The song deals with doctrine, both Judeo-Christian and Buddhist, while also being in debt to traditional nursery rhyme. The themes are love and theft, as one might expect from the album title, as well as desire, suffering, and redemption.
Stylised characters and third person narrative initially lull the listener into imagining a comfortable distance between him and the song’s fictional world of bitterness and betrayal. We perhaps don’t even notice the descriptions which place the protagonists as much in our world as in that of the bible. But when unexpectedly in the seventh verse the third person gives way to the first and second, the relevance of the fictional pair to the lives and fate of the listener becomes obvious.
Adam and Eve
It’s from the Judeo-Christian perspective that the song begins. The two warring nursery rhyme characters represent humanity throughout time, first appearing as Adam and Eve disobeying God, and then as their offspring, the brothers Cain and Abel.1 Such can be gleaned from their living ‘in the Land of Nod’ to which Cain was banished after his act of fratricide.
As the former pair, they’re blessed in Eden with everything they need – ‘All that and more and then some’. Yet they repay God’s generosity by:
‘… throwing knives into the tree’,
the wrongness of the act being emphasised when the trees in Eden are subsequently referred to as ‘stately’. As punishment they are made to suffer expulsion and, as Cain and Abel, impoverishment, there being a ‘lot of things they’d like they never would buy’.
On one interpretation the tree is the Tree of Life. Accordingly the crime resulting in their expulsion from Eden will be the destruction of their own spiritual lives, and – as will become apparent – those of their descendants. But one can also assume that the tree is the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil whose forbidden fruit they ate, and which enabled them to:
‘… know the secrets of the breeze’
– God’s secrets. However it’s interpreted, the song explores the consequences for humanity of this attempt at God-like status. One is that their offspring inherit their guilt. Thus spiritually the pair are dead – ‘two big bags of dead man’s bones’
Tweedle Dum is by far the more dominant of the nursery rhyme characters. He is capable of co-operating with Tweedle Dee. And when they work together,
‘… their noses to the grindstones’,
they end up owning a brick and tile company, and:
‘… making hay’.
But only, as the proverb has it, while the sun shines. As soon as things stop going well, Tweedle Dum ceases to co-operate. He rejects his counterpart, demonstrating a concern only for himself:
‘Your presence is obnoxious to me’
‘I’ve had too much of your company’.
While this can be taken to mean he’d rather Tweedle Dee wasn’t with him, equally it can be taken to be referring to the company they jointly run. Not only, then, is he rejecting his partner, but by saying ‘your company’ instead of ‘our company’, he’s landing Tweedle Dee with his, Tweedle Dum’s, share of the responsibility for their financial state.
His behaviour is equally reprehensible when things are going well. Where the context is the voyage to the sun, which he sees perhaps as financial success rather than redemption, he announces:
‘His Master’s voice is calling me’
The use of Master in the context of calling, together with its capitalisation, suggest it’s God he has in mind. He’s claiming for himself alone the credit for the pair’s success. The announcement can be taken to mean ‘God sees fit to reward me and me alone’.
The discreditable behaviour continues when he reduces Tweedle Dee to begging on his hands and knees. To the latter’s plea:
‘Throw me somethin’ mister, please’
he responds with:
‘What’s good for you is good for me’,
apparently to justify keeping all the food for himself. Ironically what he says is true in another way which serves to show him up. The consequences of living morally would also be as good for him as for Tweedle Dee.
The expression ‘His Master’s voice’ is fitting for two reasons. First, Tweedle Dee, in begging on his hands and his knees, has become like the dog in the painting by Francis Barraud, used as the HMV logo, sadly dependant on its dead master. The difference is that Tweedle Dum is spiritually rather than physically dead.
Secondly, ‘Master’ and ‘mister’ are variations of the same word. So, while on one level ‘Master’ in ‘His Master’s voice’ can refer to God, on another it refers to the person Tweedle Dee is addressing – namely Tweedle Dum. In keeping him subjugated, Tweedle Dum has become Tweedle Dee’s master. The voice calling him is just a representation of his own self importance.
