The narrator here is both a husband and Christ. As a husband, he’s advocating divorce. And as Christ, he’s trying to offload his God-imposed responsibilities to humanity. In whichever role one sees him, he is looking after his own interests while aware that he should be pursuing the greater good. The effect of presenting the narrator as Christ seems to be to make the husband’s position clearer. He can either accept that he should selflessly sacrifice his own interests to those of his wife, or reject that option on the ground that he is ‘only a man’. However, the song implies that the husband has no more reason for abjuring responsibility than does Christ.
Despite the dual identity of the narrator, it’s that of husband which is primary in the song. As an ordinary person, his concerns are universal. The references to Christ are essentially to help us to form a judgment about his behaviour, and hence about the behaviour of humanity generally.
1. The Husband’s Character
The husband is out to get his way, and employs a range of techniques to convince his wife – and probably himself – that he should get it. He imposes his view, he distorts the facts, he presents himself as done down, and he’s aggressive. In addition, we can’t trust him because, on his own admission, he’s drunk, and because he fails to give reasons for the claims he makes.
Imposing: Having suggested, quite reasonably, that he and the woman talk matters over when they’re in a more fit state, he proceeds straightaway to impose his own view on her. The song represents his own words from beginning to end so that, despite his suggestion, it’s clear he intends to do all the talking himself.
In order to impose his view, he patronises her:
‘You’ll understand I’m only a man
Doing the best that I can’
The phrase ‘You’ll understand’ implies that she wouldn’t have been able to arrive at the conclusion which follows without his help. By talking down to her he makes it difficult for her to present an opposite view.
A further technique he uses in order to impose his view is the use of rhetorical questions. Since rhetorical questions, by their very nature, imply that responses are not needed because the answers are obvious, he can use them to support his view in favour of the need to separate without fear of being opposed. Accordingly he asks:
‘Why should we needlessly suffer?’
‘… why you wanna hurt me?’
‘Why should we go on watching each other through a telescope?’
In each case the content of the rhetorical question is disingenuous. The narrator is attempting to get the woman to believe something which we have no reason for supposing is the case. He seems to be distorting the truth to suit his own ends. In the first quotation he attempts to smuggle past the view that their suffering is ‘needless’. No argument for this is provided; the view is simply imposed. The second implies that his wife is trying to save the marriage in order to hurt him, which seems extraordinarily unlikely. And the third seems to imply that splitting up is the only alternative to spying on each other from a distance. It’s not. An obvious alternative would be for each to do away with the telescope and come closer together.
Further Disingenuousness: The husband continues to distort facts, and so gives us more reason to distrust him, when he says:
‘This situation can only get rougher’
Not only does he provide no reason for believing him, but what he says is thrown in doubt by his later reference to his wife’s ‘delicate ways’. If her approach is indeed delicate, any roughness would seem to be down to him.
Another distortion of the truth occurs when he says:
‘The vows that we kept are now broken and swept
‘neath the bed where we slept’
The fact that he says ‘the vows that we kept’, rather than simply ‘our vows’, shows he’s aware that things are not as bad as he’s implying. If in the past they kept their wedding vow, then there’s still a solid foundation on which to renew the relationship. By ignoring their previous mutual loyalty, he’s being disingenuous.
In a similar way, the injustice of his desire to break up with his wife is apparent in his claim that:
‘We’ve done nothing to each other time will not erase’
If what he says is true, it would seem to provide a further reason for not breaking up. Since providing such a reason cannot be his intention, it would seem likely that he’s in fact trying to make light of his own wrongdoings.
Sympathy: A further underhand technique the narrator uses is to try to get his wife’s sympathy despite his working against her interests.
First, he says:
‘I feel displaced, I got a low-down feeling’
‘I guess I’ll be leaving tomorrow
If I have to beg, steal or borrow’
In the latter case, he’s implying that for both their sakes he’s prepared to put up with an impoverished lifestyle if that’s what it takes to bring about a better life for them both. What he’s really doing, however, is manipulating his wife’s emotions so that she feels sorry for him.
