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A Rope of Singlemindedness

By Deb Forssman '94

American Literature 1620-1890

Writing Objective: Write an original analytical paper on Moby Dick.

In chapter 60 of Moby Dick, Herman Melville intricately describes the whale-line; he begins with physical description and then takes the line into the uncharted waters of neutral territory, suggesting deeper significance for the meaning of the line. A reader of Moby Dick must first be able to see and visualize the whale line, and then be able to see beyond the physical in order to find larger truths braided into the rope. He actually introduces it with his conclusions “the magical, sometimes horrible whale-line.” The line, like many things in Moby Dick, is ambiguous. Melville wants his reader to be suspicious and inquisitive about this peculiar whale-line, so he begins with a statement that seems paradoxical. He does not come right out and tell the reader what the line means in the first few paragraphs of the chapter. Melville discovers the line as the reader does.

In the beginning of the chapter, Melville establishes the concreteness and existence of the line. He lists its physical facts: its purpose, its composition, its size, its location on the boat, etc. The line, made of hemp and tar, is crucial in whaling because it connects the harpooned whale to the whaling vessel. The line itself must be strong in order to endure the powerful strength of a whale. And this strength must be carefully constructed; there; are certain ingredients that make up the rope’s composition. There is a small amount of tar that must be Included; too much would make the line too stiff “for the close coiling to which it must be subjected” (p.273). Tar “by no means adds to the rope’s durability or strength, however much it may give it compactness and gloss” (p.273). In whaling, it’s the durability and strength of a line that matter most of all—those essential qualities can’t be seen, only felt, in the whale-line. Mixed with the small amount of tar is hemp— the material for a line. Despite the hemp’s dark, dusky appearance, it is a durable substance. Melville goes on to explain that “The whale line is only two thirds of an inch in thickness. At first sight, you would not think it so strong as it really is” (p. 274). Appearances like those of the White Whale, Queequeg, and even Ahab can deceive. A thin rope, like a White Whale, can be capable of unconceived and unconquerable strength. This strength is coiled in a “cheese-shaped mass” towards the stern of the boat. The line almost seems “alive”. Melville describes it as having a “heart” in the hollow center of the spiraled pile of rope. And this “being” requires great “care” in coilingg “Some harpooners will consume almost an entire morning in this business” (p. 274). The reason for treating the line with such care is that “At the least tangle or kink in the coiling would, in running out, infallibly take somebody’s arm, leg, or entire body off. . .” (p.274). Its power, which it actually obtains from the whale it pulls, is mystifying, almost “magical”, but also capable of terrible destruction. This is the ambiguity of the line.

Like the structure, the arrangement of the line on the boat is also carefully planned. The ends of the line are both exposed, unattached to the boat itself, making it easier to fasten an end to “additional line from a neighboring boat, in case the stricken whale should sound so deep as to threaten to carry off the entire line originally attached to the harpoon” (p. 275). This set-up, leaving both ends of the line exposed, is also a safety device. The whale on certain occasions will dive to deep depths very quickly, and can run the line out to the end in a matter of moments. If the line was attached to the boat, the boat “would infallibly be dragged down after the (whale) into the profundity of the sea” (p.275). Inevitably, strength can’t be contained or tied down.

At this point, Melville really begins to move beyond the physical, heading off into neutral territory. During a whale chase, the line snakes around the men, “resting crosswise upon the loom or handle of every man’s oar, so that it jogs against his wrist in rowing; and also passing between the men” (p.275). The line connects the men, the boat, and the whale, weaving a web of possible peril. Thus the whale-line folds the whale boat in its complicated coils, twisting and writhing around it in almost every direction” (p. 275). The line may seem dormant one noment, like a sleeping serpent, and the next “the harpoon may be darted, and all these horrible contortions be put in play like ringed lightnings” (p. 275); this is the “true terror” of the whale-line.

By the end of the chapter, Melville makes it clear for his reader that this whale-line has significance that will slither into the ending—into the foreseen hunt of Moby Dick. The reader can envision the entanglement of line along the men as “halters” or “nooses” ready to hang each crew member. Such whaling disasters have occured with the whale-line “of this man or that man being taken out of the boat by the line, and lost” (p. 276). It seems that the line takes control over the crew and over the boat—the men must work around it and are constantly wary of it; the line manipulates men: it’s a continual struggle for each man to escape the line whizzing by and grazing his life.

