This song can be seen as a warning about the dangers of living pointlessly, going along with the crowd, and not treating others appropriately. The protagonist seems to be a frivolous society girl who, having fallen from her social pedestal, is given advice by the narrator about how to pick herself up. From what he says his ultimate desire, one would think, is that her recovery should lead to a more worthwhile existence.
There is no indication that the characters are real life people. On the contrary the writer seems to indicate that it’s the situation alone he’s concerned with. What happens is to be seen as a fairytale – they’re things which didn’t really happen, even in the distant past. The opening makes this clear since ‘Once upon a time’ is a traditional start to fairy stories. And the idea is reinforced by the reference in the fourth verse to a ‘Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people’ – fairytale characters in a fairytale setting. What we might expect from a fairy story is a moral, and this is what we seem to get. What we have is a cautionary tale – a warning of the sort of thing which might well happen even if it hasn’t happened to any particular real person yet.
In the song we are made to see the pitfalls of certain types of behaviour – in particular the protagonist’s trivial, insensitive behaviour for which she is continually castigated by the narrator. Before her fall we’re informed she was minimally generous to others, suggesting at least that there is some hope for her; but she’s also made to seem snobbish and patronising. This happens when we’re told she ‘threw the bums a dime’. Although these are the narrator’s words, in using ‘bum’ it would seem he’s mimicking, and so informing us about, the sort of derogatory language she would have used. It’s a term which suggests the user has little respect for the recipient of their supposed generosity. In addition, that she ‘threw’ the money also suggests a lack of genuine concern for those she’s meant to be helping. And the fact that it was only a dime she threw is enough to make her action seem positively insulting.
On other occasions, we find out, she’s not so much insulting as insensitive to the feelings of others. That she ‘never turned around to see the frowns on the jugglers and the clowns’ suggests she can’t be bothered to find out about people, but instead takes them at face value. With the circus imagery – jugglers and clowns – the narrator gets across the superficiality of her understanding of others. To her, the narrator implies, the people she interacts with are like circus performers in the eyes of children – two-dimensional humorous characters who have no existence outside the ring. It’s apparent that she is blind to the emotional complexities of others. She sees people as existing for her benefit, and takes no interest in their lives beyond the trivial things – disparagingly referred to by the narrator as ‘tricks’ – they are required to do for her. Nevertheless the implication seems to be that had she noticed their frowns, she might have been more generous. The narrator need not be indulging in outright condemnation. Her crime is perhaps thoughtlessness rather than viciousness.
In addition to the circus reference, fairground imagery is also used to get across the superficiality and pleasure centredness of this person’s life. She is said to have ridden a ‘chrome horse’ – the chrome being a thin covering of a metal with little to recommend it beyond its shininess. Presumably this is a sardonic reference to her glitzy lifestyle. This superficiality is reinforced in the admonition ‘You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you’; for her, life is merely a matter of getting ‘kicks’. And even then she requires other people to put themselves out so that she can get them.
The propensity which causes her not to notice the ‘frowns on the jugglers and the clowns’ is also the cause of her undoing. She naively fails to look beneath the surface and as a result misjudges her ‘diplomat’. Perhaps this is someone she sees as highly sophisticated – that might explain the shoulder-borne Siamese cat! But the cat in that position is perhaps vaguely reminiscent of a parrot, thus giving the diplomat a piratical air which she should have taken as a warning. Later, once the diplomat has betrayed her trust in him, it’s implied that she is in need of ‘alibis’; the diplomat then can be seen as someone who protected her by finding ways of excusing her behaviour, or denying it ever occurred. Unlike her, he turns out to be genuinely callous, however, with the result that he takes advantage of her naivety and steals all she has.
Although the narrator’s words are addressed to a particular person, the actual beneficiaries of the warning could be anyone whose outlook is similar – naive pleasure seekers without the imagination to appreciate what life can be like for the less fortunate. The lesson would seem to be that if you don’t treat other people with respect, if you don’t afford them the dignity which is their right, and if you fritter away your life, you might end up destroying that life. That the warning is intended not just for the woman is apparent from the lines:
‘Princess on the steeple and all the pretty people
They’re drinkin’, thinkin’, that they got it made
Exchanging all kinds of precious gifts and things
Here other people are shown with the same outlook the protagonist had. The princess is presumably the protagonist’s replacement, the society goddess who has succeeded her. And ‘all the pretty people’ are those who don’t bother to assert their individuality, but just dress and behave like the rest. The description makes it clear both that this princess’s behaviour and that of the crowd-following ‘pretty people’ is destined to end in disaster, just as the protagonist’s has done. Just as the latter got ‘juiced’ at school, so these people spend their time getting ‘juiced’ – drinking. They are on the same path as her. Also by telling us they think they’ve ‘got it made’ the narrator seems to imply they’re probably jumping the gun – they haven’t got it made at all. Reversals, it’s being suggested, are just as likely to occur in their lives. And so for all of us.
