         Suggestions of horror in colours -black (evil), red(blood)

·         Suggestions of death (eg cutting is described like a deep grave, with just a slit of sky)

·         Eerie noises - wind wailing through the telegraph wires.

·         The haunting story is told during second visit when they talk over midnight - the 'witching' hour


4. What  can you say about the atmosphere?


·         Normal when goes for walk

·         Anticlimax - signalman is a normal man, despite his turning away and looking like a corpse

·         Slight tension -'I am troubled'  at end of first visit

·         Tension increases during second visit with each account of the appearance of the spectre.  Why? Because each appearance is followed by disaster, and each disaster is nearer in time and in space!

·         Tension relaxes when Visitor convinces himself that this must be irrationality in the man's head, and he will take him to a doctor.  Next day is sunny, happy, relaxed - the problem is solved. THEN we read the drama of the death and the uncanny fact that the driver shouted not only the words the spectre had said but also the words the Visitor had only thought in his mind.

·         We end feeling stunned, disturbed – can reason explain everything?


5. What can you say about how we are led to ‘believe’ in the story?


·         The Visitor is clearly educated like us, the literate readers of ‘his’ story

·         The  signalman, Dickens carefully explains, is someone doing a job below his natural position in life; he seems to have dropped out of education, but has taught himself algebra and foreign languages during his spare moments. We therefore tend to believe him, especially since the Visitor finds him worth talking to (this conversation across the social divide would have been very unusual; and superstition was associated with the uneducated lower classes, who knew no better).

·         The setting is up to date, familiar and modern


6. What can you say about the language in the story?


·         The sentences are in a much more formal style than modern writing.

·         Dickens uses language subtly; for example, he does not actually state that the passing of the steam train under the bridge has a suggestion of hell about it – we infer this from the vapours and vibrations.

·         Dickens will use one word to suggest another; for example, the word ‘ghastly’ uncannily suggests to readers the word ‘ghostly’.

·         Dickens uses symbolism, as with the colours red and black, and the ‘angry sunset’ (sunset always suggests death and sometimes puns with the death of Christ, the ‘Son’-set.


Gradebooster helpsheet by IC Jan 98, revised 2003