Charles Dickens and the Ghost Story

Seminararbeit, 1996

31 Seiten

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1.0 Quotation Page

2.0 Prologue Page

3.0 Charles Dickens Page
3.1 Biography Page
3.2 Literary Biography Page

4.0 The Ghost Story Page
4.1 Introduction & Definition Page
4.2 Dickens and the Ghost Story Page
4.2.1 Introduction Page
4.2.2 Influences Page

5.0 Selected Ghost Stories Page
5.1 The Signalman Page
5.2 A Madman’s Manuscript Page
5.3 Comparison Page

6.0 Epilogue Page

7.0 Literature Page

1.0 Quotation

Who is the third who walks always beside you? When I count there are only you and I together But when I look ahead up the whit road There is always another one walking beside you Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded. I do no know whether a man or a woman But who is that one on the other side of you?

T. S. Eliot: The Waste Land

2.0 Prologue

Since having read about Old Marley’s apparitions in A Christmas Carol we have been fascinated by Dickens’ way of creating suspense and a ghost-like atmosphere. A Christmas Carol is probably one of his best known ghost stories, but it is, however, not his first. Dickens’ earliest stories were inset tales in the Pickwick Papers first published in 1837.

In this paper we first of all have a flashback on Dickens’ life and works. Also, we will focus on the ghost story itself and explain, what reasons made Dickens write such stories and how he actually developed his skills.

In a last step we are eventually going to have a closer look at two of his works - The Signalman and A Madman’s Manuscript.

With the help of those stories similarities and differences will be analysed and typical elements of a ghost story pointed out.

3.0 Charles Dickens

The succeeding part of this paper is to introduce you to the life of Charles Dickens by providing a short biography. To give a better overview especially about his numerous literary works, a separate literary biography follows afterwards.

3.1 Biography

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Portsea, England, Feb. 7, 1812. He was a popular Victorian novelist, and is now regarded as one of the greatest English writers. His novels combine vast social panoramas, deep compassion for the lower class, melo-dramatic intensity and pathos, and comic exuberance. Dickens's renowned public readings of his works caused his audiences to laugh and weep; the enduring power of his writing is evident in the fact that his works are still widely read, taught, and performed in modern dramatisations.

Portrait of Charles Dickens1

Dickens's success began with the creation of Mr Pickwick and the publication in 20 numbers of The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836-37), now known as The Pickwick Papers. The series achieved immense popularity and Dickens embarked on a promising future.

Invited to write the narrative to accompany a series of sporting sketches drawn by Robert Seymour, Dickens objected to his subordinate position and forced Seymour out, replacing him with Hablot K. Brown (Phiz), who remained Dickens's primary illustrator for more than 20 years.

As early as Oliver Twist, Dickens's deep concern about modern society was evident. His early works implied faith in the new commercial middle class as opposed to the old aristocracy. As the first great urban novelist, however, he saw the failures of the business ethic. While remaining capable of presenting the comic face of a tragic world, Dickens became increasingly disenchanted. When he began to address social issues directly, as in Dombey and Son (1848), and to organise his novels around clear themes and dominant images, many critics lamented the loss of the warm-hearted comedian of The Pickwick Papers. The image of a corrupt judicial system presiding through a vast fog pervades the narrative of Bleak House (1853), often critically regarded as Dickens's masterpiece, although not his most popular work. In Little Dorrit (1857) the prison haunts almost every character. Our Mutual Friend (1865), Dickens's last finished novel, expresses his increasing anger and disillusionment.

Criticism is only now beginning to come to terms with the richness, variety, and intensity of Dickens's works. He has been accused of caricaturing and of setting his novels in what John Ruskin called ”a circle of stage fire”, but such internationally acclaimed writers as Dostoyevsky and Kafka recognised Dickens's genius and borrowed from him.

In retirement he struggled with his last task, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), a tale of night and storm and murder. The book was still unfinished on June 9, 1870, when Dickens died.

