The song comprises the loosely connected memories of the narrator. Through them we’re able to re-construct a part of his life and aspects of his character which he unintentionally gives away. Due to the order in which events are presented, it is not always certain precisely who is involved or when an event occurs. The effect is to license conflicting, albeit complementary, interpretations, and it will be in the light of these interpretations that the significance of the central theme – whether the past can be repeated – will become apparent.
The theme is inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. One way of seeing the narrator is as a version of Fitzgerald’s hero. Gatsby is in love with a woman who, since their enforced parting, has married someone else. Despite the husband’s unfaithfulness, Gatsby fails to revive the former relationship. This failure is in part due to the snobbery of a social class to which he aspires but cannot belong, and in part to a hopeless belief that a happier past can be repeated. Dylan’s narrator has a number of Gatsby’s traits. Like Gatsby he is ostentatious, acquisitive, deceitful, and a social failure. And – crucially – like Gatsby he’s undone by his determination to repeat the past by reviving a former relationship. His pursuit of a now married woman who rejects him brings out the worst in his character.
That’s one way of seeing the narrator. But there is another which enables the theme of repeating the past to be explored in a way that goes beyond Fitzgerald’s. As so often with Dylan, the song is a masterpiece of economy and a feature of this is the application of a single description of a wedding to two separate weddings. This facilitates an alternative interpretation according to which the narrator does succeed in marrying after all, and in so doing does repeat the past. What transpires, though, is that the resulting repetition is sterile, and at best part of an endless cycle of similarly sterile repetitions.
The analysis is in four main parts. The first three deal respectively with the underlying narrative, evidence for there being two weddings, and the theme of repeating the past. The fourth, and longest, part deals with the narrator’s character.
The Underlying Narrative
We need, then, to see how the song explores the theme of repeating the past in a way which goes beyond Fitzgerald’s approach. In order to do this, it will be best to begin by clarifying the narrative underlying the sometimes randomly ordered memories which comprise the song.
On one level of interpretation, and on the assumption that the plot begins by following Fitzgerald’s, the narrator wants to marry a woman he has previously known. The woman, who is already married, says it’s impossible but the narrator refuses to believe her:
‘She says, “You can’t repeat the past.” I say, “You can’t? What do you mean you can’t? Of course you can.”
The song details the narrator’s attempts to impress but ends with his disillusionment and desire for revenge. He hasn’t been able to repeat the past and marry the woman.
However, some doubt is cast on this straightforward interpretation by references to a wedding (v6), a wedding reception (v3), a businessman (v5) and a politician (v12). These references would suggest an alternative course of events. Whereas the novel begins with the woman already married, the song is taking us back to the celebrations accompanying that wedding. The groom is the businessman derided by the narrator in verse five, and the narrator is seen as a somewhat drunken guest at the reception. Sometime later, after the narrator has prised the woman away from the groom, he marries her. And sometime after that, a politician prises the woman away from the narrator who ends up disillusioned and vowing to get his revenge.
Evidence for Two Weddings
The Timing of the Reception
We might think that both the wedding alluded to in verse six and the reception described in verse three are part of one and the same celebration. But this isn’t necessarily the case. There’s no reason to assume that the reception of verse three is in any direct way connected with the wedding of verse six. In fact, if we assume that the narrator is recounting events in the order they occurred, the reception will have to be associated with an earlier wedding. It will have to have taken place before, not after, the events of verse three. In consequence, the wedding described in verse six will be a different, later wedding.
This account does depend on the narrator’s recalling events in the order in which they occurred. Quite often, however, he seems to jump from one incident to another and then back again. If that’s what’s happening here, the order of the accounts no longer gives us reason to think there are two weddings. In that case, in order to establish that there are two weddings, we need independent evidence. This can be provided as follows.
It can be shown that the reception of verse three is connected with a wedding which is not the narrator’s. This is worth doing because, even though it isn’t in itself enough to show there there are two weddings, it will do so if it is combined with reasons for thinking the wedding of verse six is the narrator’s.
That the groom at the reception is not the narrator is clear because otherwise the narrator who is proposing a toast, presumably to the groom, would be toasting himself.1 We know the person being toasted is the groom because he’s described as ‘the King’ and this makes him related to the bride who, as we’ve been given some reason to believe, has ‘royal Indian blood’.
That this royal relationship is not itself a blood relationship, but one by marriage, is clearly implied by there being no further mention of blood. And since there’s no indication that the recipient of the toast is any other sort of blood relation, there can be little doubt that the marriage being celebrated is his and not the narrator’s.
