Is Your Love In Vain?


Any inclination to see this as an emotional love song is soon dispelled. It’s immediately apparent that  the narrator’s approach to wooing the woman is, absurdly, to impose numerous conditions on her. In fact the song is better seen as a dramatic monologue in which the narrator unintentionally betrays numerous untoward aspects of his character as he ineptly tries to get the woman to accede to his will. As the song progresses, he comes across as a devious, selfish, misogynistic, naive, self-deceiving egotist.  Yet he may not be as malicious as this implies. We find he’s pathetically incapable of forging a successful relationship and that he may well realise this. His negative behaviour may not be malicious so much as resulting from a hopeless attempt to resolve his problem. Not only does the song present  a complex personal psychology, but in combining so many negative traits in one individual, that individual is perhaps best seen as a reflection of humanity at large.

The song is structured so as to reflect the development of the narrator’s thoughts. While the first two verses  contain what he actually says to the woman, the third temporarily abandons the dramatic monologue approach to give us his private thoughts. These lead to a change of tack in the final verse in which he is again speaking to the woman.

First Verse

Right from the start we learn that the narrator is devious. He puts on a show of being selfless, apparently re-assuring the woman that he won’t be put out if she chooses not to have him:

‘… you won’t hear me complain’,

 That this is just a show of selflessness is apparent from the speed at which he turns the conversation to himself:

‘Will I be able to count on you …?’

Selfishness is also suggested by the refrain:

‘Or is your love in vain?’

It seems to be implying that if he can’t count on her  he’ll reject her. Her love for him will be wasted if she doesn’t meet his expectations.

Not only is this cruelly insensitive, but he also manages to combine presenting his conditions with making any adverse outcome seem her fault. It’s her love that’s in vain. There’s no hint that he might be failing to come up to her requirements.

Second Verse

The second verse continues to present the narrator’s character. He’s still laying down the law regarding his expectations of the woman. Bizarrely, he insists on being left alone:

‘I must have solitude’

and he implicitly tells her off for wanting to be with him:

‘… why do you intrude?’

Some lover!  In addition to imposing conditions, he demeans her by patronizingly treating her as if she’s stupid:

‘Or must I explain?’

And finally she’s again virtually blackmailed into submission in the refrain. If she doesn’t yield to his demands, he’ll call the whole thing off. One wonders if, subconsciously at least, he might not be looking for an excuse to do just that.

Egotism In The Third Verse

Musically the third verse is a bridge which facilitates the transition from the second to the fourth and final verse. But it also works as a way of facilitating the narrator’s transition from his attitude in the earlier verses to the somewhat different attitude expressed in the final verse.

A major difference compared with the earlier verses is the language used.  Whereas in each of the other verses the personal pronouns ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’ are used  fewer times than ‘you’ and ‘your’ (sixteen compared with twenty), the word ‘I’ alone occurs six times in this verse and ‘you’ and ‘your’ not at all. There are several possible reasons for this.

First,  if we take into account that it’s not just ‘I’, but ‘I’ve’  (or ‘I have’) which is repeated, the verse can be seen as an attempt by the narrator to give himself confidence. On only one other occasion in the song is ‘I’ used with a verb in the past tense. Here he comes across as assertive, detailing not what he wants, but what he’s already achieved.  It’s noticeable that this is the only verse in which there are no questions. One suspects, however, that there’s so much assertion going on in the verse, that it’s really a cover for his insecurity.

On the other hand, the egotism may reflect the fact that that since the narrator’s no longer speaking aloud, there’s  no need to put on an appearance of unselfish concern.

Finally, and most importantly for what follows, the constant use of first person pronouns would seem to reflect a change of tactic. It’s as if the narrator is taking a break from addressing the woman in order to scheme his next move in private. We, but not the woman, are privy to thoughts which represent his real reasons for wanting to start a relationship. In going over them, he’s wondering whether they’d justify his making a concession. At any rate, such a concession – to accede to her supposed desire for a relationship – is made at the beginning of the final verse.