Aggression: We get a further indication of the manipulative nature of the husband’s character when he reassuringly says:
‘You don’t have to be afraid of looking into my face’
Reassurance is fine, but one wonders why it’s necessary. He seems to be betraying a dark side to his character – that it’s normal for him to rule by fear. It transpires that this is borne out by the sudden change of technique which follows.
Despite trying to seem reassuring, he almost immediately becomes accusatory:
‘You been two-faced, you been double-dealing’
Quite what he’s accusing her of is unclear, although it may be of carrying on a relationship behind his back. If she’d really been guilty of carrying on another relationship – ‘double-dealing’ – it’s unlikely he’d need to be so vague about where she’d find a new home:
‘Somewhere in this universe there’s a place that you can call home’
So, what put the idea of an illicit relationship in his mind? Again, he seems to be attributing to her faults which may in fact be his own.
Throughout the song there are allusions to a unity between the narrator and the woman which conflicts with the narrator’s desire for separation.
Unity is evident in the continual use of the words ‘we’, ‘our’ and ‘both’. The words occur a total of seventeen times, sixteen of these in the first three and the last three verses. In the middle four verses, ‘I’ and ‘you’ dominate. While the pattern perhaps suggests that the husband regains a measure of composure which he had at the beginning of the song, it also suggests a movement from unity, to separation, and back to unity again. This in turn suggests that he will ultimately accept his responsibility to his wife.
Although the simile:
‘Like the sound of one hand clapping’
is intended by the husband to bring out the unlikelihood of their remaining on good terms after separating, it is much more apposite to demonstrating the value of unity over disunity. The point about ‘one hand clapping’ is that it can’t occur. The sound of clapping can only result from the movement of two hands. Clapping is by its nature a unified result of separate movements. Thus, contrary to the narrator’s intention, the simile serves to bring out the ineffectiveness of separation, rather than the improbability of mending the relationship.
The matter of the couple’s unity is again raised by the line:
‘With both eyes glazed’ 1
The phrase ‘both eyes’ primarily refers to just the narrator’s eyes, ‘glazed’ presumably because he’s drunk. But it could equally refer to the woman’s since she too, we’re told, has yet to sober up. By using the phrase ‘with both eyes glazed’ to refer to his eyes alone, the narrator is artificially separating himself from his wife and in so doing ignoring a unifying similarity between them.
Also relevant to the unity of the couple is the question:
‘Why should we go on watching each other through a telescope?’
This question already suggests an underlying unity in that both husband and wife are involved in the same activity. However, when the question is taken together with the line ‘With both eyes glazed’, it’s not just unity which becomes apparent, but a movement from disunity towards unity. If two people are each looking through a telescope, each will have an eye ‘glazed’ – literally – by the glass of the telescope. Whereas the narrator originally used ‘both eyes glazed’ to refer to just his own eyes, the telescope metaphor widens its reference to include the woman’s eyes. In effect ‘both eyes’ becomes ‘the eyes of both’.
All these cases of unity succeeding separation, or of separate things being subsumed under a unity, suggest the misguidedness of the narrator’s attempts to show that the couple are destined to be apart.
3. As Christ
The theme of unity extends beyond the couple. At various points in the song the narrator seems unintentionally to present himself as Christ in conversation with God. This is suggested by references, explicit or implicit, to the crucifixion, exile, eternity and the new covenant. The main effect of these is to draw a comparison between the husband’s relationship with his wife, and Christ’s with God. The existence, despite appearances, of an indissoluble unity between Christ and God will serve to reinforce the existence of a similar unity underlying the relationship of the married couple.
Death and Resurrection: This theme becomes apparent when the narrator attempts to soften the blow of separation:
‘It’d be great to cross paths in a day and a half’
The word ‘cross’ is suggestive of the crucifixion. If the narrator-as-Christ is addressing God, then such a crossing of paths can be seen as Christ’s acceptance of his divine role. This is because the time lapse – ‘a day and a half’- amounts to a total of three days when applied to each of them. This is the time between Christ’s death and resurrection. The ‘day and a half’ reference thus seems to make the narrator-as-Christ dimly aware of the need for accepting his divine status. It’s in this context that his earlier demand to ‘call it a day’ – as opposed to the present ‘day and a half’ – can be seen as attempting to avoid the sacrificial role marked out for him.
