The narrator is considering how he might convince his lover of his loyalty.1 Although he’s addressing her, it’s unlikely that he’s speaking directly to his lover because he sometimes speaks as if he’s away from her in the city, and sometimes as if he’s with her at her home. More likely he’s rehearsing in his mind what he could say. Despite it’s taking the form of an imagined conversation rehearsed in the narrator’s mind, we’re given only the narrator’s side of it. Accordingly, although we can fill in the gaps, the song’s main concern is his thoughts, and by way of them his character.
There are three different ways these thoughts can be interpreted. First, they can be taken to represent the narrator’s genuine feelings. On this view he is honest and prepared to make concessions to his lover. Secondly, he can be seen as mentally rehearsing a series of lies and excuses designed to fool her into believing he can be trusted. Thirdly, both can be the case. It’s the third way which I’ll try to show we have good reason for accepting.
On this third view, the words the narrator uses might reflect both an honest and a scheming side to his nature, and might do so without his being aware that they carry multiple meanings. The song gives us reason to believe there are two separate parts to his consciousness, each operating independently of the other. However, given the subtlety of the reasoning involved, one might conclude that his scheming side is the more genuine side of his character.
This piece comprises four sections. The first will set out evidence for seeing the narrator as honest. It will be relatively brief because the evidence is to be derived from a consideration of just the surface meanings of his words The second section will then focus on how the narrator’s thoughts can be interpreted as machinations to circumvent his lover’s wishes. This, the longest section, will require laying bare the subtleties in his reasoning together with the manner of its progression. In order to facilitate this there will be separate discussions of each of the five verses and the refrain. The remaining two sections will deal respectively with imagery involving unity and separation and imagery concerning life and death. It’s this latter imagery which gives us reason for seeing the narrator’s mind as divided into honest and dishonest parts.
I The Narrator As Honest
What follows is a brief interpretation of the song which shows the narrator in a sympathetic light. Although the reasoning behind certain assumptions isn’t given here, it will be provided in the next section where it will be more crucial to the points being made.
The narrator clearly believes his lover has reservations about him but won’t tell him precisely why she doesn’t want to pursue a relationship. She won’t, as he puts it, ‘be honest’ with him. His aim is to find a way of winning her round by convincing her of his love which on the present interpretation, is genuine.
Suspecting she distrusts him because he won’t leave ‘the city that never sleeps’, he claims it’s because he’s ‘stranded’ there. He imagines assuring her that he does his best to avoid ‘the Southside’ – presumably the red-light district – although he admits to having lapses. Nevertheless he claims to find the women there repulsive and to suffer when he remembers previous experiences, presumably with them. Whatever these experiences were, he’s adamant that he has nothing to be sorry for. He’s in the city simply because he had to leave his wife, having found life with her to be intolerable.
The two final verses, for reasons which will become apparent in the next section, contain a number of ambiguities. It’s in these verses that the narrator could be imagining he’s still in the city, or imagining he’s with his lover at her home. If the former, it might be that, keen to allay his lover’s qualms, and fearing she intends to end the relationship, he considers leaving the city once and for all even though it will cause him hardship.
However, when he says:
‘I’m here to create the new imperial empire,’
it’s as if he’s speaking from his lover’s home. The ‘new imperial empire’ would be their marriage, and by building it he’s going to make the effort required to make the marriage work. On this account the song ends happily. When he goes on to say he cares for his lover, he really does.
Alternatively, still imagining he’s at her home, he accepts that his presence is painful to her. He imagines telling her that he’ll get the train back and won’t visit any more.
Either way he’d be doing what he genuinely considers best.
II The Narrator As Dishonest
While it’s possible to see the narrator as honest, closer attention to the text will show that his primary concern is to maintain a lifestyle in the city which is inconsistent with his apparent declarations of fidelity. The following verse by verse discussion is aimed at demonstrating his dishonesty and at identifying other negative aspects of his character.
The first instance of apparent dishonesty comes right at the outset when he says he’s,
‘… stranded in the city that never sleeps’.
This seems to conflict with what he says In the fourth verse, where he implies t he can leave immediately on
‘The Southern Pacific leaving at nine forty-five’.
