Desire and Anxiety in the Victorian Ghost Story
Part 1: Trauma and compulsive repetition in The Signal Man, Charles Dickens

The emergence of ghost stories during the Victorian era mirrors the emergence of fast-paced social developments in transportation, communication and sexual liberation, and could consequently be read as a means to channel social anxieties. Themes of masculinity, anxiety and change are repetitively acknowledged within the genre.
Charles Dickens, Freud, Psychoanalysis
Railway disaster, trauma and repetition

“How are we to account for the strange human craving for the pleasure of being afraid?” – Virginia Woolf

During the nineteenth century, the technology of the railway gave rise to large-scale, disastrous accidents. In 1865 Dickens was involved in a large-scale rail accident which left many dead. The author was witness to this mass destruction and death as a result. This trauma is highly evident within ‘The Signalman,’ in which Dickens finds expression for his anxiety through repetition.

Forrest Reid proposes that Poe’s stories ‘are forced from the writer by some dark, secret collaborator; they are written with the terrible intensity of one who abandons himself to an obsession.’ In light of this, Dickens’ disturbing tale, ‘The Signalman,’ can be read in a similar manner – like Poe, Dickens remains ‘unaccountably’ within the recesses of his own traumatic experiences. The railway line in the story fronts issues of anxiety and desire, symbolising the author’s internalised fear.

In ‘The Signalman,’ time is frozen – the narrator leaves the ‘natural world,’ descending to the ghostly ravine below. The signalman exists within a non-time of repetition and surrealism. Words such as ‘vague vibration,’ ‘violent’ and ‘vapour’ within close proximity of each other, lend themselves visually to the concept of unnatural places, cut away from the rational world. This comes as a result of the semiotic value of the letter ‘V’ which litters the page. The narrator enters the world of false perceptions, where the standard hospitality of Dickensian writing and framing has been bracketed off and become, instead, a world of anxiety.

‘Is there any path by which I can come down and speak to you?’ the narrator asks the signalman before ‘zigzagging’ along the downwards path to the depth of his own subconscious mind. Matus suggests that ‘to be traumatised is arguably to be haunted, to be living a ghost story,’ – the traumatised are haunted by their own memories, possessed, as by the grip of a spirit, by incurable thought and anxiety.

The Uncanny accountability of silence and doubles

The story is steeped in silence – the signalman replies to the narrator ‘without sound,’ and yet the characters understand one another. This lends to the uncanny interpretation that the men mirror each other as doubles. ‘I was doubtful,’ the signalman tells the narrator at their first meeting, ‘whether I had seen you before.’ The first words spoken by the host hark of doubt, doubling, being split in two; there are two minds within the tale, the logical mind of the writer and the traumatised underlayer with a desire to recover itself through repetition.

An additional aspect of the story is the latent anxiety regarding technological progression. The signalman communicates with other rail workers via telegraph – the experience of a voice with no body, eye-contact, or warmth is uncanny, ghostlike and unnatural, particularly within the context of Victorian readership. As discussed earlier, the evolving conceptions of travel gave way to ‘large-scale disastrous accidents,’ a public crisis, and could therefore represent social anxiety regarding technological progression and revolution within the context of ‘The Signalman.’

Read The Signal Man, or watch the fantastic short animation below.