Archive for November 21st, 2010

The train that thunders through (Dicken’s “The Signal-man” as adapted in the 1975 film)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve another gothic from my Exploring the Gothic class to discuss: for this past Friday my class and I read and discussed Charles Dickens’s unusual and brief ghost story, “The Signalman.” I’ve written about Andrew Davies’s 1976 film of this here before, but then I concentrated on the film, now we’ll look at Dickens’s text itself.

Here’s the story online: “The Signal-man” by Charles Dickens

A summary (if you don’t have the time or inclination to read this gem): an unnamed narrator comes to a deep cutting in the earth, and calls down below to a signalman whose job is to live in a box-like small house by a railway track and provide a signal for people on and working a train of its coming, going, and state. He persuades the signalman to let him come down to his dark place below, and he and the signalman talk. The signalman is in a bad way: he tells the narrator of an apparition he has seen twice: a man stands by the track with one hand over his eye and the other waving at a coming train; each time this vision appears death follows soon. After the first time it was a ghastly train accident; after the second a young woman died. The signalman is distraught because he cannot save the person/people. He is lonely, he is educated, intelligent and has no one to share his thoughts or learning (math, algebra) with. He once had an opportunity to better himself, but missed out because of private events he won’t go into anymore. The narrator goes off but says he will return on the narrator’s off hours again — these off-hours are not much use to the narrator as he has ever to be alert for the bell. His duties to pull the bell are light, yet he is a slave to it. He lives a life of anxiety. The next time the narrator shows up (next day?) he looks below, seems to see the apparition himself, hears the train coming, and then rushing below finds the signalman has died — run over.

Bernard Lloyd as visitor (narrates the tale)

The story is eerie and mysterious: we never learn the names of the two characters, and we never learn who the narrator is. To the narrator, the signalman appears to be a spirit; to the signalman the narrator appears to be a spirit. At the first meeting between the two men, the unnamed signalman is clearly wondering if the narrator is somehow being controlled by spirit forces. He asks him “don’t you know” that the red light is part of his charge – and goes on to ask during their conversation if the words he spoke “were conveyed to you in any supernatural way. At the same time, the narrator (also nameless!) is wondering almost the same thing about the signalman. “The monstrous thought came into my mind as I perused the fixed eyes and the saturnine face, that this was a spirit, not a man.” The narrator finds a “monstrous thought” entering his own mind – and, in the next breath, says of the signalman: “I have speculated since, whether there may have been infection in his mind.” The narrator goes on to share the signalman’s obsession and fear of the red light – and, when the final catastrophe comes, he finds his own thoughts (the words he associated with the warning gesture) strangely borne out along with the signalman’s deadly premonition.

The story begins with one question and ends with another. At the start, as readers, we wonder why the narrator calls down to the signalman in the first place – and we never really get an answer to this. If he wasn’t being motivated by something supernatural, what other reason was there? The signalman could be lured to death by an irrational self-destructive despairing impulse; the narrator could be an employee of the company come to investigate the signalman for being ill or too nervous to do his job properly. We are left wondering and get no definite answer. It almost seems as if the signalman lures the narrator down and disturbs his life just as the phantom (real or imaginary) is luring him and disturbing his life.

The story is about the mental torture the signalman experiences daily. Loneliness, helplessness, lack of power (he is too lowly to persuade the company to act differently about the train), anxiety, a desire to have someone to talk to: there is the strangely creepy repeated line: “But he would beg to remark that he had not finished” – which has a touch of humor, but at the same time helps to give a feeling of impending doom and the signalman’s desire to have the narrator stay. One interpretation says the signalman is haunted by a malicious poltergeist.

Denholm Elliot as poignant signalman

One of my students (the first section I teach) gave a talk where he suggested the story is about the how technology obliterates traditional ways of life. The railway contain immense power, and people felt threatened before it. The student’s view echoed an essay I linked into my “course materials for y students” is by Norris Pope where he argues that the story is a response to the terrifying technology of the railways (which at the same time liberated people more than any other technology had before and except for the car since): Norris Pope’s “Dickens’s “The Signalman” and Information Problems in the Railway Age,” Victorian Studies, 42:3 (2001), 436-461. But the student went much further in suggesting the story was about the evils of technology for the audience.

Another student (in my second section) talked about how the story was about or derived directly from an accident Dickens was involved with and showed us a state of trauma that the signalman should have had help with and couldn’t. She thought the apparition was a psychological projection of the signalman’s mind. (She didn’t explain how the narrator saw the third apparition; questioned she suggested maybe the third apparition was the signalman himself seen by the narrator just before killing himself.) The student’s view was more or less the view the second article I put on my “Course Materials” discussed: Jill Matus’s “Trauma, Memory, and Railway Disaster: The Dickensian Connection,” Victorian Studies, 43:3 (2001): 413-36. The student went much further in saying that today we would try to help this man and the story was showing us how no one did help this man.

I’ll go over that as told in this second essay:

In 1865 Charles Dickens narrowly escaped death when the train on which he was traveling from Folkestone to London jumped a gap in the line occasioned by some repair work on a viaduct near Staplehurst, Kent. The foreman on the job miscalculated the time of the train’s arrival; the flagman was only 550 yards from the works and unable to give adequate warning of the train’s approach. The central and rear carriages fell off the bridge, plunging onto the river-bed below. Only one of the first class carriages escaped that plunge, coupled fast to the second class carriage in front. “It had come off the rail and was […] hanging over the bridge at an angle, so that all three of them were tilted down into a corner” (Ackroyd 1013).

