The narrator is clearly Christ, and therefore God, or at least an aspect of him. But so too is the woman. At the same time each is human, with good points as well as imperfections. The narrator suffers a desire to give in to temptation, and so not fulfil his divinely appointed role. The woman, on the other hand, represents the comfortable way of life the narrator is tempted to pursue. While she extols the virtue of generosity, this is tempered by her apparent commitment to a life of comparative luxury. Between them they represent to different extents two competing elements in Christ’s character, the desire for worldly comfort and a selfless acceptance of duty.
The narration seems to take place after the resurrection, but prior to the ascension since, while there are references to the crucifixion, at the end of the song the narrator is still living in what to him is a ‘foreign country’ – earth as opposed to heaven.
Arguably the song, in focusing on Christ’s human side, presents him as a more plausible redeemer than the Christ of the gospels, while simultaneously allowing for his divinity when viewed from an eternal perspective.
In support of this view I’ll give reasons for seeing both the narrator and the woman as a partially divine, partially human Christ. While the woman is imperfect, the fallible human side will appear more dominant in the narrator and will remain so throughout the song. While he never consciously appreciates his own divine potential, he implicitly recognises it when he wants to return to a perfect past. What he fails to appreciate is that his sacrifice has already helped bring about this perfect state. Whereas he is unable to appreciate this from his earthly perspective, from an eternal one he, the woman and God already form a united whole.
The Narrator As God And Man
The narrator is God or, at least, God-like. That this is so is suggested in his language. When recounting his suffering in verse two, he says:
‘I was burned out from exhaustion …
Poisoned in the bushes …’
The use of ‘burned’ and ‘bushes’ associates the narrator with God since it reminds us of God’s appearance to Moses in the form of a burning bush (Exodus 3). He also says he was ‘blown out’, thereby representing himself as a light – a traditional symbolic representation of God.
However, it’s as a man with a man’s fallibilities that the narrator is mostly presented in the song. His status as man is emphasised by his comment about:
‘… men who are fighting to be warm’.
This is because his initially positive reaction to the woman’s offer of shelter suggests that he too is fighting to be warm.
Another line which seems to allude to his human nature is the question:
‘Do I understand your question, man, is it hopeless and forlorn?’
In the absence of any other male addressee, it would seem that the ‘man’ the narrator apostrophises is himself.
The Narrator As Christ
In addition to being both God and man, the narrator is Christ. The first indication that it’s Christ who is speaking is apparent from the declaration:
‘I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form’
The allusion is to Christ’s forty days in the desert where he’s tempted to abjure his divinely appointed role and give in to worldly ambition. It’s implied that he ‘came in’ from the wilderness in response to the woman’s offer of shelter, safety and warmth:
‘”Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”’.
Another indication that the narrator is Christ is his use of the phrase ‘I got my signals crossed’. In addition to its primary meaning it hints at the narrator’s coming death by crucifixion. And a further indication is in the observation:
‘… the deputy walks on hard nails and the preacher rides a mount’,
assuming that this is self-referential. The deputy is likely to be Christ, God’s deputy, and especially so if the nails are those driven through his feet to attach him to the cross. The preacher too could be Christ and is even more likely to be, given the ‘mount’ reference. The mount can be taken both as Calvary, the fill on which Christ died, and as the ass on which he entered Jerusalem just prior to his arrest and execution.1
Yet this isn’t quite the Christ of the gospels. The negativity implicit in the phrases ‘blackness was a virtue’ and ‘a creature void of form’ suggests he could equally be seen as the devil coming in from the wilderness. This, then, is an imperfect Christ – Christ the man – a thoroughly human Christ who is far from sure he wants to turn his back on worldly comfort.
That the narrator’s is imperfect again becomes apparent in the sixth verse after he decides to forgo the offer of hospitality:
‘Now there’s a wall between us, something there’s been lost …’
By the phrase ‘something there’ the narrator probably means the woman. This is indicated by a previous use of the word ‘there’ in:
‘… she was standing there’,
However, the expression ‘something there’ is vague, as if the narrator has only a dim idea about what it is he’s lost. What’s actually missing for him now is the positive aspect of Christ’s character, the generosity of spirit, which the woman represents.
