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Examine the ways in which Charles Dickens builds suspense in 'The Signalman'

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Introduction

Examine the ways in which Charles Dickens builds suspense in 'The Signalman' We have been studying and discussing the pre 20th prose 'The Signalman', by Charles Dickens. In true Dickens style, this piece is chilling and mysterious, reminiscent of that of 'A Christmas Carol' and the way that ghosts were portrayed ion that tale. In his lifetime, rail travel was new and becoming popular, so it is no surprise that it was the basis of his story. Also, in Victorian society, death, ghosts and the supernatural were not uncommon subjects of discussions and stories. They had a much darker culture than we do in the modern day world. In this essay, I shall explore the many different ways in which suspense is built up. The story opens with direct speech, in the line, '"Halloa! Below there!"' Immediate speech injects volume and drama, especially when it includes an exclamation. The words incite intrigue and leaves the reader speculating who is shouting and why. My first thoughts are that the speaker is standing above, possibly on a cliff top. The words start a pattern for the rest of a story. Although you don't realise at first, they are very important to the plot. The reader is left wondering why the man to whom the speech is directed does not look up, as expected, but looks down the railway line by which he is standing. The visitor says that the man has 'something remarkable' in the way he looks down the Line, but we are left to wonder what this is. Again, the words '"Halloa! Below!"' were repeated. There is something significant in them. I would say that the opening ends with the first event, which is mysteriously described as a 'vague vibration in the earth', then as a 'violent pulsation'. Dickens does this so that the reader is uncertain as to what is happening. We now know that the man below is the signalman that the title refers to, because he is described as 'refurling the flag' after the train passes. ...read more.

Middle

Dickens has succeeded in making us empathise with him, so much so that we hope that the visitor won't leave the signalman on his own, just in case something happens to him. We realise now that he is not crazy, and that the spectre spoke the very same words as the visitor when they first met, and that is why the signalman looked down the Line, expecting to see the spectre once again. Readers then wonder if the spectre is there at that moment and are kept in suspense until the signalman assures the visitor it is not. He wonders what it is warning him against and tells the visitor that if he telegraphed danger for no reason they would probably displace him, '"they would think I was mad"' The visitor says, in powerful words, that it is the 'mental torture' of a hard-working man who has been 'oppressed beyond endurance'. The signalman begins to get panicky now and continually asks questions, '"Why not tell me..."', '"Why not go to somebody with credit..."' We can see that he is at wit's end and realise the full extent of his torture. When the visitor decides to leave, the reader really does not want harm to come to the signalman. Sadly, that is the last time we see the signalman alive. He was hit by a train and most readers wish that the visitor had stayed with him. Even as he died we can see that the spectre is the reason he became like this and that it is possibly its fault he was killed. The second main character is the visitor, or the narrator. The story is written in first person, from his point of view, so we generally know more about his thoughts. This is effective because it as if he is speaking directly to us, making the story more believable. He comes across as a level-headed, sensible man, possibly what the signalman would be like had he not seen the spectre. ...read more.

Conclusion

Straight away, the visitor says he has an 'irresistible sense' of there being something the matter. Now the reader is left wondering if something has happened to the signalman. When the visitor begins to blame himself for something being wrong, I wondered why he was so sure that the signalman had been killed. I think maybe he knew that eventually this would be the only outcome. When the train driver tells of the action he did and the words he spoke before crashing into the signalman, there is a sudden flash of understanding of what happened, but also confusion. The story succeeds in keeping you in suspense right up until the last minute, when we finally discover the truth about the prominent line '"Halloa! Below there!"' Was it just an unfortunate coincidence that the visitor spoke these words? I feel that the words are in the same context as the punch line of a joke is - they have ambiguous meanings that can be interpreted in different ways. I think that the spectre could have in some supernatural way (as the signalman says) conveyed these words to the visitor and he suddenly blurted them out without really realising. Who was the spectre? He could have been death, the warning of death coming or just something placed there to drive the signalman insane. I personally think it was meant to represent death not actually warn, but there was no way the signalman could escape his fate, so the spectre was there to torment him and show him there was nothing he could do to prevent it coming. After carefully examining the text, I must say I was very impressed at how well written the story was and how suspense is built up perfectly, surprising the reader even in the last line. I felt the most intriguing part of the story was how the ending could have been interpreted in many different ways and how Charles Dickens leaves it up to us to decide on our views. Danielle Howells 10K/English A ...read more.

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