How does Dickens create suspense in ‘The Signalman’

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The Signalman written by Charles Dickens in 1866 is a short story that falls into the gothic fiction genre. This particular style of writing combines elements such as the supernatural, castles, darkness, madness and the unknown. At the time the story was being written, the industrial revolution was in full force. This had a huge impact on society at the time. It improved the standard of living drastically. The death rate had dropped due to better health care and sanitation. Numerous amounts of great and unbelievable machines were being invented.

Nothing like this had ever been seen before. There were suddenly vast amounts of new jobs being created because of all the new factories and machines having to be built and operated. People became sceptical as to the existence of god because their thoughts were being widely challenged by science and its overwhelming significance. Charles Darwin’s, “The Origin of Species” suggested that man had evolved from the ape. This caused chaos in the Church. Ordinary People began to form their own opinion about the existence of mankind in relation to god.

Dickens incorporates these ideas into The Signalman. The idea of these prosperous new machines scared people because they were totally unknown shows through in the short story and is one of its main themes. Dickens uses the setting to form suspense by using a combination of powerful and sinister imagery. The narrator is describing the tunnel where the signalman’s hut is situated, ‘in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing and forbidding air’. As well as being negative, the three adjectives that Dickens chose are very sinister.

The words ‘forbidding’ and ‘depressing’ are heavily associated with sadness and despair. The word “barbarous” adds an evil and dark element to the description. Images of death, deceit and pain are conjured within the reader. Dickens also uses the list of three in this description. This is an example of repetition to strengthen the feeling of negativity. Although it is not the same word being repeated, they all have an extremely negative effect upon the reader. Furthermore, the tunnel’s architecture is described as being “massive”. This powerful word adds strength to the three adjectives that follow.

This word portrays images of something great; something powerful, something enormous and something that makes man feel small and cowardly in comparison. As we read on through the description we realise that this great architecture is not great and powerful in a positive way. There is something very frightening about the words great and powerful when they are associated with something evil. When a setting of a story is portrayed in such dark and negative manner to the reader, it can only make the reader think about whether this sinister description of the setting could be linked to the outcome of the story and the plot.

Dickens elicits suspense by using 1st person narrative. This gives the reader a complete insight into this character’s thoughts. This determines a stronger influence upon the reader because we are only subject to one opinion. The narrator is also a protagonist in the story. What he says as a narrator we believe with out question. However we are aware that what he is saying as a character in the story may not be true. This creates an effect of ambiguity and confusion.

Dickens choice of eponymous title alone creates suspense by using this profession, “The Signalman”, that at the time the story was written, wasn’t widely known within ordinary people. A signalman was a relatively new job for the Victorian time. This job would have been created when the steam locomotive came to England in the 1820’s. Victorian readers may not have known what a signalman was but probably associated it with trains. As well as Victorian readers, 21st century readers might not know what a signalman is. This automatically leaves the reader wondering and guessing before they have even started to read the story.

The reader plunges into the story with this unknown anticipation. It is as if they have the attitude that the rest of the story will follow suit, in suspense and anticipation of events. The repetition used by Dickens in “The Signalman”, applying to when the signalman keeps on seeing this remarkable “spectre” creates fear and tension. Each time the signalman has seen the ghost; something tragic has taken place on the train line. The signalman has seen the “spectre” three times. A short period after the first two sightings of the apparition a death has occurred on the line.

He has now seen the “spectre” for the third time. This repetition of the sightings amounts to a great deal of tension because the reader is waiting for something to happen, a third death or tragedy. This unnerving tension leaves the reader waiting in fear. Furthermore, this idea of ghosts was new but very popular among Victorian readers. Today, in modern society most all people do not believe in ghosts so a story like this would not have as much of a profound effect. However, Victorian people were very superstitious and strongly believed in evil ghosts and spirits.

One of the main themes of this short story is the uncanny. This forms suspense because it unsettles the reader as well as producing an unsure feeling. There are many examples of this throughout the story. One example is when “The Signalman” is describing the movement the spectre made. “I don’t know I never saw the face…… ‘For God’s sake, clear the way! ’”. And at the end of the story when the driver of the train is showing the narrator the movement he did as the train “cut” the signalman down. “I said, ‘Below there! Look out! Look out! For God’s sake, clear the way! ” Not only had the driver done exactly the same movement that “The Signalman” described the spectre as doing, the words the narrator thought up in his head were said by the train driver. This leaves the reader unsettles and confused. Throughout the story we are questioning the sanity of “The Signalman”, whereas at the end of the story, we ourselves are questioning the belief in our own minds about how the story has ended. This leads to a huge amount of suspense because the reader is left wondering in a very uncanny yet clever cliffhanger.

Dickens use of pace towards the end of “The Signalman” creates suspense by altering the tempo of the story. At the beginning of the story, the sentences are longer and the reader is given time to breathe and take in everything he or she is reading. An example of this is when the narrator is talking about his descent down the path to meet the signalman. “When I came down low enough upon the zigzag descent to see him again, I saw that he was standing between the rails on the way by which the train had lately passed, in an attitude as if he were waiting for me to appear”.

In comparison, towards the end of the story, as well as the sentences being shorter, they are broken up with many commas. This has an effect on the tempo of the story. When sentences are shorter, the reader sounds to him/ herself that they are reading faster. This creates suspense because the tempo of the story has quickened as we are lead to what we find out to be the climax, when the narrator discovers the signalman dead. In conclusion, I feel that the suspense created in “The Signalman” was fairly successful from a modern readers point of view.

Dickens successfully leaves the reader wondering and also questioning their own sanity after the story has ended. Today in modern society not as many people believe in ghosts and supernatural spirits due to more rational thinking and scientific discoveries. However, from a Victorian readers point of view I believe the story would have been even more successful in creating suspense. This is because it would have much more real, something they could directly relate to and understand.

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