As noted above, the matter of there being two weddings will now be settled if it can be shown that the wedding which is the subject of verse six is the narrator’s. One reason for taking it to be narrator’s, is the third line:
‘What looks good in the day, at night is another thing’
While on one level the narrator seems to be making a crude, general observation about sex, he might be seen as acknowledging that the marriage – his marriage – is a failure. He’d be lamenting that at night, when he and the woman are together alone, it’s disastrous and that it only ‘appears’ to be good at other times. In the language of the title, the ‘summer nights’ are already gone and the ‘summer days’ only appear not to have.
A second reason for taking verse six to concern the narrator’s marriage is that in verse two he can be taken to be telling us that he, as distinct from the groom, has
‘Got a long-haired woman …’
It would be an odd thing to say if he weren’t married to her, particularly since it’s said in the context of domestic matters:
‘I got a house on a hill, I got hogs all out in the mud’
Finally, verse twelve concerning the politician can be interpreted in a way which at least corroborates the view that the wedding of verse six is the narrator’s. The politician, we’re told has been:
‘… suckin’ the blood out of the genius of generosity’
The politician, we can surmise, is attempting to supplant the narrator in the woman’s affections, so depriving him of her. On this account the ‘blood’ is either metaphorical and the narrator’s, or else refers synecdochally to the woman, whom we’ve been told has ‘royal Indian blood’. The blood might also represent a financial bribe, one going beyond what the narrator has willingly offered in the hope of seeing off the politician. Thus ‘the genius of generosity’ would be being self-referentially applied by the narrator to himself on the basis of the price he’d willingly offered. That the narrator is prepared to pay financially in the cause of love is backed up by his boast in a different context:
‘My pockets are loaded and I’m spending every dime’
In the light of this the politician is best seen a rival threatening the narrator’s marriage by playing the same predatory role the narrator played when the woman was married to the businessman. To that extent, even if it provides insufficient evidence on its own, it at least corroborates the view that verse six refers to the narrator’s marriage.
All things considered there is, I suggest, adequate evidence for their being two weddings to the woman, the earlier one the businessman’s and the later one the narrator’s.
Theme of Repeating the Past
Importance of There Being Two Weddings
One significance of there being two weddings is that it enables a contrast to be brought out between the woman and the narrator with respect to the past being repeated. By marrying for a second time, the woman is not merely repeating the past but instead embarking on something new – a new relationship with a new person, the narrator. And when that relationship ends and she marries the politician, she will again be embarking on something new and so again not merely be repeating the past.
A parallel point can be made in connection with the politician. There being two weddings is significant in that it allows both the narrator’s destruction of the first wedding and its repetition in the politician’s destruction of the narrator’s wedding. This repetition might lead us to think that the politician’s wedding is also likely to be doomed. But again there’s a difference. What for the narrator is a matter of trying to repeat the past in reviving an old relationship, for the politician is a matter of embarking on something new. Since the narrator ultimately fails with the woman, and the politician succeeds, it’s reasonable to blame the outcome on the narrator’s desire to repeat the past.
That the politician has a more effective attitude to the past than the narrator is also apparent in his being described as having:
‘… no time to lose’
The phrase ‘no time to lose’ implies that for the politician once time is lost, it’s lost forever. Its further significance is in drawing attention to the narrator’s attitude to the past when he also refers to time:
‘How can you say you love someone else when you know it’s me all the time?’
Whereas the politician is not concerned about repeating the past but with making the most of the present, the narrator’s ‘all the time’ implies that the woman can only love someone in the present if the relationship is a repeat of an earlier relationship with that person.
The main importance of there being two weddings, however, is that it enables the song to represent a modification of the view illustrated in The Great Gatsby that the past cannot be repeated. In the song the narrator does repeat the past – by reviving a defunct relationship with the woman. However the woman’s claim that the past can’t be repeated has no more been refuted in effect than the narrator’s claim has been upheld. What the song does is clarify the sense in which the past cannot be repeated by showing that there’s no meaningful sense in which it can. The narrator has achieved nothing by reviving the relationship because it is doomed to failure.
