1059 words on

Isis and the Quest Narrative

by Patrick J. Webster

To continue: from a different, but related perspective, the song could also be seen to encompass the tradition of the American quest narrative. Joseph Boone has argued that the American quest is a genre written by men, about men, for men: 'a genre that valorises ideological concerns in a patriarchal social structure.'[1] Furthermore, the ambivalent attitude towards sexuality, what Boone calls: 'a rebellion against the ethos of sexual polarity pervading the countless tales of love and seduction,'[2] suggest that the journeys these men undertake can be seen as a way of exploring the enigma of sexual identity. Boone writes of:

... the outward-bound voyage to confront the unknown that by definition constitutes quest narrative simultaneously traces an inner journey toward a redefinition of self that defies social convention and sexual categorisation.[3]

Boone suggests a difference in the American version of the quest-romance formula, a shift from the European goal of 'a fair lady's love,' to goals that have more to do with 'metaphysical objects of truth, absolute reality and the nature of authority.'[4] This idea would seem to echo Leslie Fieldler's concept of asserting one's virility via heroic acts rather than genital acts, that 'manly friendships' acted as a substitute for marriage.[5]

All of this may be seen as at least one explanation for the way many of the men in Dylan's songs act - and also adds weight to the way in which the performative nature of gender is perceived in Dylan's work. The men in these songs would seem to prefer to keep exploring, to keep on 'questing;' to feign a disinterest in women in order to reduce their fears of entanglement within a feminine domain. There is a insinuation that the men within these songs have things to do that exclude women, things that they must accomplish in the unknown recesses of their own selves. 

'Isis,' like other American texts as diverse as: Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 2001: A Space Odyssey and On the Road, finds a male couple undertaking a quest narrative. One might, for example, compare the two men in 'Isis' to Ahab and Ishmael. The narrator might be seen as an equivalent Ishmael, ensconced in both the feminine and masculine worlds, whilst the man the narrator encounters could be seen as representing Ahab, a figure with a one-sided definition of his masculinity, as his 'tragically fixed purpose and fixated personality attest.'[6] Leslie Fieldler has written that Moby Dick can be read not only as an account of a whale-hunt, but also as 'a love story, perhaps the greatest love story in our fiction.'[7] In an analogous sense 'Isis' becomes more than a mere account of a search for the world's biggest necklace; in its own way it is also a love story. In both texts, in greater and lesser ways, one can perceive an exploration of Fieldlerian ideas of manly friendships acting as a substitute for marriage. It is important that this is deniable, but it is a theme that nonetheless runs throughout Moby Dick and, I would argue, throughout Dylan's song. 

Dylan may have written, in one of his most interesting but most overlooked songs of the 1960s, 'I Can't Leave Her Behind' (1966),[8] of the impossibility of ever leaving the company of a woman - the song seemed to express the absolute need of female companionship. Yet this was betrayed not just in the sexual innuendo of the title (possibly a deliberate intent on Dylan's part), but in the way it is placed within the general discourse of his work. For example, in 'Tight Connection to My Heart' (1985), the male narrator tells the woman:

I'm gonna get my coat,
I feel the breath of a storm.
There's something I've got to do tonight,
You go inside and stay warm.[9]

The man feels the need to leave the warmth of the feminine environment, to travel into a cold masculine environment - to accomplish something unstated, presumably to do - as has been previously mentioned - whatever it is a 'man's gotta do.' The question whether there is something innately feminine about the home and something innately male about wanting to leave it, is not open to question - at least within the argument I am making of gender as a performative construct. The men in Dylan's songs continually demonstrate a need for freedom, a need to separate from a feminine influence, simply because this is the blueprint they must act out.

If one returns to 'Don't Think Twice, It's Alright' (1963), here a male voice tells the woman he is addressing that it is pointless to sit and wonder why he has left her:

When your rooster crows at the break of dawn
Look out your window and I'll be gone
You're the reason I'm travelling on
Don't Think Twice it's all right

The phrase, 'You're the reason I'm travelling on ...' in a sense sums up why so many of the men in so many of Dylan's songs are on the road, why so many men embark on self-important adventures and quests. These men are on the road because of women, because of their need to escape from the world of women. Furthermore, this is the primary way in which they construct masculinity and find a means of being men. These men are on 'the dark side of the road,' where they are bound they 'cannot tell,' but if they are on the road at least they are not shackled to the very thing they seem to fear.

To be continued


1 Joseph A. Boone, 'Male Independence and the American Quest Genre: Hidden Sexual Politics in the All-Male Worlds of Melville, Twain and London', in Feminisms: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism, ed. by Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991), p. 961.
2 Ibid.
3 Boone, p. 962.
4 Boone, p. 964.
5 Fieldler, p. 211.

6 Boone, p. 969. (Note that Dylan has explored the relationships within Melville's novel in a much more literal way - in 'Bob Dylan's 115th Dream' - although pitched at an exaggeratedly parodic and satirical level.)
7 Fieldler, p. 344.
8 The song has never been officially released or even published. However, a performance of it is included in the film of Dylan's 1966 tour of Britain, Eat the Document.
9 Lyrics, p. 487.

10 Lyrics, p. 61.