Again the song starts with the narrator walking. And again it can only be metaphorical because in the second line we’re told the ‘jukebox is playing low’. One imagines he’d be unlikely to have a jukebox with him on his walk. In fact, since he’s ‘walking through the summer nights’, the suggestion might be not so much that’s he’s going anywhere, as that time is passing. He could easily be just stuck in a bar, say, doing nothing but drinking his sorrows away, aware of music in the background.
The song is a presentation of the narrator’s state of mind in his own words. From these words we gain a greater insight into his character than he would perhaps like us to have. He doesn’t come across favourably. While he seems wrapped up in the problems of his own love life, the song can also be seen to work as an allegory. It presents general human existential angst (or, less pompously, misery about the apparent pointlessness of it all), and suggests a response in terms of a more outward looking concern for others.
The Narrator’s State Of Mind
As in the preceding songs, the narrator is in a state of inner turmoil. One way this is represented is by his being unable to strike a balance between opposites. There’s the opposition between summer and night, perhaps representing what he believes life can offer and the despair into which he has sunk. The idea gets reinforced later by the reference to the ‘dark land of the sun’. His turmoil is again apparent when he tells us that:
‘All the laughter is just making me sad’
And there’s another opposition related to the speed of events:
‘Yesterday everything was going too fast
Today it’s moving too slow’
Here he’s trying to turn the blame away from himself. The ‘too fast’ and ‘too slow’ seem to represent respectively his perceived inability to prevent the events leading to his present state of mind, and the supposed reason for his failure to put matters right. The implication of ‘laughter’ and ‘summer’ in the earlier quotation, is that things are nowhere near as bad as they seem. In fact he seems to admit he’s in the wrong when he goes on to refer to ‘riding a midnight train’ – ‘midnight’ representing the point of maximum darkness – and to suffering ‘like a fool’.
Whether or not things are as bad as he thinks, the narrator seems determined to wallow in misery. He tells us he’s ‘sick in the head’, that he’s ‘got nothing to go back to now’ and he’s ‘got no place left to turn’. This last claim seems a bit disingenuous since the word ‘left’ implies he’s been actively doing all he can to improve things and has exhausted all possibilities. In fact he seems to have simply ignored the opportunities represented by summer and laughter.
The weakness of the narrator’s character becomes even more apparent when we realise it’s not even clear he wants the relationship he’s lost to pick up again. Twice his uncertainty becomes clear:
‘I don’t know if I saw you if I’d kiss you or kill you’
‘I would be crazy if I took you back’
He seems unprepared to make any concessions. That he knows more is required of him becomes apparent from his admission that:
‘There’s things I could say, but don’t’
Why doesn’t he say them, one might wonder. Is it because he’s too bound up in his own concerns to be bothered with his lover’s? That he knows more is required of him again becomes apparent from his admission that:
‘I see nothing to be gained by any explanation
There are no words that need to be said’
The lines are ambiguous. We wonder if he’s kidding himself that he’s being magnanimous to the woman by not expecting an apology from her, or whether instead he’s reinforcing his earlier refusal to make concessions. If the latter, such a refusal puts his commitment to the relationship in doubt.
A couple of things might suggest that his behaviour is not totally negative, however. He tells us he danced with someone else which, though it did little good, nevertheless might be seen as the beginnings of an acceptance of reality. And although he pathetically keeps telling us he was left ‘standing in the doorway crying’, the fact that he is now ‘walking’ could imply that he has both literally and metaphorically moved on.
The Predicament As Spiritual
The words of the title, ‘Standing In The Doorway’ recur in the repeated line ‘You left me standing in the doorway crying’. ‘The doorway’ is open to a number of simultaneous interpretations. It could be the doorway to the narrator’s own house after his lover has gone off. It could be the doorway to her house after she refuses to let him in. And, looking ahead to the song Trying To Get To Heaven, it could be the threshold to spiritual salvation. In that song he wants to get to heaven before the door closes. Here he seems to believe it’s too late; he’s left outside once it’s been shut. While all three interpretations are plausible, there are quite a lot of reasons for accepting the third in particular.
A Need For God:
As the song progresses, the narrator seems to become more conscious of a need for God. Halfway through he says:
‘I know the mercy of God must be near’.
That the narrator now has a concern about redemption is then reinforced by his awareness of a church:
‘I can hear the church bells ringing in the yard
I wonder who they’re ringing for’
The implication of the line ‘I wonder who they’re ringing for’ is – as in Donne’s famous sermon – that they’re ringing for him, though the significance of this seems lost on him. The ringing should serve not just as a reminder about eventual death, but – because they’re church bells – as a warning of impending spiritual death.