The Opening and Closing Verses
Particularly important for demonstrating the meaninglessness of the narrator’s repetition of the past by marrying the woman is the relationship between the song’s first and last verses. The verses are each of three lines and in each we find the following pair of statements:
‘Summer days, summer nights are gone’
‘I know a place where there’s still somethin’ going on’
It’s not clear that the final verse’s repetition of the pair indicates that the past is being repeated, however. It doesn’t have to. It could be that the two verses are presenting the same pair of thoughts which were had just the once. Accordingly, the summer days and nights referred to in each verse would be identical, as would the place referred to and whatever it is that’s ‘going on’. Only if there were two separate pairs of thoughts, one in the first verse and one in the final verse, might the events referred to be different. If the events of the final verse are different events to those of the first verse, then – given their similarity – the later events can be said to repeat the earlier events.
The matter can be settled by noting that the middle line of each verse is subtly different. Whereas the first verse has:
‘Summer days and the summer nights have gone’,
as its middle line, the final verse simply has:
‘Summer days, summer nights are gone’.
The addition of the phrase ‘and the‘ in the first verse suggests that we’re being given two distinct, albeit very similar, thoughts in the two middle lines. And that allows the possibility that the events alluded to in the final verse are different to the events alluded to in the first verse. In that case the past would have been repeated. What is happening is that at the end of another summer the narrator again bemoans its passing, but welcomes the thought that not everything is over.
Importantly, there’s nothing to suggest that this repetition is a one-off. The fact that the events of one year are repeated the following year suggests that there’ll be a similar repetition at the end of every autumn. The narrator will regret summer’s passing, but find solace in whatever hasn’t yet ended. He’ll be repeating the past over and over again, but only in the sense that each year will be a carbon copy of the previous one. What’s significant is that he’ll have failed to repeat the past in any meaningful way. The creativity and originality which characterise doing something for the first time can’t be repeated, and therefore the life of continuous repetition to which the narrator has condemned himself will be pointless.
The Narrator’s Character
In addition to exploring the theme of the repeatability of the past, the song provides a detailed and subtle representation of the narrator’s character. Considered below are three ways in which he can be seen to be flawed as a character. There’s also an examination of possible causes of his state of mind. Along the way the significance of lines yet to be considered will become apparent.
The narrator is a show-off. But he’s unsuccessful at it. At the reception he, perhaps drunkenly, makes himself the centre of attention by standing on the table, but doesn’t get the response he‘s hoping for. This is made apparent by way of a slight change in the repeated line:
‘Everybody get ready – lift up your glasses and sing’
‘Everybody get ready to lift up your glasses and sing’
The difference is subtle but it changes the meaning considerably. The first line includes the order ‘lift up your glasses and sing’- suggesting the narrator has confidence that he’ll be obeyed. The second removes that order, replacing it with an order merely to prepare to do so. It seems like the climb down of someone less at ease socially than he’d like to think as he realises that his original request is being ignored.
The narrator is also drawing attention to himself by showing off his possessions. He fails again because, by their descriptions, these aren’t up to much. There’s a ‘house on a hill’ but it seems not to have anything about it to make it worth describing further. Despite the boast, we imagine a rather plain house on a rather plain hill. Equally curiously he goes on to mention his hogs.2 It seems that these possessions are in conflict with the sort of image he’s trying to project. It may be significant that he changes the description of the hogs from ‘out in the mud’ to ‘out lying in the mud’. Given some dubious claims he makes, which are mentioned below, one wonders whether he’s unconsciously chosen a word which should warn us to be on our guard for signs of mendacity.
Another thing of which he’s proud – and seems to treat as a possession in lumping her in with the house and the hogs – is the long-haired woman with her royal Indian blood. While at this point we can assume he has become ‘the King’ in being related by marriage to her, the pride he has in his possessions might show that he’s seeing himself as a different sort of King. The possessions coupled with the title suggest he sees himself as some sort of Elvis, Elvis being ‘King of pop’. This might explain the Cadillac, an expensive type of car of which Elvis owned several. The boast of eight carburettors seem unbelievable, however, and alas, the whole consequence of showing off comes crashing down when this ‘worn out star’ suffers the indignity of running out of petrol.
Given the ‘eight carburettors’ claim and that he’s ‘short on gas’, one wonders whether the impression he wants to impart of being ‘loaded’ and ‘spending every dime’ represents the truth. Either way it’s clear he thinks the woman can be won by the prospect of wealth. It doesn’t work. He gets his comeuppance when, despite his efforts, she responds that she loves someone else.3
The narrator’s showing off suggests an immaturity which is further apparent in his petulance and downright rudeness. In verse five he insensitively dismisses the man the woman says she loves as ‘some old businessman’. And he begins the sentence in which he does this with the contemptuous ‘What good are you anyway. …?’ It’s extraordinary that he thinks such an approach suitable for convincing the woman to marry him.
