The song comprises the thoughts of the narrator as accusations made against him prey on his mind. Little is certain. We don’t know the full extent either of the accusations, or of his guilt. Neither do we find out how successful he is at resolving his inner turmoil. Revealed instead, by way of a necessarily one-sided dialogue with his now dead wife, are the subtle flaws in his character, and the beginnings of his moral regeneration.
As so often with Dylan, the song reflects on human psychology by making use of religious concepts. Sometimes these are obvious – ‘cross’, ‘visions’, ‘priest’, ‘destiny’, ‘holiness’ – while at other times words only take on a religious significance in context. An appreciation of the song does not require a commitment to any religious doctrines, but just a willingness to see them as tools for demonstrating the subtle workings of the human mind.
What follows is of course just one interpretation of the song, and it should be seen as no more than a set of suggestions about what the song might be doing. It’s very long – eighteen sections – so you might want to skim through, selecting which to read.
The alleged murderer is an intriguing character. There are good, but inconclusive, reasons to believe the rumours about him are true. It’s said he shot a man apparently in order to possess his wife and, it’s implied, to get hold of his money. After marrying the wife, he may even have done away with her as well. At any rate a more heartless reaction to the death of one’s wife would be hard to think of:
‘I can’t help it if I’m lucky’
Nevertheless, there is some doubt about the narrator’s responsibility for either death. The line:
‘Even you, yesterday you had to ask me where it was at’
might be an expression of genuine frustration that even she didn’t trust him not to have committed murder. It’s difficult to tell since it might instead be an attempt to dissimulate. We have no reason to trust him, especially since having called the wife ‘Sweet lady’ he goes on to accuse her of corruption.1
What is clear is that the narrator tries to build himself up, while simultaneously suffering from self-loathing resulting from guilt.
The Dead Wife
Throughout the song the addressee can be taken to be the wife. And the reference to her tomb in verse six makes it clear she’s dead. There’s uncertainty, though, about both when and how her death would have occurred. That her fortune has come to the narrator implies she’s been dead for a while. The reference to flowers on her tomb implies the death was more recent, however. This inconsistency is more than compounded when the narrator addresses her with:
‘Even you, yesterday you had to ask me where it was at’
This implies she was alive the previous day! We then find that not only was she alive ‘yesterday’, but that she’s still alive now:
‘It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe’
It certainly is! Breathing is among many things the dead can be relied on not to do.
There are two possible, mutually consistent, explanations of this. In physical terms she’s dead. But she’s alive in that she haunts him, acting as his conscience. He’s ‘hounded’ by her memory (v.10). In other words, since her in fact far-off physical death, she’s plagued him with guilt:
‘I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long I can’t remember what it’s like’.
The second possible explanation is that she transcends normal temporal restrictions. In a non-physical sense she’s ever-present to him, her death being at the same time distant, near, nearer still, and ultimately yet to happen. Her existence is eternal in accordance with the eternal life she’s acquired – represented by the flowers on her tomb.
On either view, the narrator would do better to abandon his criticism and emulate her instead.
Time and Eternity
The opposition between the eternal and the temporal figures at various points throughout the song through references to time. That the narrator misjudges the wife is implied by the repeated use of ‘every time’ in the chorus:
‘… every time you move your mouth’
‘…every time you move your teeth’
The association of what she says with the eternal helps to establish her moral superiority.
A reason the narrator cannot escape being the object of suspicion is that:
‘People see me all the time …’
The phrase ‘all the time’ suggests that, unless he acts to annul them, his crimes will be of eternal significance. He, by contrast, daydreams about:
‘… the way things sometimes are’,
thus establishing his lack of concern with eternal values.
The Wife as Divinely Inspired
That the narrator is capable of undergoing moral regeneration is made clear by the biblical imagery used throughout the song. Although he dismisses the breath of the wife as an idiot wind, he fails to acknowledge the truth in what she’s saying – presumably that she’s aware that he’s her first husband’s murderer, and maybe even her own. In fact her breath – the ‘idiot wind’ – can be taken not just as her voice, but as a manifestation of the Holy Ghost (cf. Acts 2:2, ‘Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven’). She is thus to be identified with God, or Christian virtue.
