(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Shipping News consists of thirty-nine chapters, the majority of which begin with epigrams and illustrations taken from Clifford W. Ashley’s 1944 how-to book The Ashley Book of Knots. The Shipping News concerns the adventures of Quoyle, a thirty-six-year-old “third-rate newspaperman” from Mockingburg, New York, whose life is a steady stream of failures until he and his small family pick up stakes and move to their ancestral home in Newfoundland. The Ashley Book of Knots helps to tie together their improbable, comic—and sometimes even Gothic—adventures by providing a framework for the book and a subtle commentary on its action.

Quoyle’s voyage towards happiness is set in motion by the death by suicide of his parents, whose farewell message to him is cut off by his answering machine. Then his estranged wife, Petal Bear, is killed in a car crash. Although Petal had borne Quoyle two children, Bunny and Sunshine, she had also been flagrantly unfaithful to him, and after her death, Quoyle is obliged to call in the police to retrieve his daughters from a pornographer to whom Petal had sold them. To cap off his catalog of woes, Quoyle is fired from his job covering the municipal beat at The Mockingburg Record.

Quoyle’s father’s sister, his Aunt Agnis Hamm, then intervenes, offering him the chance to begin a new life by moving to their ancestral homestead on Quoyle’s Point, near Killick-Claw, Newfoundland. The house, which has stood empty for forty-four years, is still standing—but only because it is lashed with cables to iron rings set in the rocky outcropping that is Quoyle’s Point.

On the way out to the Point, Quoyle is beset by “the familiar feeling that things were going wrong.” Yet once he and his family actually arrive, it does seem possible to come to terms with the past and make a fresh start. Aunt Agnis, it seems, is a self-sufficient, rather well-heeled yacht upholsterer whose determination and pocketbook permit the refurbishment of the old house. Quoyle also finds—much to his amazement—that he fits right in with the eccentric staff of the local newspaper where he has been hired to cover the shipping news.

The paper, The Gammy Bird, is...

(The entire section is 928 words.)

The Shipping News Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Quoyle is a thirty-six-year-old man with an ongoing history of mediocrity and failure stemming from his childhood. The awkwardness of Quoyle’s formative years has never ceased, and in adulthood Quoyle continues to suffer torments that result from his low estimate of his own self-worth. His parents, never really loving or proud, commit suicide together after they are both diagnosed with cancer.

Shortly afterward, Quoyle comes home to find that his hateful, hyperphilandering wife Petal Bear has run off with another man and taken their two daughters with her. After selling Bunny and Sunshine to a pedophile, Petal and her lover are killed in a car accident. Fortunately, the girls are rescued and returned to their father without suffering any physical abuse. Quoyle’s aunt, Agnis Hamm, arrives to claim her brother’s ashes and convinces Quoyle to move with her and his girls to her childhood home in Newfoundland.

The employees of The Gammy Bird, the town newspaper in his new home of Killick-Claw, Newfoundland, rival Quoyle’s flippant attitude concerning the news with their absurd brand of reporting. The staff includes Billy Pretty, an old fisherman who writes the Home News page and whose desk resembles a bazaar or flea-market display, and B. Beaufield Nutbeem, a British castaway who washed up in Killick-Claw and stayed. Nutbeem steals stories from the radio and then plagiarizes them for his foreign news section. Tert Card, the devilish managing editor, is notorious for his wildly nonsensical typographical errors.

Jack Buggit, a proud local, avid fisherman, and the founder and editor-in-chief of The Gammy Bird, has an odd set of standards for his newspaper. He considers Card’s errors to be humorous additions, he allows Billy Pretty to publish more than three stories of sexual abuse per week, and he requires a front-page story of a car wreck every week—regardless of whether or not an accident actually occurs. Buggit assigns Quoyle the car wreck section of the paper, along with the task of writing the shipping news, which...

(The entire section is 852 words.)