By the end of the song Tweedle Dum has not developed morally. Rather than making up for the sin committed in Eden, he’s presented as compounding it. In Eden they were throwing knives at a tree. Now, in the land of Nod, Tweedle Dee’s innocent use of ‘throw’ in ‘Throw me something …’, reminds us of this. This seems to imply that Tweedle Dum is likely to knife Tweedle Dee. But not just him. He’s also a threat to the listener – you and me:
‘He’ll stab you where you stand’
Tweedle Dee is Abel to Tweedle Dum’s Cain. Put upon, he nevertheless comes across as pathetic, demeaning himself by begging for scraps like a dog. In response to all four of Tweedle Dum’s self-regarding announcements he says nothing. It’s as if he isn’t there. By the end of the song he’s just:
‘… a sorry old man’
– sorry in the sense of ‘pathetic’.
Nevertheless a number of things suggest there’s hope for him. These are the absence of Tweedle Dum’s vices in his character, his apparently having initiated the honest brick and tile business (disparaged by his counterpart as ‘your company’), and his ending up as a ‘sorry’ old man, if ‘sorry’ is taken to mean apologetic.
And the fact that he’s reduced to being on ‘his hands and his knees’ when he’s begging at least hints at hope – ‘hands’ reminding us of an earlier reference to trusting ‘the hands of God’. Whereas Tweedle Dum’s pride caused him to associate himself with God, it is the narrator’s choice of expression rather than any self-centredness about Tweedle Dee, which causes us to make the connection between the latter and God.
A Voyage to the Sun
The fate of the two is represented as a journey:
‘… a voyage to the sun’
If ‘sun’ is to be read ‘Sun’, what they’re undertaking is a return journey, a journey back to God. It’s an Odyssean journey full of temptations and pitfalls.2 Later we’re told:
‘They seem determined to go all the way’
but if this means all the way to the Sun, by the end of the song it’s still unclear whether the journey will be completed successfully.3
Since Cain and Abel, and humanity generally, have inherited the guilt of original sin from Adam and Eve, the ‘voyage to the Sun’ is not only their progress towards redemption, but humanity’s. The song therefore concerns every single one of us. It is the progress of each of us through life.
It would seem that the pair can be seen as aspects of a single person. This is indicated by a range of otherwise unlikely similarities. Not only do their names suggest a degree of identity, but much of the time they’re presented as indistinguishable. They both, throw knives, they’ve both ‘got their noses to the grindstone’, they both live in the Land of Nod, they’re both ‘trustin’ their fate to the hands of God’, they both ‘pass by so silently’ … and so on. It’s consistent with this, then, that when they’re described as ‘two big bags of dead man’s bones’ that it’s ‘dead man’s’, in the singular, and not ‘dead men’s’ which is used to describe them.
A reason for seeing the pair as a single person may be that unity is necessary for their moral redemption. Seen as two separate individuals, each requires the other – the company (whether interpreted as their business venture or their companionship) will only work if one doesn’t drop out. Yet Tweedle Dum ends up not wanting to have anything to do with either Tweedle Dee or the business. This amounts to saying that Tweedle Dum would be incapable of completing the journey to the Sun on his own. However, as part of a joint whole comprising both his and Tweedle Dee’s characteristics, ‘he’ – that is, the person of which they are both a part – can be redeemed. Although in such a case the person comprising both aspects will be the one who’ll ‘stab you where you stand’, equally it’s that whole person who’ll be the ‘sorry’ – that is repentant – old man.
Seen in this way, the song represents the moral battle that each of us fights. It’s not a fight against an external enemy, but a fight against our own internal imbalance; a fight to prevent the supremacy of one or other parts of our character. The victory of good over evil will thus be our successful integration of the warring parts of our characters into a ‘happy harmony’.
There are hints, however, that the person the pair represents is having difficulty in going ‘all the way’ to the Sun. Their passing by ‘so silently’, is sinister. Why do they need to be silent? Thieves need to be silent, and there are numerous suggestions that, in line with the album’s title, the pair survive through theft. Accordingly, when we’re told:
‘Lots of things they’d like they never would buy’,
this can be taken in two ways. First it suggests that they’re being abstemious, ensuring they’ll have enough money to retire by resisting the temptation to spend unnecessarily. But equally it implies they simply steal what they want. The line quoted above is preceded by an example of what they ‘never would buy’ – a pecan pie. The pie is in front of them ‘in the window’. They need only reach in through the window and grab it.