God is present again when the idiot wind is described as:
‘Blowing through the curtains in your room’
– a curtain or veil having been used to conceal the presence of God in the Jerusalem temple.
Similarly, in a line making an oblique reference to the crucified Christ, there’s a mention of smoke – a further manifestation of the Holy Ghost:
‘There’s a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pouring out of a boxcar door’
In Acts 2 Peter quotes the prophet Joel as saying:
‘I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.’
Not only are there billows of smoke from the boxcar referred to in verse four, but verse five contains a warning of:
‘Blood on your saddle’,
and in verse eight there’s fire – ‘the building burned’.
The narrator, then, is wrong in casting the wife as an idiot. She would be better characterised as infused by the Holy Ghost.
The Narrator’s Response
Later on there are indications that the narrator has begun to recognise the morally superior position of the wife. However, his initial reaction to her question – asking him ‘where it was at’ – is to become defensive. He repeatedly call her an idiot, and patronises her:
‘I couldn’t believe … you didn’t know me any better than that’
‘… you’ll find out …’
Rather than bring himself peace, however, the narrator perversely continues a lone battle against her and the ‘people’ mentioned in verse two, insisting he’s in the right2:
‘There’s a lone soldier on the cross …
… in the final end he won the wars after losing every battle’
Implicitly, and perhaps unconsciously, he’s referring to himself as the crucified Christ. He sees himself as a victim refusing to give up the fight, pointing to Christ’s ultimate success at the end of time – the ‘final end’. This is ironic given that the sort of peace he needs – peace of mind – will only come when he gives up the fight and takes notice of his conscience.
That he’s deceiving himself is apparent from the accusatory nature of his response to the wife’s question:
‘You hurt the ones that I love best …’
We’re given no evidence the accusation is justified, although it might well have been if he’d directed it at himself. In murdering her and her husband, he might well have hurt the ones that she loves best.
The accusation continues:
‘… and (you) cover up the truth with lies’
Again, we’re given no evidence. And again, the accusation could just as well be directed at himself. He is covering up the truth with lies both in refusing to admit to murder and in putting his newfound wealth down to good luck. Each accusation is another example of his disingenuousness, his unwillingness to admit the truth.
The fifth verse is dramatic. We don’t know why he’s woke up at the side of the road, but metaphorically ‘woke up’ can be taken to refer to a momentous experience – a revelation. This revelation is presented as the effects of a head injury:
‘visions of your chestnut mare’
‘… shoot through my head and are making me see stars’2
The word ‘shoot’ is important in that it links the episode to the husband’s murder:
‘They say I shot a man named Gray …’
It seems the narrator is remembering the murder as if he himself is the victim. Something, guilt perhaps, is making him empathise with the husband.
While seeing stars can be the result of any bang on the head, here it has further significance. In verse ten he tells the wife:
‘I followed you beneath the stars …’
an expression which not only implies she’s worth following, but seems to associate her with the heavens. In following her, he’s on the path to reform begun by the earlier, revelatory, experience of seeing stars.
The visions he had of the wife’s chestnut mare may well be related to memories of the wife’s death. As such, like Macbeth’s visions of a bleeding Banquo, they’d be a sign of guilt. The accompanying ‘shoot through my head’ reference suggests that guilt about this murder has got mixed up in his mind with guilt about the murder of her dead husband. If so, it would be the resulting double guilt which begins the process of his salvation.
That the narrator has experienced a revelation is further supported by an implicit association with St Paul. Not only does the violent incident occur on the road, but a fortune teller seems to have predicted an occurrence similar to that of the blinding light experienced by Paul (Acts 9):
‘… lightning that might strike’
The narrator’s reaction to the revelation is enigmatic – a prophesy of death:
‘One day you’ll be in the ditch, flies buzzin’ around your eyes
Blood on your saddle’
While he could be remembering a threat he’d made to the wife, it seems more likely he’s remembering being threatened, perhaps made by her now dead husband – a threat which has been fulfilled. The language associates him with evil (‘flies’ – as in ‘lord of…’), and predicts blindness and physical death. So far the narrator seems to have escaped these fates. Physically he’s alive and sighted.
