Comparison of How it happened and The Signalman Essay
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The atmosphere in How it happened is full of mystery and energy. The plot moves very quickly, imitating the speed of the automobile as in the story it is said the automobile has a horse power of thirty, ‘Then I remember the big motor, with its glaring headlights and litter of polished brass, waiting for me outside. It was my thirty-horse-power Robur, which had only been delivered that day.’ It also emphasises the lack of control the driver has over it.
Whereas the atmosphere in The Signalman creates both suspense and mystery. The appearances of the spirit help to create suspense as we anticipate them to lead us to the climax.
However, we find out at the end of the story that the signalman was getting premonitions of his own death. The appearances are really red herrings as it is the signalman himself who dies. Whereas the biggest red herring in How it happened is how the narrator speaks from memory in the first person, fooling us into believing he must still be alive. This makes the twist at the end so much more powerful. The difference of experience between the first time reader, who is fooled into believing the narrator must still be alive and the 2nd time reader who is able to pick out things that are ironic, for example, ‘ I can live it again.’ The 2nd time reader knows he’s dead when he’s saying it.
Dickens creates a strong atmosphere through the characterisation of his characters as well as his long complex sentences that can be difficult to understand. This is because of the 150 year cultural gap of reading the story. This makes differences with the way we read the story. For example, ‘The monstrous thought came into my mind, as I perused the fixed eyes and the saturnine face, that this was a spirit, not a man.’ The word ‘monstrous’ meant abnormal in 1866.
This also shows Dickens’s effort to create psychological state. He also describes things very ambiguously, for example, ‘ I resumed my downward way, and stepping out upon the level of the railroad, and drawing nearer to him, saw that he was a dark sallow man, with a dark beard and rather heavy eyebrows. His post was in as solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw.’ The words underlined make the signalman difficult to imagine because if everything is dark, you would not be able to make out his features.
The title How it happened is deliberately allusive to draw the reader in. But, it does immediately introduce suspense as we wonder what it refers to. Whereas the title The Signalman conveys urgency.
The characterisation created in How it happened is that the narrator characterises himself as a risk taker, admitting ‘one often does foolish things’ to the reader. This adds to his sense of honesty but also makes us question his decision taking. Also, it provides tension between two ways of behaving which should interest us. Whereas the characterisation created in The Signalman is a bit different because both the characters remain shrouded in mystery and this adds to the sense of curiosity that surrounds the story. We don’t know the protagonist intimately to picture him in our mind.
The themes in The Signalman include death, the supernatural and reason. Dickens sometimes uses the convention of quotation marks and sometimes does not. This reflects the contrasts of rationality and supernatural goings on. The narrator tries to give reasons to the visions that the signalman has, yet the final image of the story is of the narrator seeing the image of the signalman and the ghost himself. Dickens cleverly manipulates tension to give the final image the haunting effect. Whereas in How it happened, Arthur Conan Doyle was an apparent rationalist and he believed that after your death, you could continue to live on as a spirit. It was also believed that these spirits could communicate with the living through people known as ‘mediums’. This belief is present in the story where the narrator has survived his death in order to tell us how it happened. This idea is given more credit when we know that the story originally started with the line, ‘This story was told to me by a medium’.
The story How it happened was written in 1918 and involves a high-powered automobile. This suggests to us the story must have been written about the present at the time. It is also set in London. At that time, London was still the centre of an empire and this important as the story involves aspects of modernism. Whereas the setting of The Signalman is important as Dickens goes to a lot of effort to make the story seem ghostly and surreal. Dickens was writing this story involving trains because they were the biggest and finest machines at the time and by writing the story to do with railway system he is challenging it. Dickens was also in a famous train crash. The Signalman’s job is a job of life and death. The one in the story has a reputation for being good at the job.
The signalman works in a cutting and that the descent into this place is described as if one is descending to the underworld of Greek Mythology. The ‘clammy stone’ and that fact that it becomes ‘oozoer’ and ‘wetter’ helps create this sense. They key aspect of the cutting is its remoteness. The tunnel as well is described as having ‘wet stains’, suggesting that this is a place you would not want to visit. This helps to make an eerie atmosphere and makes it easier for us to imagine spirits and other ghostly aspects. The story is an intensely human story about psychological differences between two people whereas How it happened is about dealing with the physical and spirit world.
The narrative voice in How it happened is in the first person and we tend to trust its honesty about the first person. This is because the narrator admits to not remembering everything clearly. ‘I can remember some things upon that evening most distinctly, and others are like some vague, broken dreams. This is what makes it so difficult to tell a connected story.’ This openness suggests we are going to hear the truth. He also blames neither the car nor Perkins for events but himself. ‘I also remember asking Perkins, my chauffeur, how she had gone, and his saying that he thought she was excellent.’
The ways he says, ‘Perkins, my chauffeur’ tell us social standing and class of narrator. The narrator gains a ghostly aspect at the end, when we find out he is dead, and this introduces the idea of Spiritualism that is key to the story. Whereas the narrative voice in The Signalman is also in the first person and we find that until the end of the story we are not sure if we can totally trust it. This is because of the ambiguities in the description of things as well as the lack of information about the narrator himself. But we can tell the visitor is a sceptic.
He chooses not to believe that the bell was rung by a ghost without proof. ‘I caught at that. Did it ring your bell yesterday evening when I was here, and you went to the door?’ As readers, we side with the sceptic. The skill of the story is that most people will not agree the bell rang without sound. There is also an additional piece of irony, the sceptic doesn’t believe in the ghost but he says the same things the ghost said like ‘Halloa!’ Although he does tell us that he is ‘a man who had been shut up within narrow limits’ until ‘at last set free’. But it is difficult to understand this because we don’t know if he’s referring metaphorically to something else or talking as if he has spent a long time in prison.