If the train’s ‘leaving’ means leaving the city, the narrator’s clearly being dishonest when he says he’s stranded.
He attempts to mitigate the impropriety of being stuck in a disreputable place by claiming he’s fully aware of the dangers and is intent on avoiding them. There are women, presumably prostitutes, there who give him ‘the creeps’, and he avoids ‘the Southside’ – presumably the haunt of these women. Or so he claims. This too is dishonest, as is apparent from the wording he uses:
‘Some of these women …’
give him the creeps, and he’s avoiding the Southside
‘… as best I can’.
The clear implication is that there are women who don’t repel him at all, and furthermore that he doesn’t totally avoid the places they frequent.
Apparently realising that his lover would see straight through him, he then changes tack. He considers admitting he’s at fault, but accompanies the admission with an excuse:
‘Lots of things can get in the way when you’re tryin’ to do what’s right’
How pathetic! To blame things getting in the way, rather than oneself, is just to avoid responsibility. In the light of this one suspects he wasn’t trying very hard to do what’s right.
Once again, it seems, the narrator realises that his lover is not going to believe him. Since prevarication has failed, he tries yet another tactic. His thoughts become aggressively defensive:
‘I’m not sorry for nothin’ I’ve done
I’m glad I fought – I only wish we’d won’
Yet again, however, he succeeds only in condemning himself out of his own mouth. It’s absurd for him to say that he’s not sorry he’s failed. He ought to be sorry. He claims to have ‘fought’, presumably against temptation, but if he did fight, he clearly didn’t fight hard enough. Give him a sword and, as is made clear in verse three, he can’t even cut a piece of meat with it. He lost but, as he implicitly acknowledges when he says ‘I wish we’d won’, the loss is not just his. He’s destroyed the prospect of a successful relationship not just for himself but for his lover too.
Doubtless realising that his lover will point this out, he follows up with another excuse. The reason he originally left for the ‘city that never sleeps’, we can glean, is that he hated being at home. From the reference to ‘my woman’ which follows, ‘home’ is presumably his marital home – although one suspects that the narrator is being deliberately ambiguous. If his excuse fails, it would be open to him to claim he meant the home of his parents who are mentioned in the final verse.
‘I never wanted to go back there – I’d rather have died,’
does in fact seem lame. Even if he needed to be away from home, that doesn’t explain why he’s still in the city with its implicitly infamous Southside. Merely never wanting to return home seems a rather whimsical reason for remaining in a place of temptation when a relationship is at stake.
Presumably it’s because he recognises this that he adds ‘I’d rather have died’. It would be in the hope of diminishing the tame effect of ‘I never wanted to go back there’.
a) Home Life
Having made home life his excuse, he’s now be in the position of having to explain what was so bad about it. Accordingly his thoughts turn to producing a description of his wife:
‘My woman got a face like a teddy bear
She’s tossing a baseball bat in the air’
Does he really expect his lover to believe that his wife’s face is a reason for leaving their home? And is there something so terribly reprehensible about playing with a baseball bat? It’s difficult to believe that these criticisms would have the desired effect on his lover even if she could be relied on to overlook the callousness of his remarks.
He probably realises he needs a more relevant criticism for he follows up with:
‘The meat is so tough you can’t cut it with a sword’
This is presumably intended as a criticism of her cooking. Not only is it a ludicrous exaggeration, thus making clear how little reason his home life gives him for remaining in the city, but one might wonder why he didn’t take on the cooking himself if he was dissatisfied with his wife’s.
He ends his description of home life by saying,
‘I’m crashing my car trunk first into the boards’
It’s difficult to see how his bad driving could constitute an excuse for his behaviour. One assumes he’s contemplating using the incident as a way of showing how frustrating his home life is – having failed to come up with any other frustrations which would justify his being in the city.
At this point halfway through the third verse, criticism morphs into bitterness:
‘You say my eyes are pretty and my smile is nice
Well I’ll sell it to ya at a reduced price’
While acknowledging his lover’s appreciation of his physical qualities, he uses the occasion to take another dig at his wife. His smile has become devalued, and it’s her fault, since as a result of smiling for her it’s become second-hand.