They also have a financial motive for theft.
‘They’re one day older and a dollar short
They’ve got a parade permit and a police escort’
On one level the police escort suggests they’re doing well. They’re sufficiently celebrated to require police protection Yet being ‘a dollar short’ suggests the need for money, and therefore the need to steal. The ‘police escort’ now takes on a different significance; it’s what follows their arrest.
There’s also a reference to their ‘lying low’. Lying low is not something honest people need to do.
That there are alternative interpretations of ‘Lots of things they’d like, they never would buy’ and ‘police escort’ will be considered further below.
Suffering and Desire
The pair suffer. The cause of this suffering is their original sin in Eden, their giving in to desire. That desire afflicts them in the Land of Nod too is made explicit when we’re told they’re taking:
‘… a streetcar named Desire’
The phrase is the title of Tennessee Williams’ 1947 play in which the heroine Blanche’s suffering is attributed to sexual desire. Such desire causes her decline into madness and her removal to an asylum. This decline is foreshadowed by a journey she takes on two streetcars, or trams, called Desire and Cemeteries. The latter brings her to a street called Elysian Fields, named after the abode of the dead. The point is that desire ends in spiritual death.
In the song a desire for knowledge similarly leads to the pair’s expulsion from Eden and the loss of eternal life. Further suffering results in the form of work, poverty, arrest, and Tweedle Dum’s dominance over Tweedle Dee. The last of these reflects God’s prediction that Eve’s desire will end in marital conflict:
‘Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you’ (Gen 3.17)
Under Tweedle Dum’s rule, Tweedle Dee has to beg for scraps.4
A Noble Truth
That desire is the root of their suffering is further made clear by the narrator’s announcement that:
‘… a childish dream is a deathless need
And a noble truth is a sacred dream’
The childish dream is a dream for the fulfilment of sensual and materialistic desire. This dream, though ‘deathless’ in the sense that it permanently afflicts humanity, is nevertheless the cause of spiritual death. Its effects, however, can be cancelled by a different dream, a sacred one. The sacred dream, far from being childish, is ‘a noble truth’ (which, as will become clear, involves desire). Alas, the pair are like children – ‘babies sitting on a woman’s knee’ – and so are in thrall to the childish dream, not the sacred one. Yet it requires commitment to the sacred one if they’re to end their suffering.
The expression ‘noble truth’ suggests that the sacred dream is for the fulfilment of one of the Buddhist Four Noble Truths. The second of these gives desire as the cause of suffering because desire can never be fulfilled. The fourth suggests how suffering can be overcome – essentially by not giving in to desire.5
Acting in accordance with the Four Noble Truths by not giving in to desire is an option the pair has. This is made apparent by the line:
‘Lots of things they’d like they never would buy’,
and the phrase:
‘… police escort’
Each, as mentioned above, is open to a dual interpretation. On one interpretation, the pair are frugal and successful. On another, they’re thieves who fall foul of the law. These different interpretations can be taken as representing alternative choices which they have. They can give in to desire, or resist it. And depending on which they choose, they will either suffer or avoid suffering.
My Pretty Baby
Tweedle Dum’s and Tweedle Dee’s happiness will depend, then, on their ability to avoid giving in to desire. That their choice is that of humanity generally is once more made clear in lines which themselves suggest desire, but which concern the modern-day narrator and his wife or girlfriend:
‘My pretty baby, she’s lookin’ around
She’s wearin’ a multi thousand dollar gown’
The implication is not only that the woman desires sex outside her relationship, but that she’s also trying to satisfy a desire for luxury. That she’ll be unsuccessful is apparent from her similarity with Blanche in ‘Streetcar’, who is not only suffering as a result of her sexual appetite but, like this woman, is accused of having invested ‘thousands of dollars’ in clothes.6
The expression ‘My pretty baby’ associates the narrator’s girlfriend with Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, in that they too are babies:
‘… babies sitting on a woman’s knee’.