The Shipping News Chapter Summaries

The Shipping News Chapters 1-3 Summary

Quoyle’s father refers to him as a loser. He is a large man with bright red hair and a dominant chin that he often tries to hide with his hand. Quoyle has few friends, but one day he meets Partridge, a Black newspaper editor. Partridge is drawn to Quoyle because he senses a good-hearted man underneath all of Quoyle’s insecurities. So he gives Quoyle a lead on a job as a low-level reporter on a small, local newspaper, the same place where Partridge works. Quoyle lands the job but barely hangs onto it; Ed Punch, the managing editor, intermittently hires and fires Quoyle depending on whether there is a college student available to take over Quoyle’s position. For his first assignment, Quoyle stays up all night and turns in an eleven-page story that he is told must be cut down to two. Partridge tries to improve Quoyle’s style but later accepts that maybe Quoyle is not meant to write news stories.

Quoyle’s struggle to grasp the art of journalism is second only to his challenge to understand women. Quoyle is awkward physically and emotionally. He craves love and almost drowns in his emotions the first time he meets a woman who asks him to get married. The woman’s name is Petal Bear. She is bold where Quoyle is shy. She is aggressive where Quoyle is timid. She is also heartless. The first time she is with Quoyle, she suggests that they get married.

For the first month after their wedding, Quoyle believes he has died and gone to heaven. After that month, Quoyle endures a living hell. Petal obviously does not love him. Quoyle rationalizes that Petal either does not know how to love or she loves in a unique way. Petal must be free. She must be able to do what she wants when she wants to. Although she gives birth to two daughters, Bunny and Sunshine, she does not want to mother them. Although she has married Quoyle, she is not satisfied with him. She disappears for days and sometimes calls Quoyle from a thousand miles away. One time...

(The entire section is 536 words.)

The Shipping News Chapters 4-6 Summary

Agnis talks Quoyle into moving to Newfoundland because he has nothing to hold him in Mockingburgh, New York, where he currently lives. Quoyle thinks about this for a few days and then agrees. He calls Partridge, who has moved to California, and asks if he has any newspaper contacts in Newfoundland. Surprisingly, he does. Partridge gives him the name Tertius Card, who is editor of the small newspaper, Shipping News, in Killick-Claw, Newfoundland. Card is looking for someone with a shipping background. Quoyle tells Partridge that his grandfather was a sealer; the prospects look good.

Agnis tells Quoyle about the family home that might still be standing near Quoyle Bay on the island. It has been more than forty years since any family member has seen it, and Newfoundland is known for its winter windstorms, but the house may give them some place to stay for free. Then Quoyle finds out that an insurance company owes him $30,000 plus another $20,000 owed to his daughters. They pack up and drive from New York to Nova Scotia and then to Prince Edward Island, where they catch a ferry.

Quoyle gets seasick on the boat as they move over rough seas, but they make it. Then they have more driving to do. The distance is not far but the trip takes a long time because the roads are so bad. The last twenty-eight miles must be traversed without roads once they get out into the country. Quoyle insists that they stop and camp out in the car after the sun goes down.

The next day, they are surprised when they come upon a good gravel road out in the middle of nowhere. The road leads them to a large, cement building that has been abandoned. They have no idea what might have once been inside, and there are no signs telling them what the building might have been used for. As they stand in front of it, the fog lifts, and they see the old family house. It is still standing, and it is not far away on the edge of the bay.


(The entire section is 588 words.)

The Shipping News Chapters 7-9 Summary

Quoyle meets the staff at the newspaper, where his job has been confirmed. He will write the column called “Shipping News” and will also cover all road accidents. He is not thrilled by either of these assignments. He knows next to nothing about shipping, and car accidents remind him of his wife’s death. But Agnis reminds him that he has obligations to fulfill—in particular, he has children to feed. Quoyle begrudgingly goes to work.

Tert Card, the managing editor, greets Quoyle and introduces him to the rest of the staff. Bill Pretty has been on the staff since the newspaper was started by Jack Buggit, the owner. Pretty is in his seventies and writes the “Home” page, full of local, homey news and gossip. An...

(The entire section is 709 words.)

The Shipping News Chapters 10-12 Summary

When Quoyle comes home from work, he finds his Aunt Agnis sitting in the motel room with her coat on. On a chair next to her is a bundle covered in a sheet. She tells him that her dog, Warren, has died. She has sent the girls to the carpenter’s house to play with his daughters and so they will not have to go through yet another tragedy. She also tells him that the carpenter, Dennis, has said the house can be livable in a couple of weeks if Quoyle helps him. When Nutbeem comes by to talk, Agnis goes off by herself and buries her dog at sea.

