Analysis and Review

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

R. G. Quoyle, like his namesake, a flat coil of rope, begins without character enough to stand up to anything. A prodigious eater and great mound of self-conscious fat, he has oozed from job to job, friendless and depressed, always holding his hand over his great ledge of a chin. Reared by a father who always preferred his older son, Quoyle lacks sufficient self-esteem at thirty-six to succeed at anything.

Things begin to happen only when he meets a newspaper editor named Partridge, who gives him a job. Halfheartedly following this new trade, he meets Petal Bear, an erotic dynamo. She rings every bell Quoyle has before quickly tiring of his tune-but not before marrying him. Marriage, however, hardly keeps her from carrying on brazen affairs right under Quoyle’s copious chin. As if that were not shameless enough, she sells their two daughters, Bunny and Sunshine, to a child pornographer.

Fortunately, the little girls are saved from worse than a manicure by the timely death of their mother, whose badness only makes her the more mourned by the husband she is fleeing when she runs her car into a tree. The devastated Quoyle can hardly protest when his hard-drinking, no-nonsense Aunt Agnis Hamm (named with E. Annie Proulx’s irrepressible Dickensian tic) hustles him off to the godforsaken, windswept ancestral homestead in Newfoundland.

Though initially despairing, Quoyle blossoms in his native soil. The obstacles in his way are formidable: He must fix up a hopelessly dilapidated house, heal the emotion- ally disturbed Bunny, master a daunting new job, and, most important, find true love. By the end, not only does he overcome these seemingly insurmountable challenges, but his workout leaves him self- assured, comfortable with his body, and happily married.

In other words, he becomes an adult. In Proulx’s novel, growing up and accepting responsibility require a sense of self rooted in family and community. Any stable unit can qualify as family, even Agnis and her assistant Mavis, as long as there is love-true love.

False, abusive love is clearly embodied by Quoyle’s deceased father and wife, who wounded Quoyle so deeply that he does not know what other models to follow at first. Then he meets the good-parent title-holder of the novel, Jack Buggit, owner of The Gammy Bird, the local paper where Quoyle is hired to cover the shipping news. Introduced as a gruff no-nonsense fisherman, Jack proves (like many characters in the book) to have a bracing bark, but no bite. More than merely another hospitable local, however, he possesses near-preternatural powers. Not only does he make a timely appearance to rescue Quoyle from icy waters, but he also rises from the dead himself at the end of the book. While Jack spends most of his time away from his desk, answering his own ancestral call on the open sea, he is always phoning in to give Quoyle a needed boost. Similarly, Jack has an uncanny sense for choosing assignments tailored to his employee’s traumas, which is why he assigns Quoyle car wrecks as well as the shipping news. Yet, like a good parent, he does not do this to torment, but to provide safe, manageable challenges-and afterward, to reward.

Quoyle is also helped toward responsible parenthood by listening to Bunny and learning not to deny her fear of death. In this he has the support of Wavey Prowse, a local widow and perfect mother to her retarded son. Spotting her soon after his arrival, Quoyle is immediately captivated by her self-possession. Yet their courtship goes slowly because, after their respective stormy marriages, both equate love with pain. The reader will be ahead of the curve on their romance all the way, but the inevitable outcome is delayed with complications convincing enough to make their final happiness the high point of the novel.

In general, Proulx is good at mixing sentiment and moral lessons with humor. When Wavey explains death to Bunny so that the girl can learn to enjoy the good mysteries of life, the child is only half convinced that death is forever. This ambivalence is put to good comic use at Jack’s funeral, where Bunny finds nothing at all unusual about his reawakening.

After Jack’s resurrection, his son Dennis follows the ambulance to the hospital so his father can sign over his lobster license before he has another chance to die. The humor of this derives from the emotional flintiness of Newfoundland hearts and the fact that to obtain such a license in Newfoundland one must inherit it. This is only part of the hoard of lore that the book imparts, beginning at the top of each chapter with a small illustration, usually from The Ashely Book of Knots (1944), as a pictorial comment on Quoyle’s progress.

Proulx’s fascination with Newfoundland runs the whole gamut from family history to boatmaking to fried bologna. While this provides one of the main pleasures of the book, it can lessen the impact of the narrative. When Jack saves Quoyle from drowning, for example, Proulx caps the incident with a copious description of Mrs. Buggit’s picturesque house, thus reducing the whole near-fatal accident to merely another opportunity to clear out space in her warehouse of lore.

For the most part, though, Proulx creates fascinating, if sometimes too eccentric, characters with harrowing life stories, odd tics, and weird names. At The Gammy Bird alone work men named Billy Pretty, Beaufield Nutbeem, and Tert Card. Whenever action lags,...

(The entire section is 2226 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

As the tale unravels, Quoyle quite literally learns the ropes of life. Chapters are introduced by quotations from Clifford Warren Ashley's...

(The entire section is 649 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Proulx has come to publishing novels later in life than most contemporary authors. Yet her fame has been immediate and her work has won...

(The entire section is 708 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In The Shipping News, Proulx tells more than a story; it is news, ultimately good news. Metaphorically, Quoyle is on the ship of life....

(The entire section is 338 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

When The Shipping News was published in hard cover, it was hailed by The Boston Globe as being in the tradition of George...

(The entire section is 554 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In Postcards Proulx uses a technique similar to that used in The Shipping News. She signals the reader to note the intent of...

(The entire section is 237 words.)