The narrator is sitting alone, letting things pass through his mind.1 Memories alluded to in the past tense let us know what his situation is, while the remainder make us privy to his mental processes as they occur. These processes enable us to acquire insight into his character. A feature of the song is its use of phrases drawn from other works, phrases which take on different meanings in their new context. By attending to these differences in meaning, we’re able to gain further insight into the narrator’s character.
The song concerns the narrator’s relationship with two women. One is the narrator’s main interest, a woman he’s left, and who in consequence is upset. The other is Samantha Brown, a woman with whom he has a short-term relationship which comes to nothing. To that extent this relationship is the counterpart of the one between the woman the narrator left and her ‘lover-man’. And just as the narrator finishes with Samantha Brown ‘after four or five months’, so the woman he left finishes with the ‘lover-man’, something we can infer from the final verse’s telling us that she’s ‘all by herself’.
By the end of the song we find that the narrator has decided to return to her. Along the way he, often unintentionally, alerts us to the thoughts and feelings which motivated this decision. It’s necessary to read between the lines because, although the song is a monologue, there are implications he seems unaware of in what he says.
The Woman as the Defeated
It’s only in the final verse that we learn that the narrator, having previously left his lover, now intends to return to her. His attitude towards her is filled out in the immediately preceding verse. Here he says he’s going to:
‘… spare the defeated …’,
‘… teach peace to the conquered’
‘… tame the proud’.
In the context of the song, the verse only makes sense if it’s seen as applying to the woman. The narrator would be seeing her as ‘defeated’ in having to accept him as the only alternative to not having a lover at all. To that extent she’d have been ‘conquered’ by him. That he might see her as ‘proud’ is quite likely from his description of her as ‘standing in the door’ as if she was refusing to be cowed by his departure. His intention, then, is to revive the relationship while somewhat misogynistically getting her to unquestioningly accept his will and a subordinate role in the relationship.
In addition to misogyny one might criticise the narrator for cruelty, a trait brought out by his choice of language. The phrases just quoted are militaristic – militaristic metaphors adapted from descriptions used in a literal way by Virgil.2 The metaphors suggest he sees his relationship with the woman as a battle. Since he’s well aware of the consequences of warfare, having already told us that his ‘brother got killed in the war’, he must realise that his ‘defeat’ of the woman is tantamount to her death, albeit in a non-literal sense. This makes his intention to ‘spare the defeated’ disingenuous. If you know someone is dead, even metaphorically, your intention to ‘spare’ them cannot be as magnanimous as it sounds.
That the narrator is cruel in his attitude to the woman is further supported by his earlier use of militaristic ideas in the verse about ‘my captain’. The captain, despite his training and having been ‘decorated’, is callous:
‘He’s not sentimental – don’t bother him at all
How many of his pals have been killed’.
The use of ‘my’ before ‘captain’ – which doesn’t appear in the Junichi Saga account on which these lines are based – suggests that the captain represents the attitudes of the narrator.3 The latter admires the captain for his valour, seeing him as the antithesis of the woman’s ‘lover-man’ whom he dismisses as ‘a coward’.
And that the narrator is to be seen as cruel is further reinforced by the fact that he dismisses concern about comrades’ deaths in battle as sentimentality. Consistency would demand he be equally unemotional even about his own brother’s death, as well as the metaphorical death of the woman. And while he criticises the woman’s ‘lover-man as ungentlemanly, rotten and cowardly, at least it’s a ‘barren field’ he associates with the ‘lover-man’ and not a battlefield.4 The ‘lover-man’ is not as cruel as his critic.
The narrator can perhaps also be criticised for adopting a gung-ho attitude towards the woman. The second line of verse ten adds the word ‘boys’ to the first-line equivalent as if the narrator is imagining he’s making a rousing speech:
‘I’m gonna spare the defeated, boys, I’m going to speak to the crowd’
Whereas the first line, without ‘boys’, seemed to be a statement of intention, the second-line version makes him seem to be boasting to his troops about anticipated success in the aftermath of battle. Literally, however, the boast is about something which, one would have thought, should be a private matter between him and the woman.5
Attitude to Death
The narrator’s inappropriate sympathy with the captain’s response to death in battle would seem to be a result of his confusing different senses of words. He fails to notice a subtle distinction in the meaning of ‘got’ in:
‘… my brother got killed in the war’
compared with its meaning in:
‘My sister, she ran off and got married’.
When you get killed, it’s something which just happens to you. But when you get married, you do it intentionally. In not making the distinction between active and passive behaviour here, the narrator makes getting killed in battle a reprehensible act on a par (in his eyes) with running off and getting married. Absurdly he seems to be as condemnatory of his brother as of his sister.
Just as he fails to distinguish between two senses of ‘got’, he also seems to confuse different senses of the word ‘left’ in:
‘… I left my long-time darlin’’
‘My pa he died and left me’.