Spiritually, however, he’s blind and one feels that physical blindness would be morally appropriate. The incident can be seen as having made him aware of the need for moral regeneration. The awareness is dim, however, because three verses later he’s still hypocritically, and ironically, claiming about the wife:
‘… your corrupt ways had finally made you blind’
While the narrator’s empathy with the man he killed suggests a sort of identity between them, there may be a further way in which they’re the same. The name ‘Gray’ suggests grey, in other words a midway position between black and white, or good and evil. That is where the narrator is at the end of the song. In empathising with Gray he becomes like him – to be characterised as neither good nor bad. He’s advanced, he is no longer in denial, but he still has some way to go.4
One way in which the narrator’s progress towards moral redemption is presented is through road imagery. A number of synonyms for ‘road’ are used at different points in the song – ‘way’, ‘back roads’, ‘highway’, and ‘tracks’.
In verse five the narrator dreams about:
‘the way things sometimes are’
This reminds us of Christ’s claim ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14.6), and it’s this way which seems to have occurred to the narrator as an alternative to his present way of life.
As regards roads, ‘back roads’ suggests a desire to avoid attention, particularly since one would normally take a major road on a long journey. It may be, then, that Gray was ambushed on:
‘… the backroads headin’ south’.
Contrasted with these backroads are the highway and the tracks described, in verse ten, as:
‘… roads to ecstasy’.
‘Ecstasy’ here is presumably meant both in its literal sense of standing apart from oneself, as well as in its more usual sense of extreme happiness.5 By verse ten the narrator is making spiritual progress. Previously ‘tracks’ would have been devoid of positive connotations since, the wheels having stopped, the narrator is left waiting on the running boards. If the wheels and the running boards belong to the burning boxcar, representing a disabled means for making spiritual progress, then the tracks – train tracks – would lead nowhere. Now however ‘tracks’ has the positive connotations of ‘highway’ and accordingly again suggests spiritual progress.
Activity v. Inactivity
It’s ironic that the narrator waits on the boxcar’s ‘running boards’ since ‘running’ in the present context suggests the active pursuit of a moral lifestyle.
There’s further irony in that earlier (in verse four) he ‘ran into the fortune-teller’. There he was being overactive. It would have been better not to have run into the fortune-teller if the latter’s prophesy of ‘lightning that might strike’ implies striking it lucky – financially, through murder.
At this early stage of the song, then, we find the narrator running when he should be being circumspect, and waiting when he should be running.
And he waits for an excessively long time:
‘I waited for you on the running boards, near the cypress trees, while the springtime
Slowly into autumn’
If spring represents birth, and autumn the approach of death, he is admitting to having done nothing for most of his life. However, there is hope because death – spiritual death, also represented by the cypress trees – is only ‘near’. But instead of taking advantage of this and admitting his guilt, he waits for the wife to save him.
This waiting is ironic, and perhaps hypocritical, given that in verse two he complains that in his presence people:
‘… can’t remember how to act’.
The significance of remembering will be considered further below.
A similarly passive attitude is apparent when he says:
‘You tamed the lion in my cage but it just wasn’t enough to change my heart’
Why, one wonders, should she be responsible for changing his heart?
It’s not just the narrator who waits when activity would seem more appropriate:
‘The priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while the building
The seventh day can be taken as the day after God had finished the process of creation, creation being represented by the building. Like the boxcar, it too is burning. And like the narrator, the priest does nothing – he sits. If burning here represents the destruction of God’s creation by sin, then the priest’s lack of activity seems to represent an indictment of the Church – the organisation responsible for the moral uprightness of those like the narrator.
The criticism may not be being applied just to Christianity. The priest sits stone-faced, suggesting that the burning building also represents the Jewish temple, already alluded to in verse six, whose destruction was foreseen by Christ when he said ‘Truly I say to you, not one stone here will be left upon another ….” (Matthew 24.2). Judaism too would be failing in its responsibility.