Imperfection is present again in that he never seems fully to have embraced his divine role. This is particularly apparent in the penultimate verse where the ‘lethal dose’ seems to have taken him by surprise. At that point he was still hoping to live, announcing that he’d:
‘… bargained for salvation …’.
Since the salvation he has in mind seems to have been his own survival, rather than the saving of mankind, this too looks like human weakness.
That he’s imperfect the narrator as good as admits when he says that he got his ‘signals crossed’. While he seems to be acknowledging a mistake in having opted for ‘a place that’s always safe and warm’, the phrase could equally refer to his failure to anticipate his crucifixion as well as to his failure to see its importance:
‘But nothing really matters much, it’s doom alone that counts’.
This is the last thing one might expect Christ to say. In fact plenty should matter, not least the task of redeeming mankind.
The narrator’s human imperfection is also apparent in his concern to avoid danger. The woman’s invitation attracted him because:
‘… there was little risk involved’,
– and even though it meant his divine mission being left ‘unresolved’.
And imperfection is apparent again in that his reference to a ‘futile horn’ makes it seem he has no notion of his own ‘second coming’, his return at the end of the world which is to be announced by Gabriel’s horn:
‘And the one-eyed undertaker, he blows a futile horn’.
He treats the horn blast as if it’s a mere proclamation of death. Furthermore, while he considers the possibility that he might return, he makes clear it’s no more than a possibility:
‘And if I pass this way again, you can rest assured
I’ll always do my best for her, on that I give my word’.
According to traditional Christianity Christ’s second coming is a certainty – not merely an ‘if’. It’s also when he’ll reward the virtuous with eternal life – not just ‘do his best’ for them.
All these imperfections make it clear that the Christ represented by the narrator is a fallible human.
The Woman As God And Christ
Like the narrator, the woman, too, can be seen as embodying aspects of both God and Christ.2
In the final verse the narrator implicitly identifies her with God:
‘If I could only turn back the clock to when God and her were born’.
If she were just a woman, it’s unlikely that her birth would have been contemporaneous with God’s.
And like the narrator she can be identified with Christ (which in itself would make her one with God). First, we’re constantly reminded of the woman’s generosity which makes her Christ-like:
‘”Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”’
Secondly, in taking the narrator’s burdens, represented by his crown of thorns, onto herself, she literally becomes Christ in that she’s taking on his role.
It’s significant that we’re told that she ‘took‘ his crown of thorns, thus making apparent a contrast between her and the imperfect narrator who previously ‘took too much for granted’. In that she acts selflessly, in contrast to the narrator who is more concerned about safety and warmth, and avoiding risk, she is Christ-like in a way that he isn’t
The Woman As Imperfect
Despite her generosity the woman, like the narrator, is not perfect. Just as he suffers from human imperfection, so does she. This is apparent from her wearing:
‘… silver bracelets on her wrists and flowers in her hair’.
While the flowers represent her natural side, that the bracelets are silver suggests she’s attracted by luxury. These are perhaps the equivalent of the expensive, seamless garment which Christ was stripped of immediately prior to the crucifixion, and which is alluded to in the penultimate verse:
‘… they gambled for my clothes’.
Also her assumption that it’s acceptable to pursue a quiet life becomes a temptation to the narrator. One set of temptations, by the devil in the wilderness, seems to have been replaced by another temptation from her.
The ideal for both the narrator and the woman might be seen as to become wholly, instead of partially, Christ-like. At present they’re each a duality comprising virtue and imperfection, including virtues and imperfections which the other lacks. Only if they unite will they form a perfect being – the divine Christ – for only then will the narrator’s sacrifice be as consciously chosen as the woman’s, and her attitude be as unmaterialistic as his eventually becomes.
These dualities are reflected in a further duality – God and man. And this duality is itself reflected in the picture of Christ we get from the narrator’s somewhat cryptic announcement:
‘… the deputy walks on hard nails, the preacher rides a mount’.