His father didn’t leave him in the way he left the woman. While the narrator chose to leave the woman, his father’s leaving him was the accidental accompaniment to dying. Again, the narrator seems unable able to distinguish between meanings associated with activity and passivity. As a result he fails to treat dying as a misfortune and is able to condemn as sentimental a natural and appropriate response to death, including the metaphorical death of the woman.
With respect to Samantha Brown, the person who briefly lodges with him, the narrator says that he:
‘… never slept with her even once’.
While he might seem to be seeking admiration for his self-control, the announcement might also suggest that he’s really only interested in the woman he left.
However the narrator may not be being as selfless as he’s making out. The word ‘even’ in ‘even once’ doesn’t appear in Confessions of a Yakuza, the origin of the quotation, and it makes all the difference.6 The addition of ‘even’ suggests that the narrator would have slept with Samantha Brown if he could, and not just once either. If that’s the case, we might wonder why he didn’t.
The answer may be that the narrator is inordinately inactive to the extent that he may not even have made an effort to get to know her. That inactivity might be the cause of the narrator’s failure to sleep with his lodger is suggested by the word ‘never’ in ‘never slept with her’. It reminds us of two other occasions where ‘never’ appears. On each occasion it suggests hopelessness, as if the narrator sees improving his lot as beyond his control.
First, about his sister, he says that following her marriage she:
‘Never was heard of any more’.
While the narrator might want us to think that the sister failed to re-establish contact, we’re entitled to wonder if the remissness wasn’t on his part. Why did he just wait to hear from her instead of attempting to get in touch? It would seem he’s waiting for things to happen instead of pro-actively making them happen.
The line just quoted is based on one from Huckleberry Finn:
‘… my sister Mary Ann run off and got married and never was heard of no more, and Bill went to hunt them and he warn’t heard of no more’7
However, the song’s use of the phrase ‘never was heard of no more’ achieves something different to the novel’s. In the song, the phrase has the effect of highlighting something reprehensible about the narrator which the novel’s doesn’t about Huck. Unlike with the narrator, we know the latter is not blasé about the disappearance of the sister since he points out that an attempt was made to find her. The narrator doesn’t even begin to think that looking for his sister might be worthwhile.
The second occasion when the word ‘never’ occurs in a context which suggests lethargy is when, on hearing the wind seeming to be whispering to him, the narrator laments:
‘I tell myself something’s comin’
But it never does’.
It seems likely that the reason nothing arrives is because of the narrator’s inaction. Things don’t happen just because you wait for them to happen. Again the narrator is just assuming that it’s not worth acting.
The narrator’s inaction in ‘never’ sleeping with Samantha Brown, not contacting his sister, and not making things happen are complemented by the fact that even when he does do anything, what he does involves hardly any physical activity.
In verse six he’s driving, an activity involving more sitting. It’s true that when he’s driving he’s making some progress. He’s:
‘… forty miles from the mill’.
Even the limited activity involved in driving is reducing the metaphorical distance separating him from a solution to his problem. It’s getting reduced by forty miles from the original million miles – if we see ‘mill’ as being short for ‘million’.
However, forty, compared to a million, is not much. It’s clear that the narrator needs to do something more drastic.
He gets as far as setting radio stations – but even the word ‘settin’’ reminds us of his sedentariness in being uncomfortably similar to ‘sitting’. He changes gear, but this only involves ‘droppin’ the car into overdrive, ‘dropping’ doubtless being appealing because it involves no exertion. And while he wishes his mother were still alive, wishing is hardly strenuous and about as likely to be effective.
The failure of the narrator to physically act is further apparent when he says of the weather that it’s:
‘… not fit for man or beast’
– this suggesting he’d rather sit inside than venture out of doors. That he’s making a petty excuse is emphasised by his subsequently referring to his rival as ‘your lover-man’. If the weather is fit for the lover-man’ it should be fit for any ‘man or beast’ to go out in, including the narrator.
All this contrasts with the activity of others. The dancers in verse two are:
‘… doing the double shuffle, throwin’ sand on the floor’
– their ‘double shuffle’ contrasting with the narrator’s not sleeping with Samantha Brown ‘even once’.
His sister is active in that she:
‘… ran off and got married’.
And the narrator’s rival is actively:
‘… comin’ across the barren field’.8
It’s notable that while he is ‘just sittin’ here thinking’, the woman is remembered as:
‘… standing in the door’.
While standing isn’t particularly active, it does suggest that the woman, unlike the narrator, is at least ready for action and accordingly is unlikely to let pass the opportunity for a new relationship.
Errors of Judgement
Before he changes tack and becomes active, the narrator’s approach to life is lacking in other ways. He claims that it’s:
‘Funny how the things you have the hardest time parting with
Are the things you need the least’.
That is obviously not the case. It seems to be an attempt to brainwash himself into believing he’d be better off without the woman. But he isn’t. That he needs her is suggested by the references to loneliness without her which appear in the title and the opening lines of the song.
Since he’s lonely without her, she doesn’t count among ‘the things you need the least’. And that he’s having a hard time is clear from his failure to have a close relationship with Samantha Brown.