3.2 Literary Biography

1831 court reporter for the Morning Chronicle

1836-37 sketch writer for Sketches by Boz,

Illustrative of Every-Day Life and Every-Day People

1836 The Pickwick Papers

first editor of the monthly periodical Bentley's Miscellany

1837-38 Oliver Twist

1840 Dickens launches a new weekly called Master Humphrey's Clock

1838-39 Nicholas Nickleby

1840-41 The Old Curiosity Shop

1841 Barnaby Rudge

1842 American Notes

1843-44 Martin Chuzzlewit

1843 A Christmas Carol (first of a series of Christmas books)

1844 Dickens founds the paper Daily News

1848 Dombey and Son

1849-50 David Copperfield

1850 Dickens starts Household Words, a weekly periodical

(1859 incorporated into All the Year Round)

1852-53 Bleak House

1854 Hard Times

1855-57 Little Dorrit

1859 A Tale of Two Cities

1860-61 Great Expectations

1864-65 Our Mutual friend

1870 The Mystery of Edwin Drood (incomplete)

4.0 The Ghost Story

4.1 Introduction & Definition

People read ghost stories because, at a basic and perhaps somewhat childlike level, they rather enjoy being frightened. And a really good ghost story really is frightening.

A ghost2 story as we understand it today is a work of fiction of indetermi- nate length, in which the spirit of a dead person (or the spirits of persons), no longer bound by natural laws, manifests itself, or seems to do so and haunts a place or person.

Works of reference define the term ghost story as follows:

A story having supernatural or frightening elements, especially a story featuring ghosts or spirits of the dead3.

(Microsoft Bookshelf)

A story that involves a ghost or similar spirit. In some, the ghost is overtly labeled as such; in others, such as Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, there is more mystery and doubt4.

(A Handbook to Literature)

4.2 Dickens and the Ghost Story

4.2.1 Introduction

Charles Dickens wrote a number of supernatural and horror short stories which can be found scattered throughout The Pickwick Papers, Nicholas Nickleby, The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices, the short-lived Master Humphrey’s Clock, All the Year Round, and The Keepsake, 1852.

Some questionable theorising surrounds the earlier stories, especially those inserted into Pickwick and Nickleby. The theory goes that these stories were already written and destined for a magazine when the splendid Pickwick commission materialised. Due to pressing deadlines, Dickens then produced them and padded out his material, thereby fulfilling his serial quota. This implies, disparagingly, that Dickens short-changed his readers with second-hand material. An interesting theory with not a shred of proof to support it.

4.2.2 Influences

In his earliest years Dickens was introduced to the grim and the ghoulish through stories told to him by his nursemaid, a remarkable young woman called Mary Weller. Both the storyteller and the tales she told were to have a far more profound effect than that on most children. For it is not overstating the case to say that the macabre stories which Mary Weller recounted to the youngster at her knee were so powerful and terrifying as to permanently colour his imaginations and shape much of the brilliant and enduring fiction which he later created.

The world of the supernatural to which he was introduced became vividly real to him, and through the medium of his stories he has made it likewise chillingly authentic for us.

Mary’s skill as a storyteller is all the more remarkable when we learn that she was just thirteen years old at this time. Although to all outward appearances she

5.0 Selected Short Stories

To give an example of Dickens’ ghost stories we chose one of his first stories which is A Madman’s Manuscript and one he wrote later, The Signalman, in order to reveal their ghostly elements. The reason for our choice is the fact that these are stories both constructed in a very similar way with the same main theme. Thus they perfectly fit for a comparison to make clear what components Dickens makes use of to create a ghost story.

5.1 The Signalman

Dickens inserted The Signalman as an episode in Mugby Junction, the title of All The Year Round’s Christmas Extra for 1866. It is the account of an incident on one of the branch lines leading from a place called Mugby Junction. For this reason, the story is very often anthologised as ‘No. 1 Branch Line: The Signalman’.