The narrator’s moral progress along the ‘tracks’ is slowed by his mental confusion. This comes across when, after blaming his misdeeds on gravity and destiny, he proceeds to make light of them:
‘Now everything’s a little upside down, as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped’
There’s something ludicrous about the idea that something could be just a little upside down. And if it’s a (metaphorical) vehicle that’s upside down, there’s something even more ludicrous about adding that the wheels have stopped. Upside down vehicles have no use for wheels whether stopped or not. He begins by making light of something serious, and then treats something relatively unimportant as having more significance than it does. It’s clear that what’s really upside down is not so much ‘everything’, or even the vehicle, but the narrator himself.
This becomes even more apparent when he announces:
‘What’s good is bad, what’s bad is good …’
‘… you’ll find out when you reach the top
You’re on the bottom’
For someone who’s upside down, even what’s the right-way up is going to look inverted. Until he realises his error in judging his bad acts to be good, and the Christ-like wife as ‘on the bottom’, his salvation is going to be delayed.
The narrator’s slow progress continues in verse eight with the admittance that he can’t remember what the wife looked like:
‘I can’t remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed, your eyes don’t look
Misremembering the wife’s features can be taken as an indication of continuing guilt in that it echoes an earlier failure of memory in verse four where he can’t remember what it’s like to be guilt free:
‘I haven’t known peace and quiet for so long I can’t remember what it’s like’
Eventually, however, the narrator does remember the wife:
‘I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory’
It’s being hounded by her memory – his memory of her – that helps bring about the required change in his heart.
While for most of the song the narrator assumes he’s incapable of saving himself, and at least unconsciously thinks of the wife as a potential saviour, there are indications that he could bring about his own moral regeneration. He accuses the idiot wind of:
‘… blowing like a circle around my skull’
The use of ‘skull’ instead of ‘head’ suggests that he’s to be seen, and perhaps sees himself, as spiritually dead. A circle so placed, however, is reminiscent of a halo, or even the crown of thorns, suggesting potential saintliness and a potential to be Christ-like respectively. It would seem that morally he could save himself, whether or not he fully realises this. Whereas the spring/autumn imagery suggested life turning to death, the present image suggests the reverse.
The tenth verse, however, makes it clear that the narrator does not yet see himself as Christ-like. He sees himself as out of touch with the morally superior wife. The association of ‘crawl’ with snakes:
‘Every time I crawl past your door …’,
suggests he’s given up on himself as unremittingly evil, although at least he’s no longer trying to pass off bad as good.
It’s ironic that the line ends:
‘… I been wishin’ I was somebody else instead’
because the circle around his skull suggests he’s already started to take on the identity of the Christ-like wife (just as previously he’s taken on the identity of the husband).
And whereas earlier, on the roadside, he was made, passively, to see ‘stars’, now he tells us:
‘I followed you beneath the stars …’
This is active. He’s taking responsibility. And the sense in which he’s following her is, presumably, in adopting her outlook. It seems that in providing an example for him to emulate, she has done enough to ‘change his heart’, or at least to enable him to change it.
In the penultimate verse the narrator is exultant:
‘I’ve been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I’m finally free’.
‘Double-crossed’ can be taken in two senses. Consciously he may intend it to mean ‘betrayed’. She’s betrayed him but, because she’s dead, he’s now free of her.7 The betrayal interpretation is supported in the next line with another implicit reference to betrayal, albeit unconscious since it casts him as a Judas-like traitor:
‘I kissed goodbye the howlin’ beast …’
where the ‘howlin’ beast’ is supposedly her. On one level he’s back to seeing good – the Christ-like quality in her – as bad. He is Judas.
In another sense, though, ‘double-crossed’ is an unconscious reference to his redemption. Whereas the circle around his skull indicated what he was capable of, ‘double crossed’ – on the latter interpretation – indicates that he’s started to achieve it. In a Christian sense ‘double-crossed’ is appropriate since the crucifixion needs to aid his redemption twice over, once for each murder.
On this interpretation he’s kissed goodbye a different ‘howlin’ beast’ – the ‘howlin beast’ within himself. And since he’s done it:
‘… on the borderline which separated you from me’
he is in a position to cross the borderline and so become united in outlook with the wife.
