Charles Dickens’ short story “The Signal-Man”, published in 1866, is deeply connected with the spirit of the nineteenth century Britain. The huge impact of new technologies and economic development, together with Darwin’s new theories about evolution challenged not only religious people. While many British people were looking towards a future of technology, empowered by new inventions in the time of the industrial revolution, many others found themselves struggling with the new ways of life. It is not surprising that in this period, when the people, according to Wilson, experienced “the most radical transformation ever seen by the world”, many could not cope with the changes (Wilson I). Parts of the population, which were struggling with this change, were looking back in time to oppose this new situation. This led to a revival of Gothic values and ideas as an opposing force towards new developments. Dichotomies between science and belief, between mind and body were distinctive for Britain in the Victorian era. Nevertheless, the majority of the people found themselves somewhere between the two extremes. This space of in-between, I will refer to as a ‘liminal space’, where Gothic elements are present and doubts govern the people. The narrator of Dickens’ Gothic short story finds himself drawn in this liminal space between the two prevailing extremes like many other people around that time. The following essay will look at this liminal space and discuss the significance of the Gothic elements in Dickens’ “The Signal-Man”. The focus of discussion will be on an excerpt of the story, where Dickens’ narrator tries to convince the Signal-Man that what he believes to be a ghost is in fact only a deception of his senses. In the course of this excerpt the reader can see how the narrator gets more and more unsure about the incidents and is therefore motioning towards the liminal space between science and supernatural beliefs.
The setting of Dickens’ story “The Signal-Man” is characterised by strong oppositions. Dickens’ narrator, a man of reason, has to descend a very deep cutting in order to get down to a Signal-Man. The contrast between the space where the narrator descends from to the “unnatural valley” where the Signal-Man works is enormous (Dickens 52). Describing the valley as ‘unnatural’ creates a tense atmosphere, alluding to Gothic notions of darkness and the unnatural. When the narrator leaves the ‘natural’ world he enters a dark and gloomy world of the unknown. This contrast between where the narrator comes from and the space in which the Signal-Man is working winds itself through the story like a golden threat. The more the story unfolds, the more is the narrator drawn into this ‘other’ world. In the Victorian time of rapid transformation, these worlds can symbolise the world of industrial evolution, on the one hand, and the world of scepticism and fear of the unknown on the other. That the Signal-Man’s occupation requires him to spent “long winter nights there, alone and watching” supports the notion of a lonesome, unknown and dark part of the world. It is ironic, that he got this job as a Signal-Man because of the new technologies and is now even more estranged from the world through the new advancements. The narrator describes the tunnel where the Signal-Man works as a “black tunnel, in whose massive architecture these was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air” (Dickens 48). This gloomy and dark atmosphere is that of Gothic stories. The Signal-Man himself fits very well in that creepy, dark atmosphere. At the beginning of the excerpt, when the narrator feels the “slow touch of a frozen finger tracing out (his) spine”, he tries to resist and oppose this creepy atmosphere (Dickens 52). The touch of the frozen finger also connects to what Freud called “‘the uncanny’: the sensation of ‘dread and creeping horror’, which is a strong Gothic element in the story (Hogle 189). It is through the opposition to the scientific and ‘normal’ world of the narrator that the Gothic uncanny, unnatural atmosphere of the valley and the tunnel gains even more power.
Also very important is the fact that most of the story is set close to a railway, the “line” where the Signal-Man works (Dickens 52). For most people in the nineteenth century, the railway “represented the visible presence of modern technology as such” and one should assume that it should be described as a bright place as technology leads to the bright future (Schivelbusch XV). According to Schivelbusch, the railway also gave “a form to a revolutionary rupture with past forms of experience” (XV). Hence, the railway directly belongs in the liminal space which is created by the enormous changes through the industrial revolution in Britain. The industrial revolution and its new technology, symbolised by the railway, also evoked fear among the people. This “ever-present subliminal” fear of the unknown and scepticism constitute the Gothic part of the liminal space, where the people do not trust science and fall back into the belief of supernatural powers (130). Thus, the Gothic belief in the supernatural developed as a response to Enlightenment rationalism.
Connected to the fear of and the belief in the supernatural, and enhancing the dark and spooky setting of the story, is the presence of a ghost. It evokes horror of the uncanny, when the Signal-Man reports about the ghost, which he has seen so many times. The appearance of ghosts in stories became very popular in the nineteenth century and many Gothic ghost stories were published. Ghosts themselves are a symbol of liminal spaces as well, caught between the living and the dead; they are key elements of Gothic fiction illustrating inexplicable incidents or appearances.