The Shipping News

by Annie Proulx

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Analysis and Review

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2226

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.

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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, Proulx has someone tell a story, his or another’s, such as Jack’s miraculous rescue of his son, Nutbeem’s voyage around the world, or the shipwreck of Billy’s grandfather. Tert is perhaps the only one who never tells his story, which may have something to do with his being the villain of the piece-the only character the children hate.

Tert is more ineffectual than menacing, however, and despite him, Quoyle fits right in at the quirky paper, with its bogus ads, ludicrous typos, car-wreck photos, sexual abuse stories, and idiotic columns. His emerging integrity and authority as a newspaperman become apparent as soon as a sinister yacht docks. The owners of this boat are the Melvilles, prime examples of abusive lovers who have fought each other the whole trip to this desolate coast. Learning that the yacht once belonged to Adolf Hitler, Quoyle makes this fact the basis for an article he runs in place of his car-wreck piece. Although Tert objects, Jack calls to say that he wants more.

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This prompt rescue by the absent Jack is the sort of device that imbues the book with a fairy-tale character: Wishes are granted-if one’s heart is true. In much the same way, Proulx makes Newfoundland a nearly enchanted place by romanticizing the ordinary. Dennis’ wife Beety rules a kitchen where Quoyle’s daughters absorb the healing effects of the scent of baking bread, and where he first feels like a father. He cannot calm his daughter’s fears until he sets up a new household and establishes a stable family within a community that knows him and his past.

Consequently, while personal change is good, progress is suspect. Tert naturally champions progress, even hanging a picture of an oil tanker on his wall in a dispute that leads Quoyle to vent his first adult anger (and be rewarded immediately by Jack’s call). Quoyle opposes change, because the old traditions connect him to Newfound-land. When Partridge calls from Los Angeles and tells him about the 1992 riots, Newfoundland stands out in stark contrast as a safe haven. Hard times force people to move away to look for work, and Proulx acknowledges the dark side of so insular a community, but the book comes down squarely on the side of staying where you belong.

Besides, in this novel the dark side threatens but never harms. Mostly it is confined to the past, represented by characters such as Nolan, Quoyle’s reclusive cousin. Throughout the book, this lunatic scatters knotted ropes and grasses across Quoyle’s path, petty curses that end by blessing Quoyle when the storm they conjure blows away the family house and wipes clean the slate of the past. That history is not pretty, but it has little impact on Quoyle. It is simply one more account from Proulx’s impressive store, told among others by Billy Pretty on a trip to Gaze Island. On the outskirts of its hidden ghost town, he shows Quoyle the ancestral graveyard, the first foothold of a family that once lived off shipwrecks. The Quoyles got so nasty that they were finally driven from Gaze Island; hauling their house across the ice to Quoyle’s Point, they strapped it to bare rock, its precarious perch until Quoyle’s time.

Quoyle bears the weight of his family lightly, and when on the return voyage he finds the head of Bayonet Melville in a suitcase, it adds little sense of mystery or danger to the book. In fact, though Proulx weaves a complicated plot, the pieces do not always knit together into a compelling whole. It is not that there are too many coincidences, but that there is no sense of consequence; actions throw no shadows. Incidents are laid out like cards from a trick deck, too neatly to convince. For example, there is a crucial subplot concerning incest, specifically Agnis’ molestation at the hands of her older brother, Quoyle’s father. There is quite a bit of foreshadowing in the form of the molestation stories covered by the paper, but the subplot itself unfolds in a few, widely spaced scenes that flash before the reader’s eyes and vanish.

The same cursory treatment is granted the plot of Mrs. Melville, who murders and dismembers her husband but pays her bill with Agnis Hamm). The revelation of Nutbeem’s early sexual abuse is related and forgotten as quickly as all of his other set speeches. Every tale told is a tale of woe, and every character has had his brush with evil, but they all remain innocent and unscathed. When Nutbeem’s houseboat is trashed during a riotous going-away party, he merely shrugs it off. Even Bunny’s emotional trouble is too easily resolved. Just when it seems that she has gone over the edge and attacked a teacher, she emerges as a hero for defending Wavey’s retarded son from a mean adult. Her violent outburst is basically innocent-but then all Proulx’s characters are innocent, childlike and vulnerable, victims, never victimizers. The evil lies outside them, with all real threats safely in the past or whisked away, like that mean teacher, gone “to Grand Falls to open a Christian bookstore.”

The sting of that dismissal characterizes the book’s whole tone. The pages crackle with images: a radio buzzes “as though wracked by migraine.” Working with words is like “scuffing through dead flies.” Petal “seemed suddenly drenched in eroticism as a diver rising out of a pool gleams like chrome with a sheet of unbroken water for a fractional moment.” Proulx writes with a great impatient verve, leaving out extraneous words—often subjects and conjunctions. She telegraphs information, much the way Quoyle casts thoughts into headlines, and she loves lists. All of this sometimes gives her spare prose a skimpy feel, but as brusque as it is brisk, her style captures perfectly the trenchant rhythms of the laconic, redoubtable Newfoundlanders she describes.