Illustration for The Signalman5

The tale is supposedly related by a curious character called Barbox Brothers who is always wandering about in the vicinity of the railway junction hoping to pick up tit-bits of information to tell his bedridden friend named Phoebe. It is while exploring Branch Line No. 1 that he meets the signalman of the title who tells him about a strange apparition which appears to him near the mouth of a tunnel just before any fatal accident is about to occur.

The story is composed of three episodes, the three visits of the narrator at the branch line. During the first visit the signalman and the narrator get to know each other and talk about the work at the tunnel. The second time the signalman tells the narrator about three apparitions he realised at his tunnel, all followed by a

The question now is, in which way Dickens achieves The Signalman to be a ghost story that has frightened many listeners in the past and still does in our times.

First and foremost, while reading the story of The Signalman, we had the impression that those things happening, were - of course - odd and strange in a way, but nonetheless they seem to have actually taken place some time in a similar way as the following story6 indicates.

For years there has been existing a persistent rumour that the story of the signalman was based on a real event. It is possible that the source may have been a train crash which occurred in 1861 - five years before the story was written - on the South Downs. This was the first railway accident in the United Kingdom in which more than twenty passengers were killed and as such it made headline news. It occurred in a locality that Dickens knew well, and he could hardly have escaped reading about it. It is known that there is a deep cutting there and a long pathway down to where the signalbox was in 1861. The collision was due to a misunderstanding on the telegraph, combined with other things, between the signalman at each end of the tunnel; twenty-three passengers were killed. The location and the happenings are in fact very like the description in the ghost tale.

Secondly, creating a good ghost story is - above all - a matter of the atmosphere conveyed. In the case of The Signalman, Dickens did perfect work. The setting of this story is extremely dark, cold and depressing. When the visitor tries to look down to the signalman he has to shade his eyes with his hands because of an ”angry sunset” (13)7. This image is to convey a negative atmosphere right from the beginning of their meeting.

Afterwards, the visitor tries to get down the cutting which is described as ”extremely deep and unusually precipitous” (33). There are ”clammy stones” (34) and the way becomes ”oozier and wetter” (34) as he gets down. The place down at the tunnel is like a ”great dungeon” (49) and appears to the visitor as not to belong to the ”natural” world (55). This passage contains an accumulation of adjectives underlining the image of a hell like place. The air is ”barbarous, depressing, and forbidding” (52) and it has an ”earthy, deadly smell” (53). The black tunnel is like the entrance to hell personified as the ”tunnel’s mouth” (68). Through this tunnel comes a train which first causes just a vague vibration but that afterwards quickly changes into a violent pulsation.

In this ghostly surroundings lives the signalman, a dark sallow man with a dark beard. His appearance, his character and his behaviour support the impression of the uncanny atmosphere. His work down at the line consists of changing the signal, trimming the lights and turning the iron handles. He lives in a small hut right beside the railway where only little sunlight is and no people are around. The narrator gets to know him as a well-educated and intelligent man as he replies to his remarks with ”readiness and in well-chosen words” (87). He observes the signalman as being very ”watchful and exact” (89), characteristics which are of course required for his work. Moreover, he recognises him as ”one of the safest to be employed in that capacity” (134/135), but in his opinion the

[...] but for the circumstance that while he was speaking to me he twice broke off with a fallen colour, turned his face towards the little bell when it did NOT ring, opened the door of the hut (which was kept shut to exclude the unhealthy damp), and looked out towards the red light near the mouth of the tunnel.8

Another strange behaviour derives from certain exclamations which run through the whole text. Right at their first meeting when the narrator tries to get the signalman’s attention by shouting ”Halloa! Below there!” (1) the addressed man does not reply at all. After their conversation the signalman asks him not to shout when walking down the cutting on future visits, and, above all, not to use the words ”Halloa! Below there!”. The reason for this strange behaviour is solved during the second visit of the narrator when the signalman tells him about the apparitions at the tunnel which he himself calls ”ghosts” (267) and which are always followed by a fatal accident except for the last one. When the signalman sees the narrator for the first time standing above him shouting he takes him for someone else - for one of his apparitions. For a ghost is normally the most frightening object in a ghost story we should take a closer look at these appearances.

