Is it a jealous narrator who’s distraught at his lover’s increasing lack of interest in him? Or is the song about guilt, and the narrator’s refusal to reform?
Both interpretations are plausible. Undoubtedly the narrator is so overcome by jealousy that he can no longer trust his lover. We even wonder whether his suspicions might be well-founded. But our initial impression is soon complemented by one which sees him as a callous and impenitent self-seeker trying his lover’s patience by persisting in outrageous expectations of her.
Since the first interpretation is relatively straightforward, it will be better to come back to it later and concentrate for now on the song as a presentation of guilt and possible redemption.
The first verse presents the narrator’s thoughts, and then the remaining five verses – including a surreal chorus – are as if addressed to the woman.
That the song is about guilt is apparent from the first line:
‘I’m getting weary looking in my baby’s eyes’
Just as Is Your Love In Vain? uses an idea from The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, so this song makes use of some of the wording:
There passed a weary time. Each throat
Was parched, and glazed each eye.
A weary time! a weary time!
How glazed each weary eye
The crew’s weariness is a result of their guilt in approving the death of the albatross. Dylan’s use of the somewhat archaic term ‘weary’ in a context involving eyes therefore seems to imply that the narrator here is guilty of something. That this is so is confirmed at several points in the song.
In claiming to be ‘weary’ the narrator may be genuinely fed up with his lover for not meeting his expectations. She’s not privy to his thoughts in this verse, so he may be more resigned to losing her than he’s prepared to let her know. If it’s true that he hardly recognises her when she’s nearby, this suggests that what he really appreciates is the more idealised picture of her stored in his memory. In telling us ‘there’s no room for regret’, he seems on the one hand determined to win her back, but on the other to be admitting to feeling smothered by her presence1. Nevertheless, his mere mention of regret implies he may be feeling more responsible for how things have turned out than he’s letting on.
It’s significant that he’s looking in her eyes when he starts to tire of her. In the lines which follow, the word ‘eyes’ gets echoed in the words ‘recognise‘ and ‘realise‘:
‘I’m getting weary looking in my baby’s eyes
When she’s near me she’s so hard to recognise
I finally realise …’
The repetition of ‘eyes’ in these words makes her seem ubiquitous, as if – God-like – she’s aware of everything he’s doing. This possible implication of a divine nature is followed by others later.
Another effect of the repeated ‘I’ sounds is to make the narrator seem egoistical. He doesn’t recognise the woman because he’s so concerned about himself – as if, when looking in her eyes, he sees only reflections of himself.
In the third verse the narrator describes himself as:
‘ … lyin’ down in the reeds without any oxygen’
The main significance of this becomes apparent in the line which follows:
‘I saw you in the wilderness among the men’
Here the woman is being overtly identified with Christ (Matt 4.1-11). Although the narrator is implying she gives in to temptation – he sees her ‘among the men’ – his untrustworthiness allows us to assume that, like Christ, she successfully resists it.
The first line quoted is significant in that it suggests the narrator should also be seen as in the wilderness. Not only does ‘reeds’ suggest a wilderness, but the slightly awkward sounding ‘in the’, which introduces the word, makes us associate it with ‘in the wilderness’. In his case, though, the fact that ‘lying’ can have a sexual sense suggests he is not resisting temptation.
The Woman As Redeemer
Implicitly by being ‘in the reeds’ the narrator is being compared with Moses who as a baby was hidden in bulrushes. In one way this is ironic, given his behaviour. But in another it presents him as a heathen in need of redemption.
That the woman is to be seen as his potential redeemer is apparent from the line:
‘Saw you drift into infinity and come back again’
Her divine nature is further being indicated both by the association with infinity, and her coming back again – which can be taken as a reference both to Christ’s resurrection and his second coming. The narrator will have an opportunity to be redeemed, and whether or not he takes it will determine how he’s ultimately judged.
The fourth verse sees both the narrator, again as Moses, and the woman, as Christ, in hell:
‘But this weekend in hell is making me sweat’
While on one level the weekend in hell is a short, unpleasant period spent by the narrator in the woman’s company, on another it’s Christ’s harrowing of hell between his crucifixion and resurrection. It’s on this level that the woman is in hell – not as punishment, but as the narrator’s redeemer. Just as Christ redeemed Moses, and those like Moses in hell through no fault of their own, so the woman can be seen as the narrator’s potential redeemer.
But the narrator is also experiencing hell in that he’s the subject of fear. He fears the woman’s leaving him, and this is a fear brought on by his infidelities. Whether or not he’s redeemed will depend on whether or not he continues to be unfaithful.
There’s irony in that the fires of hell are making the narrator sweat, since it’s the woman who is the ‘hard worker’ while the narrator’s seems to do little more than lie down and complain of weariness. The point seems to be that those who make an appropriate effort will suffer less than those who don’t.
Need For Redemption
Just as it’s imprudent for anyone to wait until Christ’s return at the last judgment before reforming, for by then it will be too late, so it’s imprudent for the narrator to wait for the woman to ‘come back again’ before reforming. It will be too late, and his condemnation to hell will then be irrevocable.
His fear that she’ll abandon him is echoed in the final verse by the appearance of the archaic word ‘forsake’ in:
‘Don’t forsake me, baby …’
which is reminiscent of the biblical; ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me’ (Matt 27.46, Psalm 22.1). At the same time the narrator treats her as untrustworthy, likely to sell him out. Without supplying any evidence, he sees her as doing the opposite of what she’s actually doing. He sees her about to sell him rather than buy him back – redeem him.