Dickens managed to get Ellen Ternan and her mother, with whom he was traveling, out of the carriage and then behaved with remarkable self- possession, climbing down into the ravine and ministering to the many who lay injured and dying. Ternan was his mistress and he was concerned to hide this, but still went forward to save others.

With further aplomb, he climbed back into the dangerously unstable carriage and retrieved his manuscript, an account of which is offered in the memorable postscript to Our Mutual Friend (1865).

Once back in London, however, Dickens began to develop the symptomatology that today we would recognize as typical of trauma.’ He was greatly shaken and lost his voice for nearly two weeks: “I most unaccountably brought someone else’s out of that terrible scene,” he said. He suffered repeatedly from what he called “the shake,” and, when he later traveled by train, he was in the grip of a persistent illusion that the carriage was down on the left side. Even a year later, he noted that he had sudden vague rushes of terror, which were “perfectly unreasonable but unsurmontable.” At such times, his son and daughter reported, he was unaware of the presence of others and seemed to be in a kind of trance. His son Henry recalled that he got into a state of panic at the slightest jolt; Mamie attested that her father’s nerves were SP never really the same again: he “would fall into a paroxysm of fear, tremble all over and clutch the arms of the railway carriage.”

I then delivered a sort of lecture, inviting questions as I went along. This is what I do after students do presentations or talks. After their presentations I ask four questions: what was the student’s thesis, what his or her strategry [what did he or she do in the talk, tell a story, give an example, write on the board &c], what his or her strengths and how could he or she have improved the talk. Then the student sits down and I again get in front of the class.

I talked about how Victorians would have had an ambivalent attitude towards trains. Trains liberated people more than anything had before: before trains most people could not easily travel farther than by foot in a given day. Most people could not afford a horse; a carriage went slowly and awkwardly — not comfortable, dangerous (from overturning). Now in a brief time you could get to a major city. You could escape your environment, move far in one day, move away with ease. It’s comparable to the Internet in how it can connect people from distances. It was part of the industrial world making things and making money for some people. They knew this. I talked of how the underground was built in London at the time: promoted by Michael Farraday, he had to overcome tremendous fears (of the world below, of being buried alive) to achieve this, but he did it and then people used the underground quickly.

Dickens’s was a strong purveyor of gothic, or used it centrally in his long and short fictions. In novels and short stories, he has a has a number of character lured to their own death, attracted to self-destruction (Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, Carker in Dombey and Son). Dickens seems compelled by people who are mysteriously drawn towards their own death – there are quite a number of characters in his books who commit suicide, but there are also others who are drawn towards something which will destroy them.

The students’ questions got us talking about the atmospherics of the story as not overdone and effective. A hallucinatory quality is found in Dickens’s great novels. Another way of seeing it is a tale of doubling, the double self (as in Hyde and Jekyll) only this time the double is a threat. At the end we wonder why the signalman allowed himself to be drawn out on to the line and ignored the approaching train. The phantom if there was one appears three times: – the phantom has appeared twice, with death resulting each time, and now is appearing for a third time. We immediately know from fairy tales that the third catastrophe will be the final one, the end of the story. They noticed the number 3.

The horror of the visitor looking at the Signalman’s corpse (what’s left of it)

To conclude, the story or narrator can be seen as a projection of an impulse towards death opening before us a disappointed frustrated man who lives his life shut up in a dark cave through which a machine thunders with mechanical regularity. There are some odd nervous puns in the story which support this idea.

I talked of how this gothic manages to tell the story of another kind of unspeakable: the terrors of technology and misery of an ordinary life controlled by technology. Dickens had great sympathy for working people, and here is a man compelled by the need for a job to live like a troll in a cutting all alone. (How much he would have profited from the Internet and a computer in his hut.)

It takes place in a railway tunnel. Good modern ghost stories do not tend to occur in gothic castles or be set in the long ago. They are often set in modern anonymous places where technology has rooted up a natural landscape: old canals, waterways, and railways are favored. Dickens doesn’t need owls or bats; the wet dark tunnel without a sky is enough. There are no windows in a grave either. There are some good resonating lines about the nature of hard life. He’s missed his chance and does not get another.

As for the film (Andrew Davies, the screenplay writer, Lawrence Clark, director, Rosemay Hill, producer, Denholm Elliot the signalman with Bernard Lloyd the narrator or visitor): they do full justice to Dickens’s appreciation of how technology can land given individuals in terrible isolation. Denhom Elliot plays the Signalman who has little to do but must be there, and is living in these meagre circumstances, an educated man who lost out. Very touching in the story and film how he sits and read math, but no one to talk to or appreciate or ask questions of, but he plugs on. (Such a character might have been found comfort in the Internet.) The man who comes to visit (investigate really) show real compassion and full horror at the close.

It was shot on location. Beneath a high steep hill by a train tunnel. I’ve no doubt it arose from Dickens’s own train accident, the terrors and pain of this are gotten across. For the brilliance of the film techniques, see my other blog.

We had really good talk and the students appeared to have read the story and understood it with no trouble.


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