Nutbeem finishes a story that Quoyle first heard from Jack Buggit about Jack’s son, who is Dennis the carpenter. Jack had lost a son in the sea and swore he would not lose...

(The entire section is 685 words.)

The Shipping News Chapters 13-15 Summary

A new boat sails into town, and everyone is talking about it. Although it is raining hard outside, Quoyle heads out to the dock to write a story about it. The boat is said to have once belonged to Hitler. Billy Pretty asks if he can go with Quoyle. On their way to the dock, Pretty tells Quoyle to stop and pick up a woman and her son walking in the rain along the side of the road. Quoyle has seen this woman several times and has become curious about her, so he is glad to meet her. The woman’s name is Wavey Prowse and she is a young widow. Her son has Down’s syndrome, which many of the islanders blame on the fright Wavey experienced when her husband was lost at sea during her pregnancy. Quoyle drops Wavey off at her house.


(The entire section is 610 words.)

The Shipping News Chapters 16-18 Summary

Quoyle enjoys going over to the home of Dennis (the carpenter) and his wife, Beety. Quoyle’s children spend a lot of time there, playing with Dennis’s children. Beety is a good cook and always offers home-cooked food when Quoyle stops by to pick up Bunny and Sunshine.

While there, Dennis tells Quoyle more about his father, Jack Buggit, the owner of the newspaper. Dennis claims his father has the gift: his father is very intuitive, aware of things other people are not. One night while Dennis’s older brother, Jesson, was out at sea, Jack stood up at the dinner table and exclaimed that Jesson was dead. There had been no news of the loss. Jack only sensed it, and it turned out to be true. Dennis is still angry,...

(The entire section is 620 words.)

The Shipping News Chapters 19-21 Summary

Billy Pretty, the seventy-something reporter who works with Quoyle, is going to Gaze Island and invites Quoyle to go with him. Both their families had once lived on Gaze Island, not far from the Newfoundland shore. Billy is going over to clean his father’s gravestone. He has not been there for three years.

The passage between the islands is covered in rocks. Some rocks are visible; others lay under the water but are still high enough to rip open a ship. Billy has navigated the passage since he was a boy. He knows where the clear passages are. He also calls out the names of some of the rocks as his boat passes by. Billy is likewise knowledgeable of the human history of the islands.

He tells Quoyle first...

(The entire section is 479 words.)

The Shipping News Chapters 22-24 Summary

Slowly, Quoyle and Wavey are building a relationship. Even Wavey’s brother, Ken, notices how often Quoyle comes to the house. Wavey lives in her own home, but her father and brother live next door. Ken is friendly with Quoyle and encourages the development of his friendship with Wavey, as if he appreciates that someone is looking after her.

Meanwhile, Dawn, the young woman who works with Agnis, stays late at the upholstery office so she can use the electric typewriter. Dawn writes twenty-five letters each week, applying for jobs across Canada. She will try anything. Her college degree is in Maritime Traffic Engineering but she applies for translator jobs and others for which she has no experience. Her goal is just to...

(The entire section is 483 words.)

The Shipping News Chapters 25-26 Summary

The oil industry is discussed. Once Newfoundland relied on the fishing industry, but that is mostly just history now. An oil deposit has been discovered off the shores of Newfoundland, and the newspaper staff discusses the potential the discovery holds for the people of Newfoundland. Billy Pretty, Tert Card, Nutbeem, and Quoyle are having breakfast at a local diner. They are discussing the oil deposit, which is called The McGonigle. Tert Card believes the oil is going to bring the Golden Days back for Newfoundlanders.

Billy Pretty is not as optimistic. Even if the oil does come in, Pretty says, most of the jobs are going to go to those on Canada’s mainland. He cannot imagine why these jobs would be given to the...

(The entire section is 670 words.)

The Shipping News Chapters 27-28 Summary

Jack Buggit has a strange intuition about what people want to read in his newspaper. A lot of what is written discusses tragedy. Quoyle’s most recent story is about Harold Nightingale, an islander with bad luck.

