On June 9, 1865 at 3:13 in the afternoon, an elderly Charles Dickens was travelling by train with his mistress and her mother in southeastern England when the Folkestone-to-London train derailed near Staplehurst due to a signalman’s negligence. The Staplehurst Rail Crash took the lives of ten and left forty injured – some of whom died in Dickens’ arms. The author was traumatized. He lost his voice for two weeks afterward, and avoided trains with phobic anxiety. Dying five years later on June 9, 1870, Dickens, as his son stated, “never fully recovered” from the shock. Written a year after the disaster, this cathartic ghost tale features a responsible signalman haunted in an emotionally exhaustive sense by Dickens’ own wasting phantom: the helplessness to save life in spite of one’s best efforts. The titular railroadman’s angst mirrors Dickens’ eerily. He is a man who accepts his unnecessarily menial role in society, not daring to change his station or aspire to better himself. “The Signal-Man” is a grim and chilling study both in man’s desperate inability to alter the fates of others, and in his stubborn unwillingness to affect the one life which he may reasonably hope to better, or even save: his own.
The story begins at a railroad cutting (a valley cut through a hill with steep cliffs on either side) in rural England, where a middle class traveler stands at the top of the cutting and peers at the signal-box below. He calls out to the railroad-man working the signals -- "Halloa! Below there!" -- waving his hand. This causes the signalman's face to constrict in terror until he realizes that the man calling out to him is just a curious traveler. Walking down the steep steps leading into the cutting, the traveler meets the signalman and finds himself in the bowels of a dark, smoky valley at the end of which yawns a vast, black tunnel, duskily illuminated by a single red signal lamp. Fascinated by the signalman's strange reaction to his greeting, he presses the man -- an intelligent but nervous working class fellow -- about his life and habits.
The signalman takes him into the signalbox -- a raised cabin that overlooks the tunnel -- and describes his background. Although he has a great aptitude for science and self-education, he squandered his chances at a better career and had resigned himself to a job below his abilities. The signalman is capable but stoic, resigning himself to the Fates and denying himself any chance to participate in his own destiny. This seemingly unrelated tendency soon becomes accounted for when the traveler notices his friend's strange reaction to the vibration of one of the signal bells: it seems to be stirring without ringing, and causes him a great deal of anxiety. The traveler departs as night comes on, but promises to return (without calling out, per the signalman's request). When the traveler returns the next day, the signalman seems glad to see him, but still terribly nervous.
Finally, after much evasion, he entrusts the traveler with his story. He has been seeing a phantom figure whose appearance presages disasters. The first time he saw it, it was standing near the mouth of the tunnel, covering its face with one arm and waving the over, calling out "Halloa! Below there!" When it disappeared, the horrified signalman was at a loss: what did it mean? What could he do? What should he do? He rushed down the black tunnel, but found no one and nothing. Hours later, however, a terrible train crash occurred inside the tunnel, killing dozens.
The second time, the figure appeared under the red lamp with both hands covering its face, as if weeping, then disappeared. He wired up and down the line asking if there were any problems, but everything was fine. Moments later, a train passing by his signalbox reported the unexpected death of a beautiful woman on board. And now the overwhelmed signalman reports that he has seen the phantom several times in the last few weeks. Why him, he wonders. Why is he being burdened with this terrible responsibility? What does it mean and what can he possibly do when he is warned about events outside of his control? Suddenly, the bells vibrate again, and the signalman claims to see the phantom, though the traveler sees and hears nothing unusual. Skeptical but concerned, his new friend urges him to find medical help and seek rest. He returns to his home and promises to come back soon to see how his anxious friend is doing.
The next day he returns and is horrified to see a figure at the mouth of the tunnel -- covering his face with one hand and waving the other. In a moment, however, he realizes that there are other men around him, and that the figure is a railroad worker. Climbing down the steep cliff into the dusky bowels of the cutting, he sees a corpse covered in a sheet and is crushed to learn that the signalman was just killed by a passing train. The man he had seen gesturing like the ghost explains that he was in the locomotive as it bore down on him. The traveler can't help but he shocked and filled with awe when he learns that his friend was standing motionless at the mouth of the tunnel as the train raced forward, and that the engineer desperately waved at him with one arm, covering his eyes with the other (to avoid seeing the inevitable death) and calling out "Halloa! Below there! Look out, for God's sake! Clear the way!"
Dickens lures us into a Dantean purgatory where the abilities and realities of willpower, personal agency, and human transcendence are repeatedly called into question and affirmed – doubted and established. The signalman is simultaneously helpless and empowered, incapable of altering fate and amply armed to release himself from approaching destruction. This humble functionary – a man who willingly works below the station of his intellectual ability, resisting upward mobility on the grounds of obligation – presents a chilling indictment of the British cult of status and duty. As he learned from his own life-rattling brush with death, Dickens avows that the only thing which we can be held responsible for in life is our own fate. The signalman tortures himself over his failure at duty, but fails to remove himself (in spite of his mobilizing capabilities) from his station, stubbornly standing at the helm of a floundering ship due to his stunting and self-deprecating fetish for duty.
In his final moments, the nervous little man is run down while staring into the tunnel’s black mouth – a void which suggests the other end of his purgatory, a hell which ultimately swallows him when he refuses to ascend to the available salvation yawning above him. The railroad-man is either unwilling or incapable of questioning the status of his menial station or the infallibility of his masters, and (as Dickens wants us to understand) a society which urges its best and brightest to settle for what they are allowed, will ultimately sink into a hell which devours individuality and crushes potential. Dickens does not hesitate to doubt the cruel riptides of life – as he learned at Staplehurst, it can suddenly surge and consume, and we cannot expect to save everyone or be responsible for the whims of fate – but he charges his readership: if you can save no one else, at least save yourself – ascend, transcend, rise above what life deals you, or be prepared to be destroyed; when we are given a chance to better our lives – when warnings and opportunities come – we must understand that the abyss is close behind.