When told in verse seven that he can’t repeat the past, he replies:
‘”What do you mean you can’t? Of course you can”’.
This is tellingly different from Gatsby’s response to the same observation:
‘”Can’t repeat the past,” he cried incredulously. “Why, of course you can.”‘
Whereas Gatsby is just incredulous, the narrator ‘s ‘What do you mean you can’t?’, and the absence of the softening ‘Why’ before ‘Of course you can’, turn the response into a personal criticism, implying that the woman is stupid.4
There’s more petulance in verse eight. The woman has apparently asked, presumably on first getting to know the narrator, about his background. This elicits the unexpectedly curt reply:
‘Sorry that’s nothin’ you would need to know’
Clearly the narrator has something to hide – perhaps a criminal past, like Gatsby. Alternatively he may be embarrassed about his origins, also like Gatsby. Either way the response is rude.
There’s a further curt reply, presumably to the same question, although we hear it in verse eleven:
‘If it’s information you want, you can go get it from the police’
The coldness of the response is added to by the unnecessarily dismissive addition of ‘go’ before ‘get it’. The reply is defensive and particularly inappropriate because the woman is unlikely to be asking for ‘information’ in a sense which implies she’s spying on him. If he wants her to marry him, it’s reasonable for her to expect some transparency.
The narrator’s immaturity is again shown in verse eleven when he says:
‘You got something to say, speak or hold your peace
Well, you got something to say, speak now or hold your peace’
These lines are amusingly presented as a parody of those in a marriage ceremony where the celebrant asks if anyone knows any reason why the couple shouldn’t marry. As it happens the woman has already spoken, and the ceremonial wedding language in which the narrator is made to couch his demand makes it clear he recognises the significance of what she’d said. What she’d said is why their marriage can’t take place, namely that she loves someone else and that ‘you can’t repeat the past’.5
Immaturity is once again apparent at the end of the song. Verse thirteen ends:
‘I’m counting on you, love, to give me a break.
Apparently, and understandably, the woman doesn’t think she owes him ‘a break’. We can assume she expects him to sort his own problems out. His immediate response is one of self-pity:
‘Well, I’m leaving in the morning as soon as the dark clouds lift
This, however, immediately gives way to another petulant outburst:
‘Gonna break the roof in – set fire to the place as a parting gift’
At first it sounds sinister. Unable to get her to give him a break, he says he’ll provide a different type of break; he’ll break the roof in. The adolescent nature of his stated intention is made all the more obvious by his implication that he can leave only once the clouds have lifted. Even if ‘dark clouds’ is a metaphor representing his state of mind, it’s unclear why waiting for them to lift is necessary. One is inclined to conclude that he doesn’t intend to leave at all. This would make the wanton vandalism no more than an empty threat, a rather pathetic attempt at emotional blackmail.
Inability to Face or Recognise the Truth
Another aspect of the narrator’s character is his tendency to believe only what he wants to believe. He knows full well there’s a threat to his marriage (‘… there must be someone around’) yet in what is apparently a response to the woman’s reaction when he confronts her about the politician, he says:
‘You been rolling your eyes – you been teasing me’
It would appear that the narrator cannot accept that her body language is confirming his suspicion. He deceives himself into passing off the relationship with the politician as mere ‘teasing’. It’s a temporary respite.
A further, perhaps less deliberate, case of his avoiding the truth occurs in verse seven in his response to the woman’s comment about not being able to repeat the past. The verse begins:
‘She’s looking into my eyes …’
The description suggests sincerity, tenderness and depth on her part. The sincerity and tenderness are reinforced by the rest of the line:
‘… she’s holding my hand’.
Depth is indicated through the word ‘into’. Perversely, however, the narrator sees the woman’s demeanour as an indication of commitment when it’s in fact the opposite. He fails to see that when she tells him ‘you can’t repeat the past’ she’s not making a comment about people generally, as his response implies, but means that he can’t resurrect the relationship he once had with her. She understands where he in particular is going wrong. Looking into his eyes, she can see into his soul, as it were. She can see that his behaviour towards her is a vain attempt to resurrect the past, and her comment is to warn him that it can’t be done.