The ghost’s ring is a strange vibration in the bell that it derives from nothing else, and I have not asserted that the bell stirs to the eye. I don’t wonder that you failed to hear it. But I heard it.9

The narrator begins to feel responsible for the signalman because of knowing his story. He thinks about asking a psychiatrist in order to help him. But when the narrator comes to visit the signalman for a third time it is already too late. He gets to know that the signalman has been killed. He is told that a man has warned the signalman with the words ”Halloa! Below there!”. Probably, he was so frightened by these words that he did not realise that a real train was coming when running on the tracks towards the tunnel. Thus the third appearance of the ghost is followed by a disastrous accident as well.

As the analysis above shows, The Signalman reveals quite a range of characteristics of a ghost story: a gloomy atmosphere, a peculiar, strange behaving protagonist, and of course, an apparition or so-called ghost to name the most striking ones.

5.2 A Madman’s Manuscript

Having dealt with The Signalman, we would now like to concentrate on a second short story, The Madman’s Manuscript.

Dickens’ A Madman’s Manuscript, first published in the Pickwick Papers in 1836 takes us into the realms of insanity and the mind of a man haunted by spectres.

A Madman’s Manuscript is narrated from the first person narrator. A man, imprisoned in a sanatorium, writes down his live in a retrospective: One day, when he was still small, he got to know that a hereditary madness existed in his family and people kept telling each other, that some day, he would become a doomed madman himself. For years, he had frightening, dreadful dreams about that until the moment, he thought, it had finally come upon him. From that time on, he had no doubt he was mad, and he was also sure that no one else except him had already noticed it. For that reason he decided to ‘play a trick’ (44)10 on the others by not letting them know about his state.

As he says in his manuscript, he lead quite a merry life, for he suddenly became a rich man by an unexpected inheritance.

Attracted by his prosperity, a young girl was driven by her poor and needy relatives to marry him, although she actually loved another.

Being jealous, feeling angry about his wife’s relatives and feeling sorry for her to be married to a madman, he one night made up his mind to kill her but failed. Instead he was told by doctors that his wife - the madman’s wife - was a madman herself, who died not much later.

‘Damn you,’ said I, starting up, and rushing upon him; ‘I killed her. I am a madman. Down with you. Blood, blood! I will have it!’11

R. Seymour’s illustration for A Madman’s Munuscript12

But in doing so his ‘secret’ was eventually out. Soon the madman was arrested and locked up in a cell where he now puts down this story just told, still being troubled by occasional ghost-like appearances of his dead wife.

The actual manuscript thus comes to an end, but the Madman’s Manuscript is not quite finished. A note, a medical theory, added to the story, tells the reader that the awareness that an hereditary madness existed in his family produced a gloom, which in time developed a morbid insanity, and finally terminated in raving madness (209-end).

First of all, we would like to have a closer look at the vocabulary. Throughout the whole text Dickens makes use of words like ”terror” (3), ”fright” (6), ”howl”

(11), ”doomed” (25), ”dreadful” (29), ”scream” (35), ”blood” (90), ”death-like”

(95), to name a few. These are all words, which on the one hand, set the tone of the story and create the gloomy, frightening, ghostlike atmosphere, and on the other hand, directly imply, what the story is all about: terror, fright, death and - above all - madness.

In a second step, it is inevitable to focus on the madman’s relationship to his wife. Therefore we would shortly come back to the circumstances under which they married.

Obviously, it was not love at first sight between the two, specially seen from the woman’s point of view. She came from a poor family and was more or less forced by his brother to marry the rich madman, although she was in love with another man. Whether they expected him to die within a short time because of his hereditary madness is not stated clearly but seems quite reasonable since in that case the girl’s family would have inherited all the madman’ riches and could have lead a prosperous life.

