Ishmael describes the strong “line,” or rope, that is tied to the end of a harpoon in a whale-boat. The line is coiled numerous times throughout the length of the whaleboat, and is longer than 200 fathoms in some cases (over one thousand feet). Thus the rope ends up taking up most of the volume of the whaleboat, and those men working the oars of the boat must be careful not to get caught in the line once the harpoon is thrown, as the line could cut the sailor in half or cause him to be thrown overboard. As worrisome as these lines may be, Ishmael notes, they are no more dangerous that other “lines” that wrap throughout the lives of mortal men—these metaphorical “lines” might also kill us at a moment’s notice, although we do not know to what activity they are attached.
A chapter of enormous importance in the novel. The “line” has several different meanings. Of course, it refers to the actual rope tied to the harpoon, which enables the whale-boat not only to spear a whale but to remain attached to it. Second, the rope, as Ishmael explains, is a symbol for the kinds of danger man encounters in life—the entanglements of his many different fates. And third, the line is a reference to the composition of the novel itself, which consists of sentences, or lines of text, composed by Ishmael and presented to the reader by Melville himself.