Moby-Dick

Moby-Dick

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The Rope (the Line) Symbol Analysis

The Rope (the Line) Symbol Icon
In Chapter 60 of Moby Dick, Ishmael describes the line, or hempen rope, attached to the end of the harpoon used on the whale-boat, and thrown at a whale in order to kill it. Ishmael notes that the line is immensely dangerous for those aboard the whale-boat, as, when it unfurls, it can catch someone and instantly strangle them or knock them off the vessel. Furthermore, the line is so complicated in its coiling that it is especially difficult, during the tumult of whale-hunting, even to know where the line is, thus making it especially dangerous. But Ishmael does not leave the idea of “the line” here; instead, he goes on to note that “all men” must deal with “lines” of their own, “halters around their necks,” obligations that tie them to other men, and to events beyond their control. In this way, the line or the rope of the whaling ship, used throughout the novel, symbolizes not just the dangers of whaling, but the complex network of dangers, accidents, and obligations surrounding all humans. Any person can be tripped up by a line at any time. Of course, Ahab, at the novel’s end, is “done in by his own rope,” meaning he is strangled by the line of his own whale-boat’s harpoon. And in this way, Ahab’s own impossible and murderous quest proves to be the cause of his death on the high seas. It is interesting to note, too, that “lines” often refer, in literary contexts, to lines of poetry—and Ahab quotes bits and pieces of the Bible and other literary works through Moby Dick. Thus the sailors on the Pequod are surrounded by physical lines, by the “lines” of fate and disaster, and by lines of the novel in which they are characters.

The Rope (the Line) Quotes in Moby-Dick

The Moby-Dick quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Rope (the Line). For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Limits of Knowledge Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Classics edition of Moby-Dick published in 2002.
Chapter 60 Quotes

All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.

Related Characters: Ishmael (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Rope (the Line)
Page Number: 306
Explanation and Analysis:

Another important metaphorical passage in the novel. Here, the "line" (or rope) can represent many things. It can be the lines of the novel itself - the words that Ishmael has relayed to the reader, and which contain the story of Ahab's journey and his attacks on Moby-Dick. The line can also be the rigging of the Pequod, which literally holds the men together, draws them into a common goal of keeping one another afloat. This second line, as Ishmael mentions, can be dangerous, as it can "catch" a man who's not looking and drag him overboard.

This leads to the third kind of line drawing men together in the text, the lines of fate, the web in which all men and women are born, and in which they die. Ishmael seems, as the novel progresses, to ascribe more and more to the idea of a blind fate that has arranged for the lives and deaths of all people. He believes that, by embarking on the Pequod, he has entered into one of these networks of fate, even if he does not know, while the voyage is happening, whether or not he will survive. 

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