The Intentions of Ghosts in Dickens’ Short Stories "The Signalman" and "The Trial for Murder"

Term Paper, 2016

11 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. “The Signalman”
2.1. Formal analysis
2.2. The ghost in the story

3. “The Trial for Murder“
3.1. Formal analysis
3.2. The ghost in the story

4. Comparison

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Short stories dealing with gothic elements like ghost appearances in a spooky atmosphere are common for the Victorian Era. Some ghost stories entertain the reader in a surreal and scary, yet funny way. An example may be the story “The Canterville Ghost” by Oscar Wilde (Wilde 1963, 141). As in the short story “The Haunted and the Haunters” by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (Bulwer-Lytton 1963, 27), ghosts also constitute horror elements used to scare the reader. Hence, ghosts and their intentions differ substantially in literature varying from horror and humour to morality.

Charles Dickens is a widely read author of the nineteenth century and well known for his descriptive and gothic influenced way of writing (Mulvey-Roberts 1998, 45). This paper concerns the question: What are the ghost’s intentions in Charles Dickens’ short stories “The Signalman” and “The Trial for Murder”?

To answer this question, the analysis begins by taking a closer look at the short story “The Signalman” which appeared as a chapter of Mugby Junction, an extra Christmas number of Dickens’ weekly journal All the Year Round in 1866 (Dickens 1997, 273). Afterwards, the short story “The Trial for Murder” is analysed. This story appeared as a chapter of Dr Marigold’s Prescriptions, an extra Christmas number of Dickens’ weekly journal in 1865 (ibid., 261) . Then the short stories are compared with regard to the ghost’s intentions and how they achieve their aims are comparted as the purposes of ghosts in literature are numerous.

2. “The Signalman”

2.1. Formal analysis

In the short story “The Signalman”, an anonymous narrator visits a signalman who tells the narrator about his supernatural visions followed by mysterious disasters.

The story is set in the nineteenth century. During the industrialisation the railway provided work for many people. Those workers lived and worked near the railway (May 2011, 3). Such working and living place of a railway worker is where the short story is set. The railway passes through a narrow gorge with “dripping wet walls” (Dickens 1967, 2). A slippery path leads down to the entrance of a tunnel where “so little sunlight ever found its way” (ibid.). The “earthy, deadly smell” (ibid.) makes the narrator feel like he “had left the natural world” (ibid.). Alongside the train tracks and the entrance of a dark tunnel is a small cottage where the signalman lives.

Due to Dickens’ detailed and illustrating descriptions and choice of words, the reader can literally sense the mysterious atmosphere in this dark gorge. He uses gothic elements like ghosts, death and darkness, words like “dungeon” and “barbarous” (ibid.) and alliterations like “vague vibration” (ibid., 1) to intensify the reader’s impressions.

In “The Signalman” are two main characters. The signalman, who has supernatural visions, is described as a “dark sallow man, with a dark beard and rather heavy eyebrows” (ibid., 2). When he first meets the narrator, the second main character, his weird behaviour makes the visitor think that he “was a spirit, not a man” (ibid., 3). However, after talking to his visitor for a while, he appears to be more friendly and well-educated (ibid., 4).

The narrator tells the story from a first person point of view. He is sceptical about the connection the signalman made up with the appearance of the ghost and the following mysterious deaths (ibid., 7). Even though the signalman’s story gives him shivers and he feels a “slow touch of a frozen finger tracing out […] [his] spine” (ibid.), he tries to find a realistic explanation for his visions. He considers the supernatural visions followed by mysterious disasters as “remarkable coincidence[s]” (ibid., 8). Moreover, he takes a “disease of the delicate nerves that minister to the functions of the eye” (ibid., 7) of the signalman into consideration.

The narrator’s thoughts are written in brackets which makes the reader able to follow his emotions. He also involves the reader by questioning rhetorical questions (ibid., 4). The tone in which the narrator and the signalman speak is very formal. As a sign of paying respect, both use proper language and refer as “Sir” to each other (ibid.).

Dickens uses many symbols. The “rapid train” (ibid., 1) can be interpreted as a symbol for powerful and newly developed technology. Another symbol is the “red [warning] light near the tunnel” (ibid., 7) where the colour red can be interpreted as a symbol for danger and death (Ferber 1999, 169).