That the door can be seen as the door to heaven, or salvation, is further supported by a reference to fire in a response of the narrator to his predicament:
‘I got nothing left to burn’
There’s no indication that the narrator is aware of any spiritual significance. Presumably he just means that there’s nothing for him any more in life, and that there’s nothing else he can do to improve it. Thus on one level the line emphasises the earlier complaint that he’s ‘no place left to turn’. However, on another, religious concerns are being re-introduced with an image of hell. The concision of the writing is deceptive, disguising two possible consequences of imbuing the line with a religious significance.
First, the line suggests the narrator is in danger. There is in fact one thing ‘left to burn’ – himself. The narrator simply doesn’t realise that his spiritual existence is in jeopardy and that he needs to take decisive action.
Secondly, the line suggests hope. He thinks he’s got nothing left, but as yet he has – himself.
These consequences are linked, since if he takes decisive action, he restores the hope he’s lost. While on one level this might be simply a hope of reviving the relationship, on another it might be a hope of dispelling a more general feeling that life is pointless – that once it’s over, it’s over:
‘When the last days of daylight go down,
Buddy you’ll roll no more’
Religious imagery occurs throughout the song. For example:
‘Don’t know if I saw you, if I would kiss you or kill you.
It probably wouldn’t matter to you anyhow’
The narrator is now Judas addressing Christ. His kiss brings about Christ’s death – and as such there’s no distinction between kissing and killing. Of course, the narrator is just reflecting on the ambivalent nature of the relationship, and the woman’s indifference to him. It’s only the listener who sees him as Judas, and who is therefore aware of an implicit criticism of the narrator’s approach to the relationship.
Another possible reference to Christ comes with the mention of light:
‘The light in this place is so bad
Making me sick in the head’
In a sense it’s the absence of Christ which is represented by the poor light, since Christ famously said ‘I am the light of the world’ (John 8.12). Again, there’s no reason to suppose the connection is made by the narrator. The complaint even seems unrelated to his main concern since it’s only if we remember similar wording in Love Sick – where he was ‘walking with you in my head‘ – that we’re likely to relate it to the erstwhile relationship.
A further unconscious reference to Christ might lie in his lament that he’s ‘in the dark land of the sun’ which can be interpreted as an expression of hope – ‘sun’ being read as ‘Son’. If only he realised it, there’s hope where he sees only blackness.
The narrator also likens himself to a leper:
‘And even if the flesh falls off of my face
I know someone will be there to care’
Presumably the leprosy here (as distinct from in ‘Til I Fell In Love With You’) represents the narrator’s misery or his more general spiritual malaise. But who will be there to care? At this point the only obvious candidate is the narrator himself. It’s up to him to cure himself. Nevertheless the leprosy image seems to invoke Christ who went out of his way to care for those with leprosy (e.g. Matt 8.2-4). The significance is two-fold. First, straightforwardly, there’s the suggestion that the narrator could benefit from whatever it is Christ represents. Secondly, if Christ and the narrator are equally the person there to care for him, an identification between the two seems to be implied. In other words, by taking on the role of Christ, the narrator will at the same time be bringing about his own cure.
This idea is made more explicit in the final line of the song:
‘Blues wrapped around my head’
On one level this tells us he’s still wallowing in misery. But the expression ‘wrapped around my head’ also puts us in mind of the crown of thorns. No longer Judas, he has now become Christ. And as a result he can resolve his problem – in the terms of the song, the misery caused by the loss of his lover. But being Christ means accepting the need to sacrifice one’s own well-being for the sake of the needs and well-being of others. He can no longer stick his head in the sand.
The song, then works on two levels. On the surface level it’s a portrayal of the desolation experienced by someone when a relationship fails. We cannot help empathising with the character, despite recognising his all-too-human failings. On the deeper level it suggests how feelings of desolation are best dealt with. The central idea is that the narrator needs to stop focusing just on himself. In terms of the religious concepts employed, he needs to change from being Judas to being Christ. It’s noticeable in the song that he hardly ever considers the concerns of his lover. As he says:
‘It always means so much
Even the softest touch’
What he means is that even the softest touch means a lot to him. It’s sadly ironic that he fails to realise that others too would appreciate similar consideration. Nevertheless, by the end of the song he does seem to be some way towards achieving the Christian outlook which will both benefit his lover and be the means of dispelling his own misery.