Causes of the Narrator’s State of Mind
It’s clear that the underlying causes of the narrator’s problems are to be found in his refusal to act and, when he does act, a refusal to accept responsibility for failure. Instead, he presents himself as powerless to bring about his aim. In verse five, he describes his situation metaphorically, with:
‘The fog is so thick you can’t even spy the land’
He is, as it were, all at sea, not knowing which way to turn to improve his prospects of winning the woman. Or so he convinces himself.
By verse fourteen, the fog has transmuted into ‘dark clouds’ which he assumes will lift. But if the dark clouds represent what he perceives as going wrong in his life, then it’s unlikely they’re going to lift – at least of their own accord.
Instead of acting, though, he puts the blame on the woman, implying in verse five that she’s useless in not standing up to her husband – whom he derides as ‘some old businessman’.
He also complains, in verse eight, that his back has long been to the wall, again suggesting he doesn’t know which way to turn. And in the same verse he again implies, bitterly, that the fault is the woman’s. The woman has broken his heart before, and she’d do it again just to spite him – ‘for good luck’.
In verse ten he admits a lack of success. He claims to have his ‘hammer ringin …’:
‘… but the nails ain’t goin’ down’
Since ‘ringin’’ takes up a previous reference to wedding bells, we can assume he means that although he’s working on making her his wife, he’s meeting with no success. Admittedly he doesn’t blame the woman here, but it’s notable that he doesn’t blame himself either.
When towards the end he says:
‘Standing by God’s river, my soul is beginnin’ to shake’
we can assume his dread is a result of his not feeling in control.
The song deals with two main issues – whether it’s possible to repeat the past (Parts 1-3) and the narrator’s character (Part 4).
The narrator, whose character is seen through a series of random and temporally dislocated memories, is a development of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. While sharing some of Gatsby’s characteristics, he comes across as weaker than Fitzgerald’s protagonist. They both have an inordinate love of their possessions, and a desire for a married woman. They both fail, too, and in part for the same reason – their rejecting the same good advice. But among differences between them is the narrator’s habitual petulance and rudeness, his inability to cope, his failure to accept what’s happening, his inappropriate extrovert behaviour, and his too easily giving in to circumstances. He’s also different in that he seems interested in the woman primarily for what she represents in terms of social standing, sex, and her ability to give him ‘a break’. There’s little, if any, evidence of genuine, emotional attachment.
The main theme of the song is whether or not the past is repeatable. Although it’s borrowed from The Great Gatsby, it leads to a broader conclusion. It’s in part on the back of the different interpretations allowed by the disordered presentation of the narrator’s memories– notably of the verses concerning a wedding and a reception – that the broader conclusion regarding the repeatability of the past is reached. While the song too shows how the past cannot be repeated, it simultaneously allows us to see what the consequence of such repetition would be. It would be to achieve nothing beyond further pointless repetition – at least where the original repetition is so exact as to allow no advance to have been made. Nevertheless, some repetitions are presented in a more positive light. These are where they’re inexact, thus allowing the new situation to be an advance on the old. Interestingly, the song itself in the way it’s structured provides several examples of repetitions of this second sort. Lines, though repeated are often not repeated exactly, so that they acquire a different meaning. And the final verse, in repeating the first verse inexactly, likewise acquires a different meaning – albeit one that reinforces the view that exact repetitions of the past lead to stagnation.
- Once he has himself married the woman, he does of course become the King.
- That the house is ‘on a hill’ may be significant. The hill, being three-dimensional, contrasts with the two-dimensional flats in ‘… I’m drivin’ in the flats in a Cadillac car’. The suggestion would be that there’s more to ordinary, humdrum married life with house and pigs than to the superficially more attractive, but showy life of the bachelor. (Note added 5.8.2019)
- From the remaining verses in which we see the narrator vowing to leave after wreaking revenge, it would seem that this willingness to use money to achieve his end fails just as it did earlier when he’d been ‘spending every dime’.
- For those who see Dylan as simply plagiarising when he lifts lines from other works, the use here of the Fitzgerald conversation about repeating the past provides a very obvious instance of its not being the case.
- The word ‘something’ in ‘You got something to say …’ is significant here. It can be taken as referring back its use in the first verse – ‘I know a place where there’s still somethin’ going on’ – and so suggests that the narrator is guilty of blindly assuming that what’s going on is favourable to him. A similar point can be made about the word ‘going’ in ‘the nails ain’t goin’ down’. He just assumes that what’s going on is to his benefit, yet the use of the phrase ‘goin’ down’ in connection with the recalcitrant nails suggests that he’s miscalculated.