As Cain and Abel they have inherited guilt from Adam and Eve, and as Adam and Eve they are directly responsible for that inheritance. The woman’s identification with them, then, identifies her, as a representative of humanity now, with both the originators and the first inheritors of original sin.7
The only explicit reference to love in the song occurs in the sixth verse where the narrator again abandons the third person perspective and enters the song as a character:
‘Well, the rain beating down on my window pain
I got love for you and it’s all in vain’
Who he’s addressing is not immediately clear. It could be his wife or girlfriend, or the listener, or even Tweedle Dee or Tweedle Dum outside the window. Since there’s no way of deciding, it can be taken as a general expression of love, and of disappointment that the love has not been acted upon. This puts the narrator in the position of God regretting either Adam and Eve’s treachery or the failure of humanity to seek redemption. Having said that, the lines which then follow link the narrator’s disappointment to the woman. He loves her, but she repays it by indulging her adulterous and materialistic desires.8
If the narrator does represent a kind but disappointed God, then God’s in for another disappointment. One imagines Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee in the pouring rain pathetically looking in through the window – and seeing the pecan pie there for the grabbing.
The verse continues:
‘Brains in the pot, they’re beginning to boil
They’re dripping with garlic and olive oil’
The meal is wholesome and delicious (perhaps), but not lavish. It suggests that while the narrator and his woman might represent the opposite qualities of Godliness and excess respectively, together they achieve moderation. And while singly, one is loving and the other cruel, taken together they represent the harmonious existence of the sort that Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee need to maintain in order to achieve happiness.
Although theft plays a more obvious part, the song is primarily about love. This is in part God’s love for mankind, rejected in Eden by Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve’s mistake was to assume that the acquisition of knowledge and physical immortality would render them at one with, God. They failed to realise that to really become like God, they needed to demonstrate love through obedience. The same mistake is made by mankind generally, as represented by the nursery rhyme characters. Tweedle Dum destroys Tweedle Dee, but fails to realise that in so doing he is destroying himself, the two of them effectively being aspects of one person’s character. Further, the whole person is seen to lack love by its propensity for thieving.
We find the same lack of love demonstrated by the narrator’s wife or girlfriend. In her case it’s expressed through adulterous sexual desire as well as desire for material wealth. Through her, the pair cease just to represent a single individual but can be seen as representing all of us. Just as Tweedle Dum’s and Tweedle Dee’s lack of love was self-destructive, so is hers and ours. The solution mooted by the song is to adopt the Buddhist proscription against giving in to desire. The repudiation of desire, both adulterous and material, will not only promote happiness but will amount to redemption.
- Coincidentally or not, the metamorphosing of characters gives the song a Joycean feel.
- Thanks to Kees de Graaf for an unintentional prompt.
- The expression ‘the way’ suggests how they might get to the sun – by adopting a Christian outlook. Compare ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ John 14.6.
- ‘He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever’ Genesis 3. According to, BibleRef.com ‘Apparently, the fruit of the Tree of Life would provide physical immortality to Adam and Eve. For their own good and the good of all, God would not allow this. To be spiritually dead while remaining physically alive forever could only bring endless suffering’.
- More specifically desire, and hence suffering, are to be eliminated by following the Eightfold Path which ‘consists of eight practices: right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi (‘meditative absorption or union’)’ (Wikipedia: Noble Eightfold Path).
- A Streetcar Named Desire, Scene 2.
- The woman is further identified with the pair in that Tweedle Dee:
‘… is on his hands and his knees’.
His being on ‘a woman’s knee’ and at the same time, on his own knees, suggests an identity between him and her. We’re not told directly that she will suffer through her giving in to desire, but the identification with him implies it.
- That the narrator is in some ways to be identified with God, is suggested by the song’s events seemingly being presented from an eternal standpoint. There’s no clear chronological order to them. Their pair’s retirement is impending in verse three, yet they’re still in the Garden of Eden in verse five. Other verses that I’ve assumed allude to events in the land of Nod might equally have occurred in Eden. One effect might be to seem to imply that there’s no time at which redemption or damnation can be taken to apply or not apply.