Through the story about Nightingale, Quoyle lists the problems with trying to make a living off fishing in Newfoundland. He tells how Nightingale spent $423 on gas recently for his boat trip and $2,150 on licenses for the year. Another $4,670 went into boat repairs and $1,200 to fix his fishing nets. At the end of the day, Nightingale came back with nine fish, barely enough to feed his family for a week, let alone make a living off them. Then Nightingale decided to stop fishing for a living, so he went out to...

(The entire section is 510 words.)

The Shipping News Chapters 29-31 Summary

Quoyle is staying with Dennis and Beety until he can find a place where he and his daughters can live. He is considering taking over Nutbeem’s trailer, since Nutbeem is due to leave Newfoundland soon. In the meantime, Billy Pretty persuades Quoyle to get Alvin Yark to build him a boat. Quoyle warms up to the idea once Pretty tells him that Alvin Yark is Wavey’s uncle.

Quoyle calls Wavey and tells her he wants her uncle to build him a boat and asks if she wants to go with him to Yark’s place. Wavey is excited about going. She calls her aunt to tell her, and the aunt invites them to dinner. When they get to the Yark’s house, Alvin takes Quoyle out to his workshop. He tells Quoyle about the kind of boat he can...

(The entire section is 645 words.)

The Shipping News Chapters 32-33 Summary

It is the night of Nutbeem’s going away party. He has invited more than fifty people and is holding the party in his small trailer. Quoyle helps Nutbeem set up the food and drinks. He also takes a tour of Nutbeem’s place. He is considering living there after Nutbeem moves out, but he changes his mind upon seeing how small it is.

When they go into the bathroom, Quoyle notices a big, yellow barrel in the shower stall and asks about it. Nutbeem explains it is the closest thing to a tub he could fit inside the trailer. He takes baths in it. Later, when they are looking for a container big enough to hold thirty bags’ worth of potato chips, Nutbeem suggests they use the yellow barrel coated with soap scum. So Quoyle...

(The entire section is 733 words.)

The Shipping News Chapters 36-37 Summary

Billy Pretty has decided that he does not want to be Managing Editor for the newspaper, so Jack Buggit gives the job to Quoyle. Quoyle feels pleased with himself and sends the masthead of the paper to his friend, Partridge, back in the States. A while later, Partridge calls, but it is not just to congratulate Quoyle. Partridge tells Quoyle that there are riots where he lives. People are going crazy; it is not safe. His wife was driving her truck and had to duck a bullet that shattered her windshield. Quoyle reflects on where he lives. He thinks maybe having to deal with severe winters in Newfoundland may not be such a big challenge.

Quoyle leaves the newspaper office when he sees Jack’s boat come in. Jack wants to...

(The entire section is 994 words.)

The Shipping News Chapters 38-39 Summary

A huge storm hits Newfoundland just after Agnis returns to Killick-Claw from St. John’s. Quoyle teases that she must have brought the storm with her. She tells him never to say that to Newfoundlander because it is bad luck.

Quoyle arranges a party for Agnis so the townspeople can welcome her home. At the party, Wavey has a secret. Quoyle must go upstairs to see it. When he enters his daughter’s room, he finds Bunny cuddling with a white puppy. From the time they first arrived on the island, Bunny had been frightened by a vision of a white dog. Wavey has found a way for Bunny to get over that fear. Quoyle returns downstairs and gives Wavey a kiss—the first public show of affection for her. The people around them...

(The entire section is 632 words.)

The Shipping News Chapters 34-35 Summary

Quoyle joins Tert Card after work for a drink at a rundown bar. Tert still feels upset about the weather; he is tired of the cold. He tells Quoyle about past winters to pass the time as they drink. He talks about windstorms that caused fifty-foot waves. They were so big, Tert says, it felt like the bottom of the ocean was being pulled up into the air. Then he says he is leaving his job at the newspaper. He has had enough of Killick-Claw. He is going to St. John’s to work on a newsletter for an oil company. He hopes to be transferred to the States one day, maybe to Texas. Tert says he is willing to bet that Quoyle will be the next person to leave. Then he tells Quoyle that Billy Pretty will probably take over Tert’s job, leaving...

(The entire section is 627 words.)