Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan

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Her denial of this in the first phase of her life has left her vulnerable: she has no idea of how to ‘live out on the streets’ and now she must swallow her pride and approach the ‘mystery tramp’ for guidance. She must ‘make a deal’ with this figure with whom, before, she refused even to ‘compromise’. He, along with Napoleon in Rags, stands in stark opposition to the ‘diplomat’, the man responsible for her fall, who once represented for her a possible life of wealth and privilege in which any form of ‘compromise’ would have been unnecessary. Unfortunately, her ‘diplomat’ – the placeholder name suggestive of a smooth, ingratiating conman – was a fake who took from her ‘everything he could steal’. Like a pirate with a parrot on his shoulder, he has a ‘Siamese cat’ sitting on his, and Miss Lonely is the mouse being toyed with before it is devoured. The phrase ‘everything he could steal’ expresses both the extent of her losses to this man, but also implies there are certain things that cannot be taken away. The diplomat, in depriving her of the trappings of fairy tale wealth, has done Miss Lonely a favour: there is a freedom and potency in absolute poverty if it is accepted in the right spirit: ‘when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.’

That final phrase is a familiar idiom in all forms of English, and it is always an enabler. When you have ‘nothing to lose’ you can do all sorts of things that were previously denied to you. The woman is invited to ‘go […] now’ to ‘Napoleon in rags’ precisely because of this and because she no ‘secrets to conceal’. She can at last follow, and reveal, her innermost self; she ‘can’t refuse’. Her earlier amusement at ‘Napoleon in rags’ is referenced at this point, linking back to her laughter at those who were ‘hanging out’ in the first stanza. It is not just the person of ‘Napoleon in rags’ that she laughed at, but ‘the language that he used.’ Perhaps this is a trivial reference to the character’s uncouth way of speaking, but it is also possible that the ‘language’ of Napoleon in Rags is empowered in some way, expressing truths that cannot easily be put into words. Given that he, along with the ‘mystery tramp’, represents the end point of the woman’s journey – he waits for her in the place to which she has fallen – he too must have ‘no secrets to conceal’ and ‘nothing to lose’, and this would give his ‘language’ a special potency, just as the ‘vacuum’ behind the eyes of the ‘mystery tramp’ seems to express something profound and beyond words. In the first lines of the final stanza, the singer refers to those who are still precariously living their old privileged lives. All of these people are ‘exchanging all precious gifts’, but their ‘gifts’ seem meaningless and trivial. An engagement ring once promised ‘Miss Lonely’ a life riding on a ‘chrome horse’, but its only value now is what a pawnbroker will offer for it. By contrast the new understanding of life she receives from Napoleon in Rags and the ‘mystery tramp’ is inconceivably more valuable.

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the Unkindness of Ravens If you have found our critical notes helpful, why not try the first Tower Notes novel, a historical fantasy set in the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

Available HERE where you can read the opening chapters.

The Unkindness of Ravens by Anthony Paul