Melville deepens the significance of a whale-line for all human lives, not only for those on a ship like the Pequod. Through the narrator, Ishmael, Melville states, “All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters around 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” (p.276).

Each man tows his own whale-line, the halter noosed around his neck. It drives him, pulls him deep into the depths of reality, and can eventually destroy him. For Ahab, the captain of the Pequod, his line is the rope of singlemindedness; his reality consists entirely of evil. Ahab is isolated from any other way of thinking. His only purpose in life is to conquer Moby Dick, seeking revenge for the leg he lost to the great White Whale; Ahab thinks of nothing else. On his mind are the “footprints of his one unsleeping, ever-pacing thought”—that of destroying Moby Dick (p. 163). Ahab sees only one side of Moby Dick, perceiving the whale as the black embodiment of evil. He thinks in conquering Moby Dick, he will be destroying the evil in the world. However, he does not realize that this is humanly impossible. Ahab does not see the whale’s whiteness, and its awesome power, or recognize its structural beauty; he does not try to know the whale’s many sides. Since he sees only evil, he pursues only vengeance. He will never be a friend to Moby Dick. In attempting to “dismember [hisl dismemberer” (p. 171), Ahab becomes a monomaniac, demanding that his entire crew join him in his madness “to chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth. . .” (p. 166). He winds his rope of singlemindedness around everyone that he comes in contact with, completely entangling himself and the crew in his search for Moby Dick. Singlemindedness is deadly; it can drown a person. Ahab’s rope of singlemindedness, harpooned in Moby Dick, drags him into the fathoms of evil. The rope can over-power the individual.

Ahab’s single question that he asks when he meets another ship is “Hast thou seen the White Whale?” (p.306) No greetings or any form of salutation, only that forever looming question— always seeking information concerning the whereabouts of Moby Dick. Even when the Pequod meets the Rachel, Ahab has no compassion for the lost men at sea that she is searching for; Ahab cares only about continuing his own voyage of vengeance. His singlemindedness keeps him from valuing and caring about human lives. Ahab heeds nothing—warnings from other ships against attacking the White Whale, nature’s hints, or even God—nothing can stand in his way of destroying Moby Dick. The rope of singlemindedness gradually coils tighter and tighter around his life, becoming so tight that it is impossible to unwind.

In the end, when the swiftness and suddenness of death loom near, Ahab finally does realize, for the most part, the horror that his insistence on hunting down Moby Dick has led him to: “. . . thou all-destroying but unconquering whale” (p.534). His singlemindedness will not conquer the whale, but it will destroy his life and the lives of the entire crew. The Parsee foretells Ahab’s doomed death: “Hemp only can kill thee” (p. 469). The actual hemp in the whale line connected to Moby Dick, and the hemp of the rope of singlemindedness.) Ahab of course does not believe this prophecy because his singlemindedness keeps him from seeing his mortality and weaknesses as a person. Ahab mistakenly believes that he holds the line. . . that he controls and can alter life and its realities; he does not see that the line holds him. He singlemindedly refuses to be towed by Moby Dick, but in the end the whale does tow him to his death.

Ahab gradually wears down under the line’s pressure. “I feel strained, half stranded, as ropes that tow dismasted frigates in a gale. . .” (p. 524). Seeking only evil exhausts life. In the final struggle with Moby Dick, Ahab commands the crew to take new turns with the line. The moment the treacherous line felt that double strain and tug, it snapped in the empty airl!” (p. 532) At this same moment, Ahab’s own rope of singlemindedness cracks and he asks, “What breaks in me?” (p.532) Ahab must give in to the line, to the whale, to his quest for destroying evil because his rope has destroyed him. The harpoon was darted; the stricken whale flew forward; with igniting velocity the line ran through the groove; —ran foul. Ahab stooped to clear it; he did clear it; but the flying turn caught him around the neck. . . he was shot out of the boat” (p.535). The line pulls him down, and he disappears in the depths of the sea.

Ahab does not survive because he can’t see the dual possibility in all things—the reality that good and evil can both exist! He is eternally roped to his singlemindedness which causes him to peer deeply only into evil, and knowing only life’s evil is terrifying for an individual. Singlemindedness is self-destructive and life-destructive.