In Chapter 60 of Moby Dick
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.