The madman, however, was not conscious about all that, but he soon recognised that his wife did not seem very happy with the marriage:

For nearly a year I saw that face grow paler; for nearly a year I saw the tears steal down the mournful cheeks, and never knew the cause.13

At last he became aware of what was going on. Not being in love was one thing, but in addition to that the girl did not even emulate his riches. The only reason why she married him was because her brother forced her to.

They could not keep it from me long. She had never liked me; I had never thought she did: she despised my wealth, and hated the splendour in which she lived; I had not expected that. She loved another. This I had never thought of.14

From that moment, the situation abruptly became more and more critical for the supposed madman gradually developed a real madness:

Strange feelings come over me, and thoughts, forced upon me by some secret power, whirled round and round my brain. I did not hate her, though I hated the boy she still wept for. I pitied - yes, I pitied - the wretched life to which her cold and selfish relations had doomed her.15

Or even worse than that:

I knew that she could not live long, but the thought that before her death she might give birth to some ill-fated being, destined to hand-down madness to its offspring, determined me. I resolved to kill her.16

For weeks he considered various ways to kill her but never could make it. (109-116), until ‘at last the old spirits who had been with him so often before whispered that the time had come, and thrust the open razor into his hand’ (117-119).

Certainly, the woman must have noticed a change in her husband’s behaviour. Side by side with her sufferings about the unhappy marriage, she now even witnessed him changing into a real madman. For us, this seems to be the explanation why she eventually developed a madness herself, and of course, her husband’s final attempt to kill her was the most decisive factor.

In our opinion, this strange character development just described and the story about madness, is another aspect which lets A Madman’s Manuscript become a ghost story.

I don’t remember forms or faces now, but I know the girl was beautiful. I know she was; for in the bright moon-light nights, when I start up from my sleep, and all is quiet above me, I see, standing still and motionless in one corner of the cell, a slight and wasted figure with long black hair [...]17

Hush! The blood chills at my heart as I write it down - that form is her’s [...]18

While writing down his words in the cell, he is aware of the fact that he is no longer able to distinguish fiction from reality and has gone mad in the end:

I remember - though it’s one of the last things I can remember: for now I mix up realities with my dreams, and having so much to do, and being always hurried here, have no time to separate the two, from some strange confusion in which they get involved [...]19

Last but not least, we have to come back again to what the author called

”a note” (209) added to the actual manuscript: What we have already remarked when discussing The Signalman, seem also true for A Madman’s Manuscript, namely the possibility that the whole case might be based on a true occurrence. In our opinion, this impression plays a great role when discussing the features of a ghost story in A Madman’s Manuscript.

5.3 Comparison

After having analysed both The Signalman and A Madman’s Manuscript - two ghost stories by Charles Dickens - especially with regard to their ghostly elements, we can now state some similarities as well as certain differences:

First of all, both stories seem to be based on a true event. In the case of the signalman, a railway accident might have been the idea for the story while the madman’s story appears to be real because of the note which has been added at the end. For us it is clear that a ghost story which could have derived from a real event always appears even more ghostly than a story with an invented, ‘unrealistic’ plot.

As we have shown, the basic elements of a ghost story - a ghostly atmosphere, strange behaving protagonists and apparitions - are all contained in both stories. Dickens creates in both tales a very uncanny and gloomy atmosphere. In The Signalman he achieves this by setting it in a dark and cold place which appears like a dungeon or hell. A Madman’s Manuscript receives its ghostly mood by the description of the madness and its development and the story around the madman’s wife. Moreover, elements of crime and horror can be found in these stories. This is, on the one hand, due to the three ghosts in The Signalman who precede the fatal accidents. The horror element in the manuscript, on the other hand, is the ‘mad’ man who tries to murder his wife.

In those ghostly surroundings live the protagonists - the signalman and the madman. Both live a kind of isolated life: the signalman because of his lonesome work and the madman because of his madness which (in his eyes) excludes him from other people around him. Obviously, the strange behaviour of the two characters we can observes are caused by those living conditions.

