In “The Signalman”, Dickens plays on the blurred line between human emotion and logic in understanding the natural and supernatural world around us. He argues that while humans primarily rely on logical thought process to contemplate the tangible, physical objects, the heart plays a larger role in understanding – and in this case, foreshadowing – by means of the supernatural. Dickens illustrates this conflict through the two main character’s voices, “‘Why not tell me where the accident was to happen, -if it must happen? Why not tell me how it could be averted,-if it could have been averted? …And I, Lord help me! A mere poor signal-man on this solitary station! Why not go to somebody with credit to be believed, and the power to act?’” We see this line between human emotion and logic continue to blur as the storyline develops, and as the area of the natural and the supernatural converge. In this particular snippet, we see Dickens employ tools like punctuation to represent the internal struggle of the signalman. Using hyphens, exclamation points, and question marks, he chops the signalman’s thoughts into short, simple sentences to portray the anguish over the death of the beautiful woman and the anxiety for the future death to come.
My claim is that Hamlet’s uncle and new stepfather, Claudius, unmasks the contempt he feels towards Hamlet, revealing the dark nature of his character, and therefore alerting the audience to the potentiality of foul play from Claudius regarding King Hamlet’s death. While previously in the play we see Claudius as a gracious king (despite a couple moments at which his true nature slips through), the true, vicious side of Hamlet’s stepfather and uncle is revealed to the audience with starling clarity as he uses his words as spears to pierce into Hamlet’s mourning of his deceased father. In doing so, the audience is given the first warning signs of Claudius’ ulterior motives. In the text, Claudius states, “’Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,/To give these mourning duties to your father….. But to persevere/In obstinate condolement is a course/Of impious stubbornness. ‘Tis unmanly grief./It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,/A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,/An understanding simple and unschooled.” (Shakespeare 13) While at first Claudius appears to be playing the role of understanding stepfather, he immediately shatters this illusion by disguising his contempt as “tough love”. At this point the audience is unaware that Claudius is responsible for King Hamlet’s death, but in this chosen passage, we as audience begin to see the underlying conflict taking place between the two characters. Telling Hamlet that it is “sweet and commendable” to be grieving his father’s death before turning around in the next breath to attack Hamlet’s basic human qualities (his masculinity and intelligence), Claudius’ passive-aggression runs rampant. In this passage, Claudius demonstrates his willingness to hurt others in order to achieve his goals; goals which in this case include suppressing any thought of the former king and his, in addition to removing any threats to his rule. Having said that, in doing this Claudius only further makes himself more vulnerable as he shows Hamlet and the watching audience a mere fraction of the damage of which he is capable.
“And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? … -no, no! They heard! They suspected! They knew! – they were making a mockery of my horror! … Any thing was more tolerable that this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! – and now – again! – hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!” (Poe 306)
In this near closing passage of the text, I feel like Poe uses the semantics, diction, and punctuation of the English language in order to portray the mental state of the first-person character. Previously in the text, Poe primarily uses commonly structured sentences in order to portray the insanity of the main character. For example, in the main character’s effort to convince the reader that he is perfectly sane, in the very beginning of the text he states, “How, then, am I mad? Hearken! And observe how healthily – how calmly I can tell you this story.” (Poe 303). In addition, just after the climax of the story, Poe states, “If you still think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body.” (Poe 305). The irony of the situation is that while, in so logically trying to convince the reader of his sanity, the main character does the exact opposite.
Consequently, as the character begins to lose the sense of false-logic that he has approached in telling the tale to the audience, the reader begins to lose this sense of “sanity” along with him, as he begins to break up his prose writing with frequent hyphens and shortened, one-word sentences. In addition, as in the quote above, towards the very end of this strange tale, Poe utilizes the use of punctuation to emphasize the character’s frenzy as the guilt, in the form of hearing a dead man’s heartbeat, begins to take over the main character as a result. In conclusion, Poe does an excellent job of using the semantics of the human language to demonstrate the emotion of this fictional character as his touch with the natural world is lost.