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Ghost Genre as a Tool to Symbolize Capitalism Critique in The Signalman of Dickens

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Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was an eminent writer, journalist and social critic of Victorian era. He was brought up by middle class family in destitute poverty during British industrial revolution. These things had everlasting impact upon his memory. He is one of the literary canons who wrote a magnanimous amount of literature on varied topics. He wrote blatantly about social and economic disparities and stratification. He pinned menace and drawbacks of industrial revolution.

Sigmund Freud has been a celebrated neurologist and thinker of 20th century. He is credited for developing the field of Psychoanalysis in which dialogue is held between patient and doctor. Freud in his essay the interpretation of dreams argued that our actions are controlled by our unconscious.

According to Chambers Dictionary, Tropes a figure of speech, properly one in which a word or expression is used in other than its literal meaning. Words are used figuratively, which decorates the text, make it more readable, colorful, and dramatic. It is certainly true that perceived presence of figurative language enhances points of dramatic and emotional intensity (Bennett and Royale 79).

Desires, feelings, and emotions which remain unfulfilled do not vanish with passage of time rather pack in our heart which is called by Freud unconscious. We cannot know about conscious directly, rather through indirect channels. First and foremost indirect channel for expression of reality is dreams along with others parapraxes and jokes. According to Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams, “dreams are symbolic fulfillment of wishes that cannot be fulfilled because they have been repressed”. These wishes even cannot be uttered openly because they have been forbidden and to speak against them is conceived violation of social taboos, so they come out in dreams in very strange form, sometime in shattered while often far different from reality (Klages, 64).

Sigmund Freud’s theory of dreams suggested that dreams represented unconscious desires, thoughts, and motivations. According to Freud’s psychoanalytic view of personality, people are driven by aggressive and sexual instincts that are repressed from conscious awareness. While these thoughts are not consciously expressed, Freud suggested that they find their way into our awareness via dreams (Tyson, 18). For Freud actions, thoughts, beliefs are predetermined by unconscious which is called ID. Unconscious leads to fulfillment of suppressed desires. Afterward Jacques Lucan moves Freud’s thought further along in a direction where it questions the idea of unconscious material preexisting. Jacques Lacan established relationship among the real, the imaginary and the symbolic. He narrates real is a polysemous concept, which is understood in relation to others. Following Freud's metaphor of the navel connecting the dream to the unknown, the real can be understood as located in the navel of dreams (Goulimaria, 140).

Signalman (1866) is a short story that contains ghost and supernatural elements. A Victorian era was beamed with ghost stories genre and were extremely popular among masses. These stories are equally popular today as they were in Victorian era because human's mind pleasures when scared. Dickens has emphasized on gloomy, dark and shadowy environment to aggrandize mysterious and horrifying effect. In The Signalman, character Signalman is living in far off railway station in complete solitude and loneliness. His job was to change that signal, to trimmed lights and interact with other stations through telegraph. Apparition is a troop in this story, which appears like dream to him. Signalman believes upon these specters, but at same time they happen to like dream. Signalman was a person who was not guided by rationale, rather temptations, but narrator was a character of wit. He didn't believe upon his stories. Signalman was perplexed in himself, he couldn't demarcate between real and imaginary, because he was guided by unconscious and unconscious is determined by your unfulfilled desires. He was residing in gloomy and destitute environment and had quest to break this box. To come out of this boredom, this specter was a ray of hope.

When first time Signalman watched narrator, he didn't respond him truly, because he conceived him similar specter as he used to watch on the brink of whole. Some mysterious thing used to appear on opening of cave waving hand to Signalman and saying 'Halloa! Below there!' Every time this apparition was followed by any incident, in which someone died mysteriously.

Literature Review

Alessandro Vescovi in his article, compares Charles Dickens' two short stories The Bagman and The Signalman. He elucidated similarities and differences among both. He points out that both stories have similar environment of uncanny and mystery. In both stories, character of ghost have domineering effect upon individuals, they influence human actions. Both stories have similar characters, Signalman and Bagman's uncle, both try to avoid accusation of being implausible on account of their elusiveness. Bagman's uncle narrates a story of an adventure that happened one night to the narrator's uncle. The story of Signalman is quite of another tenor: a railway employee works entire day in deep trench by the mouth of tunnel, where sun never shines (112).

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Vescovi then explains differences between both stories. In the Bagman, there is no discontinuity between the main narrator and the Bagman's story, which is direct discourse, with frequent hints to gentlemen who form his fictitious audience. The Signalman on the other hand presented a writing narrator, who demands a reader rather than listener and in which narrator and Signalman are bifurcated from very start of story.

Appearance of ghost is a protest by working class, against their hectic and drab daily routine. Person like Signalman had to work 24/7 to earn livelihood. In capitalist system, worker works in alienation and estrangement, as he and his work was considered commodity and chattel. They had no moments of pleasure and enjoy. This is protest from Marxist point of view against hegemonic and cruel system of capitalism.