2.2. The ghost in the story

The ghost in the story “The Signalman” only appears to the signalman. The first time he stands next to the red light near the entrance of the tunnel. The reader and the signalman take the appearance as a human being because the figure looks like a shouting and waving human (Dickens 1967, 7). It seems like the figure wants to warn the signalman (ibid., 8) as he waves his arm and shouts “Halloa! Below there! Look out” and “For God’s sake, clear the way” (ibid., 7). In addition, the figure hides its face (ibid.) which might be a protective gesture leading to the expectation something bad is going to happen. Mistaking the figure for a human being the signalman rushes towards the man for help. However, the figure disappears when the signalman is about to touch him (ibid.). This leaves the signalman confused so he subsequently refers to the figure as “spectre” or “ghost” (ibid., 8-9). The assumption the ghost wanted to warn the signalman may be confirmed by the fact that a train accident happens afterwards (ibid., 8).

At the second meeting between the ghost and the signalman the ghost’s intention remains rather unclear. Due to the fact that he appears near the mouth of the tunnel (ibid., 8), it can be assumed that he intends to warn the signalman against the upcoming tragedy. However, the ghost does not shout or wave. He just appears in a mourning attitude, still hiding his face (ibid., 8). It can be expected that the mourning attitude is an expression of the pain he feels for the victims of the train accident which he could not prevent. Without further signs or warnings the ghost disappears. Hereinafter, a young woman dies a mysterious death inside the moving train (ibid., 9).

The third time the ghost stands next to the “Danger-light” (ibid.) waving and shouting, trying to get the man clear the way “with increased passion and vehemence” (ibid.). Thereafter, the ghost appears to the signalman occasionally, waving and shouting again (ibid.). His behaviour resembles the behaviour at his first appearance leaving the feeling of a clear warning message. The signalman guesses that something bad is going to happen (ibid., 11) and eventually dies in a train accident (ibid., 13).

In summary it remains unclear if the ghost really intends to warn the signalman. The first and third incidents support this assumption whereas the second rather rejects this hypothesis as the ghost does not show clear warning signs but expresses grief and sorrow. In this regard it may be speculated if the ghost is just a mourning casualty who might have died and lost his relatives in a train accident at that place. However, the fact that the ghost shouts “For God’s sake, clear the way” pleads for the first assumption (ibid., 9). This is also substantiated by the train driver who exactly repeats those words shortly before the signalman gets killed by the train (ibid., 14).

3. “The Trial for Murder“

3.1. Formal analysis

The story “The Trial for Murder” written by Charles Dickens in 1865 is about a juror in a trial for murder who sees the victim’s ghost ensuring his murderer’s execution.

The short story is partly set at the London Tavern, a room where the jury stays, and in a London court house in Piccadilly in the nineteenth century (Dickens 1997, 257). The reader does not get a detailed description of the outside or look of the court house but a portrait of the atmosphere around it. Due to words such as “dense brown fog” (ibid., 256) or “flaringly lighted” (ibid.) the narrator leaves the reader with a spooky feeling. The inside of the courtroom is similarly portrayed as the outside. The narrator sees the courtroom through a “cloud of fog” (ibid.) and notices the “breath that was heavy in it” (ibid.). He also sees “black vapour hanging like a murky curtain outside the great window” (ibid.). This metaphor may be used to create and visualise a mysterious atmosphere.

The story is narrated by a juror in the trial from a first person point of view. He is a bachelor and head of his department “in a certain Branch Bank” (ibid., 254). He lives in an apartment in Piccadilly (ibid., 253). At the beginning of the story he tells the reader that he has always “noticed a prevalent want of courage” (ibid., 252) and how it happened that he got to be juror in a trial for murder. He also tells the reader about his thoughts and his inner feelings. The narrator is emotional and passionate about the case. The morning he reads the newspaper, he says that he sees the victims’ bedroom “like a picture impossibly painted on a running river” (ibid., 253). This metaphor is used to express and visualise the narrator’s emotions and excitement (ibid.). Thereby, the narrator says that he does not want to lay the focus on the murderer but more he “seek[s] to interest […] [his] reader” (ibid., 257) on the incidents which happen during the time the jurors spend together (ibid.).


Excerpt out of 11 pages


The Intentions of Ghosts in Dickens’ Short Stories "The Signalman" and "The Trial for Murder"
University of Rostock
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ISBN (Book)
intentions, ghosts, dickens’, short, stories, signalman, trial, murder
Quote paper
Merle Blunk (Author), 2016, The Intentions of Ghosts in Dickens’ Short Stories "The Signalman" and "The Trial for Murder", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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