The Shipping News

by Annie Proulx

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 815

E. Annie Proulx states in the introduction to The Shipping News that she was greatly influenced in writing the novel by The Ashley Book of Knots, which she purchased at a yard sale for a quarter. The novel’s final chapter begins with an excerpt from The Ashley Book of Knots that mirrors Proulx’s storytelling intent: “There are still old knots that are unrecorded, and so long as there are new purposes for rope, there will always be new knots to discover.” The Shipping News, about a simple man in a seemingly simple town, has been met with critical acclaim since its debut, winning the National Book Award in 1993, and the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1994. Despite its humble origins, the novel’s story warrants being told, and, like the inevitable discovery of new knots, there will always be new stories to tell.

Proulx’s narrative style in The Shipping News is disjointed and fragmentary. This aspect of the novel has been viewed by some critics as a symptom of bad writing, rather than as a literary device intended to symbolize Quoyle’s own fractured experience. Proulx introduces each chapter with an illustrated excerpt, the majority of which come from The Ashley Book of Knots and The Mariner’s Dictionary. The novel begins with an explanation of the term “quoyle,” which is a single, unknotted coil of rope. Quoyle’s namesake is thus a metaphor for his own life and experiences. A quoyle has no knots to represent specific purposes—it simply sits, exposed and inactive.

As the story progresses and Quoyle begins to establish both familial and friendly bonds, the knots illustrated in the text come to represent the intertwining of the characters and their experiences. The extracts also provide readers with metaphors, commentaries, insights, and expectations of what is to come in the subsequent chapter. However, when read on their own, the introductions serve another purpose; they constitute a kind of instruction manual both for readers, in their literary journeys, and for Quoyle, in his search for meaning and self-value.

Quoyle excels neither physically or mentally, and, at the age of thirty-six, the closest thing he has to a career is an on-again, off-again position as a third-rate journalist. Quoyle admittedly (and ironically) takes no interest in the stories of war, famine, politics, and finance that fill the newspapers daily. His defeatist attitude consumes him, and he convinces himself that the stories in the news only affect those people who are out living their lives: As he feels that he has not yet begun to live, such topics do not concern him. In his hopelessly stagnant state, Quoyle withdraws further into his misery, dismissing the happenings of the outside world as irrelevant to his situation.

Quoyle’s entrance into Killick-Claw provides an outsider perspective on the town’s local color and the ways in which social and economic changes are affecting it. The town lives and dies by the water, and its residents are extremely proud of their independence and rugged individualism. However, when Quoyle is invited into a conversation between Billy Pretty and Tert Card regarding the bounteous McGonigle oil field, readers witness a disruption in the community’s way of life. Billy bemoans the intrusion of big business and becomes nostalgic for the peaceful and remote way of life he sees coming to an end. Tert, however, has invested in McGonigle stock and eagerly awaits the monetary benefits of development: “We’re all going to be rich. Jobs all over the place, dividends for stockholders, manufacturing, housing, and supplies. The biggest development project in the country. It’s to be the golden days.” It quickly becomes evident that Proulx’s fictional community is grounded in a reality that is being threatened. Tert views “the golden days” as a financially booming era on the horizon, while Billy, in his love for the natural, simple life of his ancestors, sees “the golden days” being extinguished.

When Billy takes Quoyle to Gaze Island, the original settlement of the Quoyles before they relocated the house, Billy mentions an old adage his father used to recite: “There was four women in every man’s heart. The Maid in the Meadow, the Demon Lover, the Stouthearted Woman, [and] the Tall and Quiet Woman.” This passage is especially important, as it perfectly reflects the women in Quoyle’s life. Bunny and Sunshine are the maids in the meadow, their mother Petal Bear is the demon lover, Aunt Agnis is the stouthearted woman, and Wavey Prowse is the tall and quiet woman. These women play significant roles in the narrative and aid Quoyle in his search for identity. Petal makes a cuckold of him, yet he remains a devoted and loving father. He relies on Agnis’s rationality and assertive strength to push him in the right direction—which leads him straight into the arms of Wavey Prowse.

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Critical Context