In this paper Vescovi evaluates, Signalman’s cause of death was his loneliness, but to my research interpretation, Signalman’s inability to demarcate between real and imaginary was his mistake, which arrived him to dig of death. Train driver keeps on signaling and saying: “Below there! Look out! Look out! For God’s sake, clear the way!” But he was conceiving its similar specter as used to be prior in his imagination. It can be explored from another aspect: it’s ironic that a person could not comprehend the signal which was alarming him, where he had been working for twenty-five years. This is the point Carl Marx highlight; difference between the man and the work (119) from sociological point of view, elements of social stratification and discrimination are also found in this story.

From the very start of story, when narrator standing on the upper edge of tunnel waves hand, while Signalman is much deeper in the trench. Narrator moves down to bottom to reach Signalman. According to my research, this societal polarization and discrimination added to his alienation, who derived a philosophy student to world of imagination (120). In an article by Seed on the topic “Mystery in Everyday Things: Charles Dickens’ Signalman” he argues that language used in a story is archaic. Narrator in very start of story says to Signalman: “Halloa!' Which in modern times is no more used, instead we use “Hello”. In my opinion, this difference of language show transitory period through which Great Britain and Europe was passing during these days, period of industrial revolution.

Dickens has sustained suspense and horror throughout the story by different anecdotes via plot and characters. When narrator first time comes across Signalman, his is not welcomed by Signalman and he takes him for someone else. Signalman is shown a student of philosophy working at station to alter railway signals. Later on by every time ghost appearance is followed by any incident and they were its repercussions. My paper determines its causes who dragged signalman toward tragic death. It was Signalman’s quest to reach reality which dragged him to death. It was his journey from vision to hallucination, specter and then apparition. He was determined to know real nature of these supernatural things (43). In an article by Alberto Boschi on the topic “A linguistic approach to the signalman by Charles Dickens” argues story is written in first person narrative and one of protagonist is narrator of the plot. Tzveton Todorov defines it “narrator-character” or “represented-narrator”. This technique suits Gothic and horror genre because it creates strong ambiguity in the text. This technique has been implied by Dickens in the story when narrator at start of story announces: “Halloa below there” and Signalman is unable to understand him what he is saying. This clearly shows ambiguity and entanglement in story (20).

According to Boschi, Character of signal is persistently shown odd and queer. He behaves frivolously when he encounters narrator first time. He does not treat him mannerly, even on second visit he says he did not took him a human but a specter. Signalman in conversation with narrator looks toward light several times and stands up to open the door, when even no one is knocking. In my opinion these all instances shows anxiety, fear and quest of Signalman. He is not satisfied with his lot. He is in perplexed between conscious and unconscious unable to recognize whom to follow.

Another aspect highlighted by Boschi, The Signalman is a text which is rich of verbose to show mysterious and strange events. Many words are used which add in supernatural environment. Words like dark sallow man, solitary, dismal, crooked dungeon, gloomy red light, barbarous, forbidding, and deadly are used to show bleak and haunted place environment (27).

Trope of train is very important in the story. Metaphor of train is used very figuratively. It has multi layered connotations. According to Boschi, train is a destructive element which has only aggrandized man’s miseries. It has rendered dehumanizing effects upon lives. Industrial revolution, invention of train and other discoveries have deteriorated man’s peace and comfort. These things have just created material of discontent not peace. But in my research “Use of anything is not good or bad, thinking makes it so”. Train has not aggrandized our discomforts, but we ourselves have made their bad use. Train driver kept on alarming make signalman to be aside, but he was in his dreams that’s why he was unable to demarcate among oblivion and reality (34).

Work Cited:

  1. Goulimaria, Pelagia. Literary Criticism and Theory. Routledge Oxon, 2015.
  2. Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today. Routledge Oxon, 2006.
  3. Bennett, Andrew, and Royle Nicholas. Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory. 3rded. Dorling Kindersley, Pearson Education, 2009.
  4. Klages, Mary. Literary theory: A Guide for the Perplexed. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2011.
  5. Vescovi, Alessandro. “The Bagman, the Signalman and Dickens's Short Story Dickens: The Craft of Fiction and the Challenges of Reading Biblioteca di Anglistica: Collana di Testi e Studi”. AcademiaU, January, 2000, Accessed 20 January 2019.
  6. Boschi, Alberta. A Linguistic Approach to the Signalman by Charles Dickens. dpace.unitus, 31 March 2006, Accessed 20 January.
  7. Seed, David. “Mystery in Everyday Things: Charles Dickens' ‘Signalman.’” Criticism, vol. 23, no. 1, 1981, pp. 42–57. JSTOR,
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Ghost Genre as a Tool to Symbolize Capitalism Critique in The Signalman of Dickens. (2023, February 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 2, 2024, from
“Ghost Genre as a Tool to Symbolize Capitalism Critique in The Signalman of Dickens.” Edubirdie, 01 Feb. 2023,
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