THE SIGNALMAN – CHARLES DICKENS

4 Jun

train

THE ALLUSION OF GOTHIC JUXTAPOSED BY THE ALLEGORY OF MODERNITY

We’ve already established that the tropes of Gothic literature although easily recognizable are also very adaptable; whether a castle in the Rhineland or an old house on a windswept moor, the necessity of the setting is more psychological than it is physical.  If one considers the work of Stephen King then one could suggest that “Christine”, a 1958 Plymouth Fury and the very personification of twentieth century modernity, could be construed as Walpole’s Otranto or even the Signalman’s tunnel. It’s the evocation of the unheimlich that causes the reader to second guess their natural instincts in order to enjoy the delicious fear they evoke – as Woolf writes – within controllable boundaries. The fact that “The Signalman” contains a ghost is classic Gothic, as is the desperate location of the man’s employment and his acute loneliness. The combination of location and psychological state as well as the inferred and unseen – bells which ring and yet which are never witnessed – all create the necessary tension required for Gothic literature. There is an expectation that something beyond the peripheral is occurring and yet enigmatic to the point where even the reader doubts what they have experienced is real.

The story has everything to do with the machine age and of old values being discarded for new. The Industrial Revolution saw the rapid movement of people away from an agrarian economy into the cities to labor and live. The changing of the seasons and the usual elemental clues that had been constant reminders of the passing of time were replaced by factory clocks and steam whistles. The story continually alludes to the juxtaposition of modernity and traditionalism found in the many references to the complete saturation of the modern age. The signalman is a student of mathematics, a philosopher of the natural sciences; that everything happens for a reason and yet despite the telegraph, whistles, flags and bell system we’ve still not reached a point – despite scientific advancements – where we have full understanding of nature and earth processes. The Victorian age with its huge shift in attitudes towards, religion, society, science and human relationships – and in particular the natural world – must have been for many extremely disturbing. Dickens himself was involved in a train accident and so this story can be read as allegorical; to not put ones faith completely in modernity – personified by the signalman – and to heed the wisdom –personified by the ghost – that until that particular period had always sufficed. (One could associate this allusion with Frankenstein’s keen interest in the alchemists only to have his focused shift to the bright bauble of contemporary science and all that it entailed.) Instead of insisting upon reason there is a strong suggestion that one should use all of ones faculties and pay attention to one’s own gut feeling. If one where to rely completely on Google Maps then what would be the point of knowing that the sun rises in the East? On the other hand possessing this crumb of knowledge is extremely useful.

I don’t believe that Dickens’ allusion lends itself to fatalistic suggestion but instead should be seen as an admonishment. His own near death in a railway disaster would have brought him to sharp realization that modernity although useful is not always ideal. His story though Gothic in nature has very real implications for burgeoning modernity and consequently it would be simplistic to suggest that this is merely a ghost story and question whether or not the apparition portends good or evil.

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