The similarity between these people and the protagonist is again made clear in the reference to the exchange of gifts. Just as these people are exchanging gifts, so the protagonist had herself previously exchanged gifts. They seem to be on the same path as her. It is one of these supposedly ‘precious’ gifts, a diamond ring, which she is now being advised to pawn. This leaves us in little doubt that the protagonist’s present misfortune is these people’s future misfortune. If they don’t heed the song’s warning, they too will end up in poverty like her.
Despite all this, the song should not be seen as entirely pessimistic. There is a way up, as well as a way down. Whereas previously, true to character, the protagonist had been contemptuous of ‘Napoleon in rags and the language that he used’, her position now may be inferior to this person’s. (While the ‘in rags’ is a reference to his poverty, it may be a poverty he has by now managed to discard. This seems likely since he is recommended by the narrator as someone able to assist the protagonist. If so, and if the nickname Napoleon reflects a new status – suggesting grandeur and perhaps the conquest of his earlier misfortunes – he and the woman have exchanged positions.) There is hope for her now, according to the narrator, if she’ll swallow her pride and let this Napoleon help her back on her feet. It’s only if her lack of consideration for others extends to refusing to co-operate, that she’s damned. That he could help her to a worthwhile recovery is made clear from the insight we get into his character. Even though she had previously treated him with contempt – ‘You used to be so amused…’ – he is not put off. Neither is he put off by her fall from grace. He doesn’t treat her with the disdain she treated him. He is the sort of person to set her off on a better path.
It’s worth noting that the ‘pretty people’ and ‘Napoleon’ can be seen as different camps each representing a different sort of unity. The pretty people together with the protagonist are all unified in that they are doing the same as each other – dressing prettily, drinking and being deluded that they’ve ‘got it made’. But this is mindless unity; following the crowd. There’s no point to it because it just leads downhill. By contrast Napoleon and the protagonist together can be seen as representing a beneficial unity based on co-operation. It’s by their working together that the protagonist’s lot (and Napoleon’s too, depending on whether or not he’s still in rags) can be improved. This contrast in unities is reinforced by the contrasting descriptions applied to the camps – prettiness as opposed to raggedness.
It may be worth pointing out in this context the significance of the ‘mystery tramp’. Although he might have seemed a potential a source of help, given his experience of living on the streets, the protagonist had spurned co-operation with him. But subsequently, we learn she relented and became anxious to ‘make a deal’. This suggests the beginnings of an improvement in her outlook, her already seeing that there’s nothing to be achieved by going it alone, or going along with the crowd. As it happens, she attempted co-operation with the wrong person. Previously a ‘mystery’ to her, she’s now learnt he’d have been incapable all along of helping her – an incapacity represented by his ‘not selling any alibis’ and his vacant stare. Nevertheless she has at least now accepted the principle of co-operation, and this augurs well for how she might respond to the overtures of Napoleon.
That there is hope for the protagonist is indicated in other ways too. The chorus continually reminds us that she’s ‘like a rolling stone’. On one level this implies that her life is going ever faster downhill, but on another it reminds us of the proverb ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss’. This tells us there are benefits to being on the move, perhaps even through the lower echelons of society. If one keeps moving, one doesn’t get stultified, or destroyed by mind-numbing routines. In addition, we’re told, she’s ‘invisible now’ and has ‘no secrets to conceal’. The invisibility would seem to imply that her previous fame is no longer a restraint on her progress. And the lack of secrets implies perhaps that her previous life involved pretences – ‘secrets’, but we’re not told what – which she can now do without. Without such encumbrances she can make headway. Having thrown off the shallowness of her previous lifestyle she is in a position to succeed.
The narrator’s words are harsh. His somewhat vitriolic condemnation of the protagonist’s attitude might make the listener want to criticise him and even, perhaps, side with the protagonist against him. Such a response would, I think, miss the point. While for the fictional narrator these are real events happening to real people, for the listener, this is just a fairy story. But a fairy story can have a moral, and it’s the highly complex moral of this one which asks for our attention.