From Mexico To Tibet
Instead of relinquishing his life of infidelity and committing himself to her, the narrator at best procrastinates with the absurd declaration:
‘All you got to do is wait and I’ll tell you when’
The absurdity is in his expecting her to meekly wait, so that he can continue to pursue the life of a philanderer. This becomes even more apparent in the final verse. There, while blaming the woman for his lack of direction, he unconsciously gives away the extent of his infidelity:
‘Don’t keep me knockin’ about from Mexico to Tibet‘
Not only is he being unfaithful – ‘knockin’ about’ – anywhere and everywhere, but he has the gall to suggest that it’s her fault that he’s constantly unfaithful to her:
‘Don’t keep me knockin’ about …’
And it’s not just the geographical extent of his philandering which he’s unconsciously admitting to. Earlier he had complained:
‘Every day of the year’s like playing Russian roulette’
Again the admission is unconscious. He’d intended to imply it was her infidelity and subsequent rejection of him which kept him in a continual state of suspense. But, if she were the guilty one, there’d be no sense in which his experience would be like that of playing Russian roulette. As it happens, the image is well chosen. The ‘Russian’ of ‘Russian roulette’ makes us want to associate it with the other distant places mentioned – Mexico and Tibet. The resulting implication is that it’s his daily ‘knockin’ about’ which he sees as risking his relationship.
There’s a further implication of the ‘Mexico to Tibet’ image. While the countries are far apart, the distance he travels is nothing compared to her:
‘Saw you drifting to infinity and come back again’
Furthermore, not only does she reach infinity but she returns from it – presumably, like Christ, out of selflessness. He, on the other hand, has yet to return from his knocking about.
In the light of all this his claim:
‘You belong to me, baby, without any doubt’
seems at best wishful thinking, and at worst presumptive.
The phrase ‘I’ll tell you‘ in:
‘All you got to do is wait and I’ll tell you when’
is significant for bringing out a contrast in attitude between the woman and the narrator. The reference to telling reminds us of what he said in verse two:
‘You told me that you’d be sincere’
While he tells her he’s not going to commit himself till he’s ready to give up his philandering, she had previously told him she’d be loyal.
Not only does a juxtaposition of the expressions draw attention to the narrator’s lack of sincerity, but the phrase ‘You told me’ implies further insincerity. It has an air of being hard-done-by about it, as if she’s let him down. What he’s doing is once again blaming her for a fault which he knows is in fact his own.
‘True love, true love, true love tends to forget’
echoes the title and occurs at the end of all but the two chorus verses. The meaning, however, varies from verse to verse. At the end of the first verse it seems the narrator wants an excuse for no longer recognising his ‘baby’ as the woman she was. He puts it down to his ‘true love’ for her. This true love for her makes him forget what she’s really like. He remembered her as having been faithful, but his love for her has caused him to get it wrong – or so he tries to convince himself.
While at the end of the second verse the same words are again used to express criticism, this time the focus is a lack of sincerity on her part. And this he attributes to her love causing her to forget him. In neither verse does he cast any doubt on the extent of their love – it’s ‘true love’. Or, again, so he tries to convince himself.
By the fourth verse, when the line next appears, the criticism is reiterated. The fault is on her side. Additionally, though, the idea that the woman’s true love is forgetful is made to seem absurd since it follows on from the implicit identification of the woman with Christ in the chorus. In her role as Christ she is extremely unlikely to forget him. On the contrary, if he loses her the fault will be his own.
While her ‘true love’ is genuinely true, and it certainly won’t forget him, the opposite is the case for his. Declaring that true love tends to forget has become a threat about what he’ll do – forget his commitment to her – if she doesn’t accede to his wishes not to ‘forsake him’ and keep him ‘knockin’ about’.
Second Interpretation: The Woman As Unfaithful
There are reasons for sympathising with the narrator. As noted above, it’s possible he has good reason for his suffering since, whether it’s true or not, he may genuinely think the woman is being unfaithful. We’re nowhere given a strong reason to think that the woman isn’t playing the same game of Russian roulette that he is. It’s just that it seems unlikely given that he seems to declare the opposite in admitting she’s a ‘hard worker’. It also seems particularly unlikely given that she’s compared with Christ.
Nevertheless, every verse contains something which could be interpreted as going against the woman. She might be ‘so hard to recognise’ because she’s no longer the faithful woman she was. And the fact that the narrator accuses her of not being sincere does allow the possibility that she’s not kept her word. We’ve got no clear reason to suppose that when she was ‘among the men’ she wasn’t in fact giving in to temptation rather than resisting it, and it may be that we should trust the narrator when he says he knows her well and thinks she isn’t encouraging him enough. Maybe he’s right too when he accuses her of being a tearjerker.
Even if the narrator is just jealous, and there’s no justification for his suspicions, these would at least provide a genuine reason for sympathy. But there isn’t if his unhappiness simply results from his thinking he’s going to lose her because he’s not prepared to commit himself .
One can understand that the narrator might genuinely think the woman is being unfaithful. It seems no more likely he’s right, though, than that we should think the opposite about him. Nevertheless the song is probably best seen as supporting both this interpretation and that it’s about guilt, represented by the narrator’s philandering, and the possibility of redemption.
On the latter view the woman plays a Christ-like role as potential redeemer, but it is only as a potential redeemer. There’s no reason to expect her patience to be inexhaustible – and the narrator seems presumptuous in expecting her to wait till he’s ready to reform.
1 That there’s ‘no room for regret’ may also refer to the narrator’s infidelity. He recognises what it’s doing to his relationship, but refuses to reform on the dubious ground that there’s ‘no room’.