They provide for Proulx the model of a community strong enough to withstand nature’s harshest abuse, a community where adversity has always brought out the best in people, where dedication to craft, whether a boatwright’s or newspaperman’s, teaches true responsibility to self, where love and acceptance outweigh all individual differences. The book glows with the certainty that everything works out given the goodwill that abounds wherever people stand together. That only happens in a world of make-believe, where a man can change with the ease of a duckling filling out into a white swan. Nevertheless, Proulx’s world will surely charm anyone longing for that place where the dead can come back, where you get all the love you need, and where you are always welcomed home, if you can only find your way back there.

Sources for Further Study

The Atlantic. CCLXXI, April, 1993, p.131.

Belles Lettres. IX, Fall, 1993, p.39.

Chicago Tribune. January 3, 1993, XIV, p.6.

DeMont, John. Review of The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx. Maclean’s 107 (April 25, 1994): 57. Emphasizes Proulx’s connections to and understanding of Canadian maritime life.

Kaveney, Roz. Review of The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx. New Statesman 6, no. 281 (December 3, 1993): 39. Notes Proulx’s light touch and her use of the techniques of fantasy.

Klinkenborg, Verlyn. Review of The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx. The New Republic 210 (May 30, 1994): 35-38. Although the reviewer finds fault with the novel, she acknowledges Proulx’s descriptive prowess.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 18, 1993, p.9.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, April 4, 1993, p.13.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, December 28, 1992, p.57.

Skow, John. “The Arts and Media Books: True (as in Proulx) Grit Wins.” Time, November 29, 1993, 83. A brief review of Proulx’s biography and an overview of her career.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 26, 1993, p.22.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXIX, Autumn, 1993, p. SS129.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, August 1, 1993, p.5.

The Yale Review. LXXXI, October, 1993, p.133.

Literary Techniques

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As the tale unravels, Quoyle quite literally learns the ropes of life. Chapters are introduced by quotations from Clifford Warren Ashley's The Ashley Book of Knots (1944), which Proulx acknowledges provided her with the inspiration for making the novel into more than "just the thread of an idea." Quoyle, whose name means a coil of rope, experiences the various knots or themes of life as he either uncoils (or unravels) or coils himself from childhood into adulthood.

Knots are strung throughout the novel, pictured at the openings of most of the chapters, and one type of knot appears in chapter after chapter, separating smaller units of each chapter. The knots which introduce the chapters are symbolic of the focus of the chapter or an event in the chapter: half hitches, rolling hitches, slippery hitches, lanyards, cats cradles, marriage knots and more. Knots relate to Quoyle but also to other characters as well. Knots serve as symbol and knots are purposeful in the workaday world of Killick-Claw. A distant cousin of Quoyle's who is thought to be not quite right in his head and who mysteriously hovers in the coves and corners near Quoyle's Point leaves knots for the unsuspecting Quoyle to discover (an overhand on Quoyle's car seat or another often used rope, twisted and kinked, under the boat seat and more and more here, there, and everywhere) as if they were hexes, seemingly winding Quoyle's life in their symbolically knotted tale. Agnis Hamm speaks of her friend and lover, Irene Warren, as "all knotted up" when Warren succumbs to cancer. On the other hand, knots have a real purpose not only for the young Bunny who takes pleasure from learning the knots of shipping from an old sea captain but also for her father, Quoyle, who must learn knots for the mere safety of sailing his small boat and for the aunt, too, who must learn knots as part of her education in stitchery for the success of her sewing business, Hamm's Custom Yacht Interiors and Upholstery.

Despite the sometimes mysterious or caricatured behavior of the peculiar characters, such as the old Quoyle cousin or The Gammy Bird newspaper staff: Buggit, Nutbeem, and Card, and a raft of other types, who people the novel (Dickensian though they may be). The Shipping News is realistic in its portrayal of human nature. Proulx spent a number of years — making nine trips in fact — going back and forth to Newfoundland from New England to study the people of the region, to learn their manner of speaking, to learn their way of life. Her characters, then, are drawn from true studies.

Much in the way that characters move in and out of our lives from day to day, some present more often than others, so they weave in and out of Quoyle's daily life. The more they enter his life and he theirs, the more intertwined and connected their lives become. Yet Quoyle's growth in Proulx's bildungsroman comes not only from connecting himself with others who live in Killick-Claw and with his Quoyle roots at Quoyle Point but also from detaching himself from the dysfunctional twinings of his earlier life with family, wife, work. Proulx's writing is much like her symbolic use of knotting. She uses language made dense by tersely knotted phrases — kinky, crimped, twisted — interspersed among a full sentence here or there. The writer dispenses with any extraneous words, tightening the language as tautly as knots tighten to serve their specific purposes. Quoyle's story is never strung out in long and easygoing sentences even though Proulx takes more pleasure from writing a novel than a short story for the very reason that she can go on at length. But the length is not due to verbiage; rather it allows for more characters, a broader swath of the coil of humanity, and for more about locale as it affects and effects character.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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Proulx has come to publishing novels later in life than most contemporary authors. Yet her fame has been immediate and her work has won significant literary awards which most critics and reviewers think are merited. Lauded for the density of her language, the wealth of lore which the books reveal, and the encyclopedic range