Not only does he admit to having ‘never slept’ with Samantha Brown, but he seems unintentionally to use other phrases which, albeit in different contexts, have sexual connotations – the lover man’s ‘comin’ and the narrator’s trying to ‘make out’ what the wind was whispering. The terms suggest that deep down it’s the lack of a sexual relationship which makes him both need the woman and have a hard time without her.
That he is wrong in holding that ‘the things you have the hardest time parting with / are the things you need the least’ is further established by his decision to go back to the woman.
It’s not only in his own case that the claim just quoted proves to be wrong, however. Her standing in the doorway when he left suggests she had a hard time parting from him. And that she too has an unsatisfactory relationship with someone else – the ‘lover-man’ – suggests that she needs him. Furthermore, just as he needs her for the sex he didn’t get with Samantha Brown, so (as he sees it) she needs him for sex. As he puts it, in the rather patronising way which ought in fact to apply to them both:
‘You can’t make love all by yourself’.
In neither his own case, then, nor hers is he at all reliable when he says that what you have the hardest time parting with is what you need the least.
The narrator seems feckless when he responds to the wind’s whispering by saying:
‘I tell myself something’s comin’
But it never does’.
The fact that he needs to tell himself something’s coming suggests that, deep down, he knows that something isn’t coming.9 However, this is not his final response since the wind seems to represent his subconscious mind urging him to resolve his problems by acting. It’s after he hears the wind that he takes the decision to return to the woman. Having taken the decision, the wind no longer seems to be whispering, suggesting that his subconscious is now at peace. He still hears the effect of the wind:
‘… the leaves are rustlin’ in the wood …’,
but it’s no longer needed to urge him to action.
The source of the lines concerning the wind’s whispering and the leaves rustling is Huckleberry Finn, but again Dylan uses them to different effect. In the novel they occur as part of a single sentence and concern the same time.10 Dylan reverses the order and separates them in time, the whispering occurring ‘last night’ whereas the leaves ‘are’ rustling. The intervening period has allowed him time to take the decision to act.
There is a further effect of the wind in that:
‘… things are fallin’ off of the shelf’.
Again the narrator’s subconscious seems involved for at face value the observation seems too inconsequential to seem worth making. However, it perhaps shows that the narrator sees himself as saving the woman from being, in wording consistent with his earlier misogyny, ‘on the shelf’.
The song provides an insight into human nature. It does so by focusing on the thoughts of the narrator up to his decision to return to the woman he’s left. We’re thus able to discern his motivations which include the prospect of a sexual relationship and a desire to end his loneliness.
It’s his faults that dominate the song, however. We discover him to be cruel, misogynistic, condemnatory of others, fantasising, self-centred, patronising and prone to making errors of judgement. He’s also unduly lethargic, and that he eventually decides to act is a result of subconscious unease rather than any conscious thought on his part.
- The title, opening lines and theme of returning to an unhappy former lover are apparently inspired by In the McTell song, Lonesome Day Blues (co-written by McTell and Ruby Glaze). In this both the narrator and the woman predict that the latter will return after he, and perhaps the woman, become lonely. In Dylan’s song the narrator is already lonely. The implication in both songs seems to be that it’s selfishness rather than love which motivates the narrator’s return. Dylan, however, provides a much broader account of his narrator’s thoughts and of the subtleties of his character.
- Virgil, Aeneid, Bk 6, tr. Mandelbaum, 1971
- Junichi Saga, Confessions of a Yakuza, p.243. Saga has ‘There was nothing sentimental about him – it didn’t bother him at all that some of his pals had been killed. he said that he’d been given any number of decorations …’
- The poet Langston Hughes uses the line ‘Life is a barren field’ in his short poem Dreams. Dylan’s narrator might be thinking that life without the woman is pointless.
- In Summer Days the narrator has a similarly immature attitude to driving fast, and imagines himself showing off his car’s abilities in a speech in which he addresses his hearers as ‘boys’.
- Junichi Saga, Confessions of a Yakuza, p.208. Saga has ‘I don’t know how it looked to other people, but I never even slept with her – not once’. Dylan has removed ‘even’ from before ‘slept’, placing it immediately before ‘once’. Whereas Saga’s character is belittling sleeping with someone, Dylan’s is regretting that it didn’t happen.
- Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ch.1
- That it’s sand which is being thrown on the floor suggests that, unlike the narrator, the dancers are putting their time – represented by sand – to good use. The narrator wastes time when he has a hard time parting with things he doesn’t need.
- The final line of verse six, ‘I wish my mother was still alive’ is sometimes replaced by:‘I’m tellin’ myself that I’m still alive’. Again the fact that the narrator sees it necessary to tell himself something, suggests that deep down he realises that it’s not really the case. His inactivity has the consequence that he’s not really alive in any meaningful sense.
- Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Ch.1, has: ‘The stars were shining, and the leaves rustled in the woods ever so mournful; and I heard an owl, away off, who-whooing about somebody that was dead, and a whippowill and a dog crying about somebody that was going to die; and the wind was trying to whisper something to me, and I couldn’t make out what it was, and so it made the cold shivers run over me.