It’s this unity in outlook which enables him to refer to her ‘holiness’, and her ‘kind of love’ – presumably a selfless Christ-like love in contrast to the selfish love for her which ended with his becoming a murderer. As a result of his identity with her, and by way of hers with Christ, he will be resurrected. He will ‘rise’ above the pain of his guilt.
Both the betrayal and redemption interpretations of ‘double-crossed’ seem plausible, however, and this suggests that the narrator isn’t clear whether the beast he’s got rid of was in the wife or in himself. This in turn suggests that although he’s on the way to salvation, he’s as yet to fully achieve it.
A further indication that the narrator is on the way to achieving salvation is his relinquishing a ‘know-all’ attitude.
The wife has a God-like omniscience, knowing he’s guilty despite his protestations to the contrary. It’s ironic, then, that the narrator taunts her with a lack of knowledge. Early on he patronisingly accuses the wife:
‘I couldn’t believe … you didn’t know me any better than that’
– presumably meaning ‘better than thinking he might be a murderer. Again patronisingly, he claims to be amazed that she still knows how to breathe. And in the fourth verse, he smugly and prematurely condemns her justified lack of faith in his ability to pull through:
‘You didn’t know it, you didn’t think it could be done …’
Even in the eleventh he admonishes her:
‘You’ll never know the hurt I suffered’.
It comes as a surprise, then, when his final reference to knowledge comes with humility:
‘And I’ll never know the same about you …
… it makes me feel so sorry’
This humility is as close as he gets to salvation.
By the end he seems ready to adopt a new attitude. The final chorus makes no mention of it being a wonder that the wife knows how to breathe. The implication is that not only does he no longer think it’s a wonder, but that he too knows how to breathe or, in other words, how to bring about his moral recovery.
The song ends with an acceptance of the unity he has achieved with the wife. Spiritual death, – ‘the dust upon our shelves’, has been defeated. Unity with the wife, and in turn with Christ, is symbolised through the use of inclusive personal pronouns. Whereas for the majority of the song personal pronouns tend to be ‘I’ and ‘you’, now they become ‘we’ and ‘our’.
Yet even so the narrator’s transformation seems incomplete. He still thinks of the woman as an idiot. That he includes himself as an idiot too at least shows that he’s treating her as his equal. That is a step on the path to his spiritual renewal.
Although the plural pronouns refer to the narrator and the wife, their reference need not be confined to them. They can also be taken as referring to humanity at large, and this gives the song a more universal significance. The closing line:
‘It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves’
makes better sense if it’s taken as an expression of amazement that humanity can function at all given its faults.
It may be amazing, but we need to recognise that it’s still the judgment of a flawed narrator.
1. Some doubt is cast on his guilt by the near homonyms ‘bucks’, as in ‘million bucks’
and box, as in boxcar. It’s plausible that his money came from some other criminal
enterprise such as robbing the boxcar rather than an inheritance.
2. The description of these people is ambiguous:
‘People see me all the time and they just can’t remember how to act
Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts’
One way of seeing them is as critics of the narrator who’ve seen through him.
Another, though, is to see them as overcome by him as if he’s a saint – which, viewed
from an eternal perspective, he may be. The lines seem open to either interpretation.
3. The contrast between the onomatopoeic ‘shoot’ and the long vowel sounds of ‘are
making me see stars’ suggests how an instant sudden action had long, drawn out
4. This mid-way moral position is represented in of other ways too. The wife is dead,
but not completely dead – she can breathe. And her ‘raging glory’ suggests a mid-
point between out-of-control violence and divinity.
5. Those who think that Dylan’s songs are all about drugs will be disappointed to learn
that ‘ecstasy’ has other meanings, and will doubtless try to show that it doesn’t.
6. Not remembering her face might be an allusion to her divinity (cf. 1 Corinthians
13:12 ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face’). If her eyes are
not looking into his, this may be a sign that she is not looking for fault. She is not
prepared to point out a speck in his eye (cf. Matthew 7.3-5)
7. The expression ‘finally free’ reminds us of the expression ‘final end’ in verse four.
Whether it’s her or the beast in himself he’s finally free of, the effect of the repetition
is to make it seem to have has eternal significance.