On June 9th of 1865, sitting comfortably on his train home from Paris, Charles Dickens had a brush with death. Workmen on a bridge had failed to signal that a section of the track was missing. Several of the carriages plunged into the river below, with Dickens’ own carriage left teetering at the top. The following year, Dickens would publish his most haunting ghost story, ‘The Signalman’. Claire Ashworth shows how this inspired tale is a representation of repressed trauma, that both looks back to Dickens’ own experiences but also anticipates the work of later psychological theorists.
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The concept of ‘Time’ in many of Dickens’ novels is a fluid, circular concept that was ahead of its era in many respects. In A Christmas Carol (1843), for example, the narrative begins in the present but then follows a strange linear-defying structure as Scrooge visits places in the past, alternate present, alternate future and back to the present. This strange temporality is augmented by the fact that, once Scrooge is restored to his ‘own time and place’, his terrifying visions of the future become memories of a future that did not and will not happen since he becomes a reformed man. By changing his ways and becoming a better person, Scrooge does not die in the way he foresaw and is thus able to avoid his fate.
The idea of ‘future memory’, as exemplified by Scrooge, is a concept which fascinated Dickens and many of his contemporaries including George Eliot, The Lifted Veil (1859) and Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White (1860). In The Lifted Veil, for instance, the protagonist also foresees his own death but, unlike Scrooge, he is powerless to prevent it. Dickens takes this concept to another level in his most intellectually complex ghost story, ‘The Signal-Man’ (1866) in which he explores the effects of shock on the mind and the ability of the past to encroach on the present; an exploration which anticipated Freud in many respects.
This podcast was recorded during our series of Late Summer Lectures 2019. Hear more from the series.