Not only is the charge ludicrous for seeing a smile in monetary terms, but it’s an indication of the narrator’s hypocritical outlook. If, as it seems, he’s been with other women, then he too has been responsible for any devaluing of his smile.
The fourth verse is exceptionally rich in ideas in that what the narrator says on at least three occasions is open to more than one interpretation. There’s no reason to opt for one interpretation over another. The ambiguities can simply be taken to show the narrator to be entertaining different thoughts simultaneously.
a) First Ambiguity
The first ambiguity arises when the narrator declares
‘Some things are too terrible to be true’
The line could be referring to his lover’s rejection of him, which he’s perhaps now anticipating. That she’s ended the relationship is too terrible for him to accept. Alternatively it could refer to rumours about his behaviour in the city. He’s claiming they’re so terrible they can’t possibly have occurred.
Unfortunately for the narrator, the latter interpretation is the more plausible. The phrase ‘Some things are too terrible’ serves as a reminder that we’ve already had good reason to doubt his fidelity. The word ‘Some’ makes us think back to its occurrence in the second line of the song where the narrator had said:
‘Some of these women they just give me the creeps’
– and this implied that there are other women he finds to his liking. Whatever it is that’s too terrible to be true, it clearly doesn’t include his consorting with other women.
b) Second Ambiguity
There’s a further ambiguity in the narrator’s follows up:
‘I won’t come here no more if it bothers you’.
It’s unclear whether ‘here’ refers to the city or the lover’s home. He could at least be imagining he’s in either location as her speaks. Either interpretation is consistent with the line which immediately follows:
‘The Southern Pacific leaving at nine forty-five,’
since there’s no indication of the direction of travel. If ‘here’ is the city, he’d be taking the train to her home; and if ‘here’ is her home, he’d be taking the train back to the city.
The ambiguity is significant, though, because it affects his meaning. If ‘here’ refers to the city, he’d apparently be acceding to her request that he shouldn’t live there. And if ‘here’ is referring to her home, he’d apparently be accepting that the relationship should end.
On either account what’s significant for our understanding of the narrator’s character is the addition of ‘if it bothers you’. It shows him to be condescending and therefore still determined to make out that his lover’s at fault for expecting him to leave the city or expecting him not to see her again.
c) Third Ambiguity
The response he imagines giving:
‘… I don’t care
I’m going off into the woods, I’m huntin’ bare’
can also be interpreted in different ways, depending on which interpretation of ‘here’ is being applied.
On the view that he’s acceded to her wishes, he’s making it clear that he’s duplicitously determined to carry on behind her back as before. On the view that his lover has rejected him, he’s claiming he’ll just accept it and carry on in the city as before. In each case we can see this because of a pun on ‘bare’. Since he associates his wife with a teddy bear, we can take ‘bare’ as ‘bear’, and therefore as referring to women. Hunting them will be seeking them out for a relationship.
The fact that either interpretation is consistent with his pursuing a life of infidelity shows just how determined he is to continue pursuing it.
Just as for verse four, this verse too can be interpreted in two ways. And just as for verse four, the effect is to show how rigid the narrator is in his intention to remain unfaithful. He begins:
‘I’m here to create the new imperial empire
I’m going to do whatever circumstances require’
Again, there’s ambiguity about the location of ‘here’. It may mean the city, or it may mean his lover’s home.
On the first interpretation of the couplet the narrator means he’s going to stay in the city whether his lover likes it or not, even if this results in their breaking up. This is what I’ll consider here. The second interpretation, on which the narrator is imagining speaking from his lover’s home, has already been considered in Section I above.
According to the first interpretation the narrator is being true to form. The reason he gives for remaining in the city is ludicrous. He can’t be creating an empire, except perhaps in a metaphorical sense. But the qualification ‘imperial’ suggests that it’s in some sense a real empire he’s referring to. Perhaps realising the weakness of the excuse, the narrator now attempts to support it by saying he’ll be following the advice of his parents:
‘… not to waste my years,’
if he sets about building an empire.
