The song seems to be about spiritual renewal, both for oneself and for others. The narrator wants to achieve that renewal and initially sees the gypsy, presumably a fortune teller or seer, as a way of discovering how to do so. It seems that the narrator has visited the gypsy once before in Las Vegas, but the success was temporary – leading to his having to repeat it now. This earlier attempt is mirrored by his attempt referred to in the opening line, and this in turn is mirrored by the return referred to in the final verse.
Mirroring is a theme of the song. When the gypsy asks ‘How are you?’, we’re told the narrator ‘said it back to him’, thus merely reflecting the gypsy’s words. And when the narrator makes a ‘small call out’, taken literally this is both mirrored, and amplified, by the dancing girl’s shout. The dancing girl is thus reflecting back to the narrator his own desire to return to the source of his knowledge. The dancing girl even says that the gypsy can bring the narrator ‘through the mirror’ , and that he had done this previously in Las Vegas. The mirror thus in part represents the division between the narrator’s present state and the state of renewal he craves.
Light is another theme. The gypsy’s room has minimal light, it being described as ‘dark’ and the lights as ‘low and dim’. We are then told that ‘Outside the lights were shining/On the river of tears’. And the song ends with the narrator watching ‘that sun come rising/From that little Minnesota town’. There is a movement then from the gypsy’s minimal light, to the greater lights outside – presumably street lights, to – ultimately – the sun. Light might be seen as symbolising the renewal the narrator is seeking, and this increases as the song progresses.
That the theme is renewal becomes apparent from a consideration of the place names. Las Vegas, where the narrator has been, is renowned as the ‘city of sin’, and Dylan himself was born in a ‘little Minnesota town’. By way of the place names, then, Dylan himself is identified with the narrator, a narrator who has been morally deficient. At the same time – if ‘sun’ is read as ‘Son’ – there is also an association of Dylan with Christ, the origin of spiritual renewal. This would enable the song to be seen as about Dylan’s being both the cause and beneficiary of spiritual renewal. He is the cause of that renewal through his identity with the Son. And he is the beneficiary of the renewal in that he is the one who sees the sun. Nevertheless, as we’ll see, Christ is not the whole answer to the quest for renewal.
That the song has a moral significance can also be seen through the gypsy’s words. The narrator’s reply to the gypsy was a mindless (if polite) echoing of them. This suggests any significance to them was lost on the narrator. Yet ‘how are you?’ shows the gypsy taking on himself the very concern for others, here the narrator, which the narrator needs to take on for himself on seeing others’ misery – the ‘river of tears’. And the gypsy’s ‘Well, well, well,’ may echo Christ when he contrasts water in the well with the water he gives, water which will become for others ‘a spring of water welling up to eternal life’ (John 4.13) This would suggest that although the gypsy is not the answer in himself, he can provide the means for the narrator to achieving it. He can ‘move [him] from the rear’. Put another way, Christ is not the answer in himself to the narrator’s quest for renewal, but can be the means to his achieving it.
That self-renewal is all but achieved is suggested by what we’re told in the last verse. On his return to the gypsy, the narrator finds the gypsy gone. This is surprising, especially since we had earlier been told that he was ‘staying’ in the hotel. It suggests that there was something chimerical, perhaps unnecessary, about him. Taken at face value it seems like a mockery, then, that his ‘door was open wide’ – welcoming, but leading to nothing. However this might also suggest that the narrator is still not barred from achieving the renewal he seeks. He perhaps no longer needs the gypsy to magically bring him through the mirror. Looked at this way, the gypsy was a stimulus to action – to prosaically walk through a door on his own, rather than through a mirror with magical help. Similarly the dancing girl’s function was to urge him to accept that stimulus. The narrator is able, then, to rely on himself – be the sun from a Minnesota town.
What, then, is the significance of the dancing girl? The reason the narrator returns to the gypsy’s room, it is implied, is her words because they are ‘music in [the narrator’s] ears’. She perhaps represents superficial pleasure of the sort available in Las Vegas. That she might represent superficial pleasure can further be seen in the effect she has on the narrator. Not only does he return to the gypsy’s room, but in so doing either ignores the ‘river of tears’ – watching instead the lights that shine on them – or thinks that the solution to that problem lies with the gypsy, as distinct from what he himself can do. Alternatively, however, she can be seen as a reflection of the narrator’s own desire to achieve fulfilment. She recognises his need to be pushed into self-reliance. She is the starting point for his moral maturation (just as the water Jesus provides is the starting point for personal salvation).
In returning to the gypsy’s room it was, we’re told, nearly early dawn. The implication is that what happens next is itself actually early dawn – the beginning of the new morning of the album’s title. As he witnesses the sun rise, the narrator is at the same time witnessing his own new morning, rising from ignorance to a new understanding of what he himself can do to achieve spiritual renewal.
An article in the Guardian (24.07.15) has suggested that Dylan songs lack the lyrical breadth of the rap artists. Clearly this is a fault in need of urgent remedy. Accordingly I offer the following rewrite of a verse from Went To See The Gypsy as an example to Mr Dylan of what Guardian readers expect from him. It is to be hoped the offering won’t fall on stony ground.
I visited the expectant Bohemian
Residing in sumptuous lodgings.
As I tendered my approach, I encountered
His beam of resigned recognition.
From his camera gloomy and congested,
Where luminosity was sparse,
He enquired whether I was able to flourish,
To which I unenthusiastically reciprocated in kind.
Although some will object that the improved version has not preserved all (or, indeed, any) of the original rhyme, it should be apparent that this and some inconsequential loss of meaning are more than compensated for by the newly added veneer of lexical richness.