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Describe the ways Dickens creates mystery and suspense in 'The Signalman'.

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Introduction

Describe the ways Dickens creates mystery and suspense in 'The Signalman' 'The Signalman' by Charles Dickens, also known as 'No1 Branchline', is part of the collection of short railway stories that are included in 'Mugby Junctions', published in 1866. These stories appear to have been written post the tragic Staplehurst, Kent train crash, in which Dickens was involved, but escaped unhurt. Following the accident, Dickens suffered from what we would call today, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This may have contributed to the reflective and supernatural nature of 'The Signalman'. The story of 'The Signalman' is a mysterious tale about a character that stumbles upon an isolated train cutting and there meets the signalman in charge. As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that there is something troubling the signalman~ he believes he is witnessing the presence of a spectre. Extraordinarily the spectre only appears before an accident and its presence has the aura of impending doom. A curious twist at the end of the story leaves the reader still trying to fully assess Dickens' motive and rationale for this composition. 'The Signalman' opens with direct speech~ "Halloa! Below there!" This ambiguous start raises many questions, such as, who is speaking; who is being spoken to; what is below? Dickens is building the mysterious atmosphere even at this early stage in the story. The use of minor sentences creates a sense of urgency; the exclamation marks also contribute. Together they work to convey panic. This short but effective line becomes very decisive as the story unfolds. We receive a clearer picture of the setting by the next paragraph. There is a prominent lexical set of the railways, "box", "flag", "cutting", "line" that all suggest at this point that Dickens sets the story on or near a railway line. Questions are raised about the recipient's identity~ is he the signalman? Following the first line, he looks around to face the tunnel~ "looked down the line". ...read more.

Middle

The narrator watches the signalman demonstrate with "utmost passion and vehemence" that insinuates the phrase "for God's sake clear the way!" to his mind. This is his personal conclusion. Even more disconcertingly, the spectre cries in a hoarse voice "Halloa! Below there!" Amazingly, this is an exact imitation of the narrator's first words in the story. The audience is now aware as to the signalman's demeanour in the origin. Unmistakeably, this is immensely disturbing for the audience and the narrator. Dickens continues the conventional, ghostly atmosphere when the signalman parts details of the accident, which he believes the spectre warned him about~ " Within six hours of the appearance, the memorable accident on this line happened...the dead and wounded were brought through the tunnel over the spot where the figure stood", giving an uncomfortable read. Dickens constructs the idea that this has traumatised the signalman; firstly he witnessed the accident, which obviously shocked him, and he also gives details that suggest his state of mind is fragile. His eyes are "hollow" metaphorically showing he is probably not sleeping due to pressure and he lays his arm on the narrator's, showing he needs comfort. The next appearance of the spectre is seen in the identical position, this time demonstrating an "action of mourning", which has connotations of death and sinister purposes, linking with the "long lamenting wail" that is audible. Again, the signalman's fears are justified as the day, post to the appearance, a young woman "died instantaneously in the compartment" of a passing train (this strongly hints at murder). By now the audience will associate the spectre with death and who's death it will contribute to next. In addition "the spectre came back a week ago. Ever since it has been there now and again in fits and starts." At the time he speaks, no death has yet occurred so this distresses him considerably. ...read more.

Conclusion

Dickens conveys the narrator's bewilderment and shock by the use of repetition~ "how did this happen? How did this happen?" The use of the interjection proves his shock to the audience. The audience is informed that the signalman was "cut down by an engine". This is extraordinary since the signalman's attributes~ "remarkably vigilant" and "no man in England knew his work better". Dickens implies that the signalman was not the type of person to die from such an accident~ he was too careful. Inquiry ascends as to how he died. The train driver who witnessed the accident reveals even more perhaps coincidental and enigmatic circumstances. He, who wore similar attire to the spectre~ "he wore a rough, dark dress" and he steps "back to his former place at the tunnel", analogous to the spectre. In addition, the words uttered by the train driver are "..For God's sake clear the way!", whom also "waved this arm to the very last". Dickens profoundly enforces the idea into the audience's mind that these words and actions contributed to the signalman's death. In this one phrase, (of which Dickens emphasises was never spoken by the signalman; it was the words which the narrator had "attached...to the gesticulation he had imitated"). The narrator, the signalman and the train driver are linked in some ominous and maybe sinister way. In the last paragraph, Dickens encourages his readers, through the narrator, to assess the motive and rationale of the anecdote. He deliberately manifests ambiguity through the signalman's death and never gives its cause. This amplifies the situation and links in with the fact that the story was originally intended to be read aloud and discussed. It is evident that Dickens constitutes suspense throughout the story, beginning with the decisive opening words, the vivid description of the cutting and the signalman. The conventional qualities of the story are unmistakeable~ the dark, eerie atmosphere and the distinct sense of the supernatural help to amplify the enigma. Dickens' ability to sustain mystery, suspense and ambiguity provide thrilling reading material By Ruth Davies ...read more.

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