‘Hard nails’ represents the side of self-sacrifice associated with the narrator’s crucifixion and the woman’s generosity, whereas riding a mount represents a form of transport associated with the narrator’s desire for comfort and perhaps the woman’s for luxury.
The Wall And The Word
As the narrator looks back, unity between the two aspects of Christ represented by himself and the woman still seems yet to occur. Instead, according to the narrator, a wall separates the one from the other. That the unity is yet to come about may not be the whole truth, however.
Previously, in welcoming the offer of ‘shelter from the storm’, the narrator had been in danger of giving in to his own desire for an easy life. This is reflected in his comment:
‘Not a word was spoke between us …’
There had been, as it were, nothing between them – not even a need for speech – prior to the wall. They’d simply shared the same natural, human, materialistic outlook.
Once the narrator changes tack, however, something does separate their attitudes. The wall which replaces the absence of ‘a word between us’ turns out to be a word. So, where there had been no word, there is now a word:
‘I’ll always do my best for her, on that I give my word’.
On the surface this means that he commits himself to acting generously towards her. However he also seems, unconsciously, to be alluding to the biblical claim,
‘The word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us’ (John 1.14)
in which ‘word’ (Greek ‘logos’) can be taken to mean both God and, in flesh-form, Christ. Thus when ‘give my word’ replaces ‘not a word’, it’s an indication that the narrator- speaking as God – has ceased to be self-centred and – as Christ – has become something given by God to the world.
Although the narrator doesn’t realise it, once he has given himself there is no wall separating him from the woman. His act of generosity coupled with hers amounts to the beginnings of a new unity.2
The Foreign Country And Crossing The Line
The final verse enables us to see what’s been going on both from the narrator’s earthly perspective, and from a heavenly one.
The narrator, Christ, apparently speaking after his resurrection is still:
‘… livin’ in a foreign country’,3
that is, on earth. He’s still a man, and there’s even a hint of human acquisitiveness (reminiscent of his counterpart’s liking for silver bracelets) when he says about beauty (or Beauty):
‘… someday I’ll make it mine’.4
Even so, with the crucifixion over, he’s anticipating ‘crossing the line’ – which might be interpreted as returning to heaven. Meanwhile, he’s dissatisfied. Not only does he have a desire to make beauty his’ – perhaps to possess the woman – but he wants:
‘…to turn back the clock to when God and her were born’.
There are two interesting things about this desire. First, in wanting to return to an ideal past he seems unaware of the significance of his crucifixion. Secondly, his acknowledgement that God and the woman were born together implies that in the distant past they were identical.
The time ‘God and her were born’ would have been either the time of Christ’s birth – the ‘long forgotten morn’ of verse six – or the beginning of time, depending on whether the frame of reference is earth or heaven. Either way he seems to be treating the woman as having been Christ and therefore as fully identical with God. By turning back the clock, he wants to recreate that identity. And in addition, his desire to make beauty his, can be seen as his wanting to share in that identity.
The narrator seems to acknowledge the desirability of this identity or unity when he says:
‘Beauty walks a razor’s edge …’
The idea seems to be that Beauty – the true, undivided Christ who exists timelessly in heaven – is being split down the middle to become the two aspects of Christ apparent throughout the song. His aim is to restore the unity of Christ, and the unity of Christ with God.
That it is indeed the complete Christ walking the razor’s edge is perhaps corroborated by the use of ‘walks’ in the ‘phrase ‘Beauty walks a razor’s edge. The word ‘walks’ had previously been used in conjunction with both the woman and (arguably) the narrator:
‘She walked up to me so gracefully …’
‘… the deputy walks on hard nails …’
Had he been aware of the significance of the crucifixion, he’d have known that his wish to restore the unity of Christ, and the unity of Christ with God, is unnecessary. There is no need to ‘turn back the clock’ and to make Beauty his. From an eternal perspective his crucifixion and the woman’s generosity have already put an end to their division, thus forming a unified Christ who is identical with God. The clock, as it were, has already been put back, and the line already crossed. The crucifixion has ensured that beauty (the woman), or Beauty (God), is already his.5
The song is doubtless open to other interpretations than the one given here. But even to the extent that this one is justified, it’s still a matter of opinion what it can be said to show. What follows, then, is only a suggestion.
