Elyse has taught middle school for five years. She majored in middle grades education and minored in both English and psychology at UNCW.
Picking Apart the Rhetoric
"There must be some kind of way out of here," Said the joker to the thief,
Song introduced in medias res, or in the middle of things, starting out in the middle of a conversation Joker and thief are archetypes, conversational rhetoric
"There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.
A sort of situational irony, the joker being concerned and serious
Businessman they drink my wine, Plowman dig my earth
Wine metaphor for blood, dug earth for a grave, overall representing capitalism and deaths
None will level on the line, nobody offered his word, hey"
Alliteration “level on the line”, word and earth also a slant rhyme
"No reason to get excited," The thief, he kindly spoke "There are many here among us Who feel that life is but a joke
More irony, the thief being kind, also verbal irony calling life a joke
But you and I, we've been through that And this is not our fate So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late"
Metonymy- the hour getting late standing in for night falling
All along the watchtower Princes kept the view
metaphor, watchtower a symbol of war
While all the women came and went Barefoot servants, too
Paradox to the lines previous, Princes watching in safety contrasted with lower-caste barefoot servants and women coming and going
Outside in the cold distance A wildcat did growl
Wildcat metaphor for some kind of uprising, impending danger, foreshadowing
Two riders were approaching And the wind began to howl
Wind howling is personification, two riders approaching foreshadowing, possibly a biblical allusion to the apocalypse
The Joker to The Thief
The song begins in medias res, throwing the audience directly into the middle of a conversation between two archetypal characters, the thief and the joker. The joker is used often in literature in order to show the plotline or other characters in a satirical light. Often considered by other characters to be a fool, the joker is always more clever than expected. In this song, the joker has picked up on some things that disturb him, which shows irony, as jokers are not usually so serious. He states that “Businessman they drink my wine, Plowman dig my earth,” wine being a biblical allusion, perhaps, to blood, and earth often symbolizes life or, in this case, death, as it is being dug like a grave. These things are being taken from him by businessmen; his grave prepared by plowmen, the joker is doomed to die to the benefit of others. In some interpretations this is a reference to soldiers on the front lines.
The thief, the archetype of someone who operates outside of the societal and legal norm, tells the joker to calm down and that what is happening is widely regarded as a joke. This is also irony, as the joker is having to be told to calm down and also possibly an allusion to the war in Vietnam, which was one that most did not believe in. The thief goes on to tell the joker not to speak of it anymore, for “the hour is getting late.” This is an example of metonymy, which is substituting a phrase or object for something, in this case, evening falling.
At this point, the perspective switches suddenly as the new verse references the title, which one would think the song would start with. It describes Princes, another archetype of power and status, keeping watch along the watchtower, which could also be a symbol of the Vietnam War, and overall enforces a tone of doom as the listener wonders what the princes are watching for. Women and barefoot servants, mentioned in the same breath as belonging to the same low status level, come and go from the presumed kingdom, creating a sharp contrast to the scene before, of the princes watching in safety from the towers. This is a paradox, and also a possible metaphor for the government, who sanctioned the war. The wildcat growling out in the cold distance, as described in the next verse, is a metaphor for danger, which is quickly followed by the image of two horsemen approaching and the wind personified as howling.
Overall, the song ends on a very suspenseful, doom-filled note. The symbols of this song are universal enough that there are multiple interpretations, but it is certainly true that this particular song is not lacking in literary devices. Having been covered several times over by various artists since its original release, it is clear that the meaning within this epic ballad will continue to change and inspire artists and audiences alike for years to come.
© 2018 Elyse Maupin-Thomas
Liz Westwood from UK on August 20, 2018:
This is an interesting break down of the meaning behind this.
Larry Conners from Northern Arizona on August 20, 2018:
More like a drug-fueled rave from an addled brain than interpretive prose...Imagine Dylan doing a Lance Armstrong taking performance-enhancement drugs before the Tour de France...
Tim from Los Angeles, CA on August 19, 2018:
Wow! Always loved this song and never fully understood the symbolism. Well written! Loved it!