Rather than believing him, it seems more plausible we should see him as employing any ad hoc excuse that comes to mind so that he can continue his life of debauchery.
In the light of this, it would seem that we shouldn’t take seriously his apparently heartfelt declaration,
‘I care so much for you …’.
Not only does the forgoing suggest he cares very little for her, but it contradicts his previously having said:
‘… I don’t care
I’m going off into the woods, I’m huntin’ bare,’
It would seem he doesn’t care for her and, as the bare/bear pun suggests, he’s going looking for other women.
His duplicity again becomes apparent when, in a wonderfully condensed line, he declares:
‘I can’t tell my heart that you’re no good’
He not only has the audacity to accuse his lover of being worthless, but does so under cover of seeming to say he she isn’t.
Unless they’re taken literally, the lines repeated at the end of each verse provide yet more evidence of the narrator’s duplicity:
‘You don’t understand it – my feelings for you
You’d be honest with me if only you knew’
Each time, the narrator clearly starts to make an accusation – ‘You don’t understand it’ – and then thinks better of it. The singular ‘it’, however, obviously wasn’t intended to refer to the plural ‘feelings’. At the ends of the first two verses the ‘it’ was probably intended to refer to his failure to avoid other women which he tried to justify in the first two verses. In verse three It might refer to his frustration with his wife, and in verses four and five to his frustration with the addressee. What is clear, though, is that the reference to ‘my feelings for you’ is not because his lover’s feelings are uppermost in his mind, but almost certainly because he realises that what he had been going to say would have sounded implausible.
That the phrase ‘my feelings for you’ is a last minute substitution makes it probable that the line which follows,
‘You’d be honest with me if only you knew’
is also duplicitous. If only she knew – what? The reason he stops short of saying what, one suspects, is because there isn’t anything.
Overall the refrain has the effect of reinforcing in the listener’s mind just how scheming the narrator is.
III. Unity And Separation
The importance of unity in the song becomes apparent when we realise that there is no defined temporal setting. References to the Siamese twins and empire building suggest it’s set in the nineteenth century, while the use of modern idioms and a comment about bad driving place it in the present day. A reference to the Southern Pacific railway could place it in either and so has the effect of uniting the otherwise disparate eras. A major significance of this and other images of unity and separation which permeate the song is that they hint at the structure of the narrator’s mind .
While the narrator is claiming he’s honest, it’s apparent – as argued in Section 2 above – that he’s attempting to fool his lover. Since the same intentions can’t make him simultaneously honest and dishonest, one might expect just one or the other to be true. However, there’s reason for thinking that he’s not just seeming to be honest while being duplicitous, but that he actually is honest while being duplicitous – contradictory though that might seem.
To accommodate this what’s required is that instead of seeing his mind as a genuine unity of consistent thoughts, we see it as a non-genuine unity comprising two sets of mutually inconsistent thoughts. That the narrator’s mind is such a non-genuine unity is lent support by various other instances of non-genuine unities throughout the song.
When the narrator declares:
‘The Siamese twins are coming to town’
he’s unconsciously giving an example of such a false unity. The Siamese twins were two people with, essentially, just the one body. The narrator’s mind will be likewise be a false unity if it comprises two independent sets of thoughts.
The abnormal unity of the Siamese twins seems to reflect not just the two-fold structure of the narrator’s mind but his idea of what a relationship should be. He expects to be united with the woman of his choice but without making any sacrifice to ensure that the relationship works – or, in other words, that the unity is genuine.
That it isn’t genuine is reflected in his claim:
‘I’m glad I fought – I only wish we’d won’.
Three times in the line he refers to himself as ‘I’, and only this once in the entire song does he use ‘we’, suggesting that even he sees their unity as unconvincing.
Just as he approves of the unity of the Siamese twins, and of the present state of his relationship , he has no problem with the unwholesome unity of those congregating to see the spectacle:
‘People can’t wait – they’ve gathered around’
Nor, towards the end of the song, does he have any problem with the non-genuine unity imposed on peoples by empire builders when he says:
‘I’m here to create the new imperial empire’
In each case the false unity reflects that of his own mind.