The narrator and the woman are each presented as fallible human beings. To that extent they represent humanity generally – us. The song, I suggest, shows how human beings are to make moral progress or, in religious terms, to achieve redemption. This is achievable without any intervention from a divine Christ. The Christ here is manifestly not divine, at least from an earthly, temporal standpoint. Rather, redemption is achieved by an imperfect man and an imperfect woman who, as a result of the pooling of their moral strengths, and the consequent elimination of their moral weaknesses, become the divine Christ. This is made possible by the narrator and the woman each having strengths and weaknesses which the other lacks.
By the end of the song the narrator and the woman have achieved what their counterpart in the gospels has achieved. Eternally they constitute the divine Christ, while in earthly terms they remain man and woman.
An excellent article by Jochen Markhorst on the Untold Dylan blog yesterday (1.11.18) includes this ‘extra verse’ which seems to have been excluded from the final song:
‘Now the bonds are broken, but they can be retied
By one more journey to the woods, the holes where spirits hide.
It’s a never-ending battle for a peace that’s always torn.
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm’.
My immediate thoughts are as follows. The first line:
‘Now the bonds are broken, but they can be retied’
immediately seems to fit the interpretation I’ve given. ‘Bonds’ is a word used in religious contexts for the covenant. In the song, then, the breaking of the covenant amounts to the need for Christ’s new covenant. And this new covenant is represented by the future bonds being retied.
A second meaning it might have is that the bonds between the two aspects of Christ, represented by the narrator and the woman, or between Christ-as-man and God, will be retied after the second coming (‘one more journey’). That reunification is hinted at in the final verse, as I’ve discussed above. If the reunification doesn’t occur until the second coming, then it doesn’t occur until the end of time. That is it occurs from an eternal, but not a temporal perspective.
The ‘never-ending battle’ is presumably the battle between good and evil. It’s never ending in temporal terms, but from an eternal standpoint it’s been won. In a similar way the separation between the two aspects of Christ, and between Christ (as man) and God, is never ending in temporal terms, whereas from an eternal standpoint there’s unity. That unity results from the sacrificial action of the narrator (again, as discussed above).
That the ‘peace is always torn’ seems to imply there’ll never be peace, but again this will be just from a temporal perspective (‘never’ being a temporal word). Accordingly, just as the separation of Christ into partially imperfect parts cannot be ended in time, so neither can peace be restored in time. However it can be, and is, restored eternally by the narrator’s sacrifice.
A hint that even though the battle can’t be won, and peace restored, except outside of time, comes with the word ‘torn’. This is because it reminds us of the tearing of the veil in the temple at the time of the crucifixion. This was a symbol of the reunification of man with God achieved by the crucifixion. It was therefore a symbol of the eternal end to the unending battle between good and evil.
Appendix updated 3.11.19
- There are numerous other biblical references. An example would be ‘newborn babies wailin’’ which brings to mind Herod’s massacre of the innocents.
- Something else which the narrator and the woman have in common is that they’re both presented as hippies – the woman with ‘flowers in her hair’ and the narrator in using ‘man’ to address someone.
- Compare ‘… a better country–a heavenly one’ (Hebrews 11.16). Also, the phrase ‘foreign country’ might be a reference to the opening of The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’. What seems to be significant here is that earthly, temporal existence is a foreign country compared to eternal (i.e. non-temporal) heavenly existence. What still has to be done in the former is eternal in the latter. Hartley uses the present tense (‘do things’) to suggest that the past is still going on, eternally, despite having gone from a temporal perspective.
- Similarly the phrase ‘I’m bound to cross the line’ reminds us of the narrator’s fallibility by implying that he’ll be going too far – giving in to temptation.
- That there is no need to turn the clock back is made clear in another way. The ambiguity about whether the phrase ‘when God and her were born’ refers to the beginning of time or merely to the incarnation suggests that there’s no distinction to be made between these apparently distantly separate times. If there’s no distinction between the times, there’s no point in turning the clock back.