I remember - though it’s one of the last things I can remember: for now I mix up realities with my dreams, and having so much to do, and being always hurried here, have no time to separate the two, from some strange confusion in which they get involved [...]20

And it is the same with the signalman. He is not longer able to distinguish between the voice of his apparitions and a real voice. Thus he is cut down by an engine in the end.

Another similarity of the two stories lies in the reason for their apparitions. In our opinion, this is also because of the life they live. They are both very lonesome persons, living under almost unbearable conditions. The signalman lives in a small hut near the railway. It is a dark and lonely place and his work just consists in stereotyped conditions.

The madman lives with the knowledge that he is mad what no one besides him is aware of. Therefore, he has to hide his madness - a quite difficult task. The

6.0 Epilogue

Now that we have introduced you to Charles Dickens, his relation to ghost stories as well as to two of his famous works, we hope that you understand and maybe even share our fascination.

Surely, Old Marley’s apparitions are more famous than any of Dickens’ short stories, but as we have tried to show with this paper, there is much more to Dickens than only his Christmas Carol - especially when talking about ‘ghosts’.

Last but not least, we would like to end our paper with the artist’s own words, probably stating his intention of writing story like The Signalman, A Madman’s Manuscript and others:

I wants to make your flesh creep!21

7.0 Literature

- Baldick, Chris. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
- Charles Dickens - The Signalman & Other Ghost Stories. UK: Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1990.
- Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia 1995 on CD-ROM. Compton’s New Media, 1995.
- Cuddon, J. A., ed. The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1984.
- Dolley, Christopher, ed. The Penguin Book of English Short Stories. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1967.
- Haining, Peter, ed. The Complete Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens. London: Michael Joseph Ltd, 1982.
- Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.
- Hayes, Michael, ed. The Supernatural Short Stories of Charles Dickens. London: John Calder, 1978.
- Microsoft Bookshelf ’94 on CD-ROM. Microsoft Corporation, 1994


1 Illustration taken from Haining, Peter, ed. The Complete Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens. London: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1982, page 2.

2 The word ghost itself is an old one. The Old English form of it is gast, denoting a soul or spirit. Equivalents were Old Frisian gast, Old Swedish gest and Old High German geist.

3 Microsoft Bookshelf ’94 on CD-ROM. Microsoft Corporation, 1994.

4 Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. Sixth Edition. New York: Macmillan, 1992, page 215.

5 Illustration taken from Charles Dickens - The Signalman & Other Ghost Stories. UK: Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1990, coverpage.

6 Taken from Cuddon, J. A., ed. The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1984, p. 16.

7 Lines refer to The Signalman in Cuddon, J. A., ed. The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1984.

8 The Signalman, p. 302, ll. 135-139.

9 The Signalman, p. 306, ll. 304-307.

10 Lines refer to A Madman’s Manuscript in Cuddon, J. A., ed. The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1984, p. 63 ff.

11 A Madman’s Manuscript, p. 69, ll. 249-50.

12 Illustration taken from A Madman’s Manuscript in Cuddon, J. A., ed. The Penguin Book of Ghost Stories. London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1984, p. 68.

13 A Madman’s Manuscript, p. 65, ll. 96-97.

14 A Madman’s Manuscript, p. 65, ll. 98-101.

15 A Madman’s Manuscript, p. 65, ll. 101-105.

16 A Madman’s Manuscript, p. 65, ll. 105-108.

17 A Madman’s Manuscript, p. 65, ll. 84-88.

18 A Madman’s Manuscript, p. 65, ll. 89-90.

19 A Madman’s Manuscript, p. 67, ll. 173-176.

20 A Madman’s Manuscript, p. 67, ll. 173-176.

21 The Fat Boy in the Pickwick Papers.

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Charles Dickens and the Ghost Story
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Michael Grawe (Autor:in), 1996, Charles Dickens and the Ghost Story, München, GRIN Verlag,


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