Finally, his complaint about his wife’s cooking,
‘The meat is so tough you can’t cut it with a sword,’
provides an example of meat as a unity which, to be eaten, needs to be separated into slices. The undesirable unity of the meat might be seen as reflecting the undesirable false unity of his mind.
The narrator’s attitude towards unity and separation isn’t just concerned with things which are unified but which would be better separate. It’s significant that the narrator associates himself with the destruction of what might seem to be wholesome unities. ‘When I left my home,’ he says,
‘… the sky split open wide’.
While he seems to be approving the idea of the sky’s being ‘split open’, perhaps using it to represent new possibilities becoming available, the image is significant in that biblically it represents God’s anger at human’s behaviour. In context this suggests that the narrator’s leaving his home should be seen as the wanton destruction of a genuine unity.3
It’s clear that some things are better as genuine unities and others as divided into their component parts, and we’re left assuming that the narrator’s mind needs to be in the former category. To become a genuine unity, it needs to relinquish its dishonest component so that it no longer comprises two contradictory sets of attitudes.
IV Life and Death
Images of death abound in the narrator’s descriptions of himself and others. These serve to reinforce in the listener’s mind his unhealthy, self-centred outlook and his inability to see that other people might be better than him.
Having announced that he’s stranded in the city, his memories, he says, could ‘strangle‘ him, This would seem to demonstrate a realisation of how near to moral death living in the city has brought him. The suggestion is reinforced by the similarity in sound, and therefore association between, ‘strangled’ and ‘stranded’. Furthermore, since the likelihood is that he isn’t stranded at all, but in the city by choice, the similarity suggests that he isn’t actually concerned by danger of moral death.
The narrator’s affinity with death is further reinforced by his arriving in the city in:
‘… the dead of the night’
and in his claim that he’d:
‘… rather have died‘
than return home. Later he makes himself sound like a mouldering corpse when he refers to advice ‘oozing‘ out of his ears.
It’s not just to himself that he applies images of death. In what seems to be a swipe at those who think differently to him he says he doubts whether:
‘… some people were ever alive‘.
In his wife’s case this is unjustified. Although he speaks of her derisively, when he reports that:
‘She’s tossin’ a baseball bat in the air’,
he’s failing to acknowledge the positive in her. She’s active, and we’ve no reason for taking his description at face value. For all we know she might be practising a skill such as juggling. At any rate, her liveliness contrasts favourably with his own decision to stay put and with his lack of skill as a driver. The pot is calling the kettle black.
The song provides a presentation of the narrator’s character by way of his thoughts. As a result of an economy in the use of language which enables a statement to have two conflicting meanings, these thoughts simultaneously present him as wanting to appear honest while actually being dishonest.4 Accordingly, if he is honest, we need to judge him as an uneasy combination of loyalty and duplicity. Numerous images involving unity or separation give support to this notion.
Whether or not there’s an honest side to his character, the narrator is persistent in his attempts to find ways of overcoming his lover’s likely objections. When he encounters an objection he attempts to resolve it. And when his method of so doing spawns a further objection, he attempts to resolve that too. Thus he moves from denying he’s at fault, to making excuses, to aggression, to casting blame, to bitterness. As he does so, he also shows himself to be callous, condescending, chauvinistic, exploitative and self-centred.
- I refer to the woman the narrator is concerned to win over as his lover for want of a more accurate expression. There’s no indication in the song of how long the relationship has been going.
- Although the lover has complimented his appearance, in saying his ‘eyes are pretty’ and ‘his smile is nice’, it’s noticeable that he hasn’t responded in kind. He may be dimly aware of this because the language he attributes to her is what one would expect a man to use in complimenting a woman. It’s as if deep down he knows he’s not giving his lover her due. That there’s no sign of any such compliment from him serves to show him up as self-centred. The narrator’s failure to get on with his wife looks as if it’s going to be repeated with his lover.
- See Revelation 6.14.
- The writing is also economical in that the addressee’s likely responses are neither given nor required. It’s also subtle in that it reflects the rhetorical methods people use when attempting to persuade others.