The husband’s proposed separation from his wife is thus being presented in Christian terms so that it can be compared with Christ’s wanting to abjure his divine status. If the narrator-as-Christ would be wrong not to acknowledge his responsibilities to God, then the narrator-as-husband would similarly be wrong not to acknowledge his responsibilities to his wife.
As God: A further indication of the narrator-as-Christ’s divinity is his speaking as if he is also God:
‘You don’t have to be afraid of lookin’ into my face’
The language is, presumably unconsciously, biblical (for example, Exodus 33:20 “… you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live”). In the light of this, the accusation of being ‘two-faced’, taken literally, can also be taken to imply that the narrator is a unity comprising both Christ and God.
Exile: Not only does the narrator as Christ want to deny his divinity but he alludes to exile as a way of underlining his earthly nature:
‘I’m exiled, you can’t convert me’
There are two plausible ways in which the narrator-as-Christ might be exiled. One is in his enforced move to earth from heaven. The other is in his having inherited Adam’s exile from the garden of Eden. He sees himself as ‘displaced’, as having a ‘low-down feeling’, and as being involved in a ‘downhill dance’. All these suggest that he’s ‘down’ on earth rather than in heaven, or has shared in the fall of man. As Christ, the ‘conversion’ he’s refusing to accept in the light of his exile, is to the divine, redemptive role required of him by God.
Nevertheless, he’s incapable of permanently relinquishing his divine status. Such separation from God would be as impossible as the sound of one hand clapping. If the underlying unity between Christ and God must endure despite Christ’s feelings of displacement and exile, then so a comparable underlying unity between husband and wife might be expected to endure despite the husband’s feelings of displacement and exile.
We can conclude from this that the husband is no more actually ‘displaced’ when with his wife, than Christ is displaced when carrying out God’s intentions on earth.
Eternity: In the light of the unity between the narrator-as-Christ and God, the narrator’s claim that:
‘We’ve done nothing to each other time will not erase’
is clearly untrue. It’s made from a purely human perspective. One might assume that what God has instigated is not subject to erosion by time, but is of eternal significance. In a similar way, the value of having kept vows (‘the vows that we kept’) doesn’t cease simply because they eventually get broken.
The Bond: There’s a further allusion to the narrator’s status as Christ in the final verse:
‘I wish I was a magician
I would wave a wand and tie back the bond
That we’ve both gone beyond’
Just as in ‘No Time To Think’, where ‘magician’ represents the selfish side of a mercurial character, so here it represents the selfishness of the husband in wanting to separate from his wife. The ‘bond’ can be seen not just as marriage between the husband and wife which the husband wants to end, but as the new covenant between man and God which is to be brought about by Christ’s death. It is this which the narrator as Christ seems to be trying to put aside.
Also, the expression ‘tie back the bond’ treats the bond as a curtain. As such, it reminds us of the curtain in the temple being ripped at the time of the crucifixion and so revealing the presence of God. In trying to get out of his saving role, the narrator-as-Christ is unconsciously drawing attention to his divine status. In the end – by way of miraculous rather than magical power – he does ‘tie back the bond’, or re-create the old covenant with God. This suggests that for the husband, tying back the bond can be just as much a matter of renewing his responsibility to his wife as a matter of dissolving their union.
The song suggests that the husband would be wrong to leave his wife. It does so by making clear the shallow nature of his excuses for so doing, and the underhand nature of his attempts to justify it. It also does so by drawing a comparison between the husband’s relationship with his wife and Christ’s relationship with God. The Christ/God unity thus serves to reflect the marital one. Just as Christ’s suffering was intrinsic to his redemptive role, so the husband’s suffering is necessary for his wife’s happiness.
The song goes further than just reflecting the one relationship in the other, though. In presenting the husband and Christ as two ways of seeing the same narrator, it suggests that Christ’s suffering for the sake of others is not something distinct from the husband’s suffering for his wife. Christ’s suffering is the husband’s suffering (and the suffering of people generally which it represents). The first cannot exist, and so be beneficial, without the second.
- As in the previous song, Dylan is making use of an idea from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
‘A weary time! a weary time!
How glazed each weary eye’