Self-deceit In The Third Verse

While his thoughts remain private and unshared with the woman, that’s no reason for us to take them at face value. Even while taking stock, the narrator it seems cannot do so without indulging in self-deceit. He creates a fantasy world in which he paints his past life as untypically full and rich. It’s difficult to believe that this reflects the truth:

‘I’ve been to the mountain and I’ve been in the wind’


‘I have dined with kings, I’ve been offered wings
And I’ve never been too impressed’

Not impressed? Then why mention it? And in any case, why not be impressed? It sounds impressive. In any case, if what he’s saying were true, one would expect it to be still going on. Why is he not still dining with kings? Why didn’t he accept the offer of wings? Far more likely the narrator is exaggerating his successes in order to impress. Since the woman isn’t privy to his thoughts, it must be to impress himself. In so doing, he comes across as someone who has failed, but can’t bear to admit it.

The self-deception goes further than wildly exaggerating in order to impress, however. He pretends to be disdainful of what he’s supposedly achieved. Having presented himself as superior, he then pretends to be above it all. Rather than admit to the consequences of failure, he convinces himself that he has no desire for the trappings of success. His standards are higher – or so he’d have himself believe.

There’s yet further self-deceit hidden in the apparently innocent comment:

‘I’ve been in and out of happiness’

The phrase is awkward. One doesn’t speak of being ‘in happiness’ or ‘out of happiness’. The narrator seems to have substituted ‘happiness’ for ‘love’, for one can fall in love, and fall out of love. It seems he’s avoiding saying he’s been in and out of love. But why? Is this also something he doesn’t want to admit even to himself? If he hasn’t, that might explain the crassness of his attempts to negotiate a relationship. Again he’s coming across as someone trying to cover up for inadequacy. One can well understand why he’s , as he puts it, ‘been burnt before’.


Self deception is a trait not just confined to the third verse. Throughout the song he acts as if he can be so sure of the woman’s love that he can call all the shots. That this is mere wishful thinking is indicated by the uncertainty inherent in the opening words:

‘Do you love me … ?’

and in his suspicion that her protestation of love is no more than a symptom of guilt.

Above everything else the narrator’s attitude to love is a sign that behaviour initially seeming malicious is essentially the result of inadequacy. He claims to have experienced love:

‘I’ve been burned before and I know the score’,

but, even if it’s true,  the expression ‘the score’ hints at the reason it came to nothing. It suggests a tendency to quantify relationships. The idea is reinforced when he asks:

‘Will I be able to count on you?’

– the word ‘count’ having a similar meaning  to ‘score’.

Ignorance about love would explain the absurdity of the final verse’s opening line in which he’s back to addressing the woman:

‘All right, I’ll take a chance, I will fall in love with you’

Is he really unaware that falling in love with someone is not something one chooses to do, let alone chooses to do after careful consideration? He’s seeming getting more and more out of his depth.

Fourth Verse

Nevertheless, to  fall in love with the woman is the concession he condescends to make in the final verse, having convinced himself in the previous verse that he’d have nothing to lose.

In making the concession, he puts on a show of reluctance:

‘All right, I’ll take a chance …’

While on the surface he appears to be trying  to make himself sound magnanimous, his beginning with ‘All right’ suggests he wants to look as if he’s been forced to give in. Maybe this is to bolster his self-esteem. Nevertheless it implies that the woman’s been badgering him, in the light of which he’ll selflessly do what she wants. The reference to taking a chance also seems to be to give the impression he’s doing it for her against his better judgment.

But not for long. Four lines later he asks:

‘Are you willing to risk it all …?’

Suddenly she is the one who’s expected to take a chance.

Further disingenuousness is apparent in his announcing:

‘If I’m a fool you can have the night, you can have the morning too’

The context requires us to see this as generosity since previously (and absurdly given he’s thinking of starting a relationship) he’d resented being interrupted at night, seeing it as an intrusion. But now, he’d have her believe, he is prepared to sacrifice his nocturnal solitude to her. And not just the night; the morning too – such generosity!

But no, we’d be wrong to take the declaration this way. What he’s actually doing is denying he’ll give up these things. They’ll be done only:

‘If I’m a fool …’

While superficially this is doubtless an attempt to feign jocularity about having been ensnared by overwhelming  emotions, the phrase betrays a lack of concern for the woman.  It seems to imply that making such concessions as these would be the action of an idiot. One is left wondering whether to condemn his selfishness, or to take pity for his inability to cope.

His standing in the listener’s eyes is not enhanced by what on the surface appears to be rampant sexism:

‘Can you cook and sew, make flowers grow’

Even in the late twentieth century such a demeaning stance would have been met with derision. It goes along with the condescending ‘Or must I explain?’ of the second verse. Nevertheless, his general ineptness makes us suspect that this outdated view of a woman’s role may be as much attributable to ignorance of the opposite sex as to genuine chauvinism .

Nevertheless, what seems inescapable is that he’s yet again thinking about what she can do for him rather than what he can do for her.

‘So Fast’

In the second verse the woman is implicitly associated with the magician in No Time To Think:

‘Are you so fast that you cannot see that I must have solitude’

The phrase ‘so fast’ reminds us of the lines:

‘The magician is quicker, and his game
Is much thicker than blood and blacker than ink’

There the magician seemed to be represent the mercurial side of the narrator’s character, and to represent his desire for revenge. Here, it would mean the narrator is implicitly, although perhaps unconsciously, associating her with a side of his character which he wants to keep in control. He’d rather be in ‘darkness’ than give in to the base desires which he allowed to overwhelm him in the earlier song.

That the narrator and the person he’s addressing are to be seen as two halves of a single individual is perhaps hinted at in the first verse where the narrator asks:

‘Do you need me half as bad as you say?’

To the admittedly limited extent that this interpretation holds, we’re at least able to sympathise with his desire to dominate.


A masterpiece of economical writing, the song depends entirely on the narrator’s own words to convey the intricacies of his psychology. While the lyrics are paramount,  words and music form a united whole.  In that the musical style is that of a love song, it serves to ironically underscore the narrator’s inability to form a romantic relationship. And the very different melody of the third verse reflects lyrical differences consistent with its representing a contemplative hiatus.

Superficially the narrator comes across as an unpleasant character attempting to benefit himself at the expense of someone else. On closer inspection, however, his manifold faults can be attributed at least in part to deeper flaws in his character which he vigorously, albeit ineptly, tries to overcome. These are his insecurity and difficulty in forming relationships. The attempt to be dominant even  becomes laudable if the person he’s addressing is interpreted as a negative side of his own character. On the main interpretation, what the narrator represents is human nature, the average person desperately trying to make something of him-or-herself, but failing hideously.

2 thoughts on “Is Your Love In Vain?

  1. Complètement hors sujet … Affligeante démonstration… Approche simpliste et prosaïque
    Il s’agit de poésie mon ami
    Chaque strophe possède une chute qui permet d’en éclairer le sens et d’en comprendre le ton
    Encore faut-il connaître l’oeuvre de Dylan dans sa globalité pour en apprécier le cynisme, le pessimisme, mais aussi le lyrisme…
    En un mot, l’art, tout simplement
    Miss Lonely
    Another side of Bob Dylan


  2. Thanks for your comment, Nelly. Be aware that my intention is just to give the meaning of the songs and so I tend not to comment on poetic or musical style unless they impinge considerably on the meaning. One reason for ignoring the music is that there can be an infinite number of different ways of singing a song, and one can’t possibly go into each one discussing its effect on the meaning. The same applies to poems; they can be recited in any number of ways. And for that reason, when analysing a poem, it’s more practical to just consider the words on the page. That’s what I’ve done here. Just analysing the words is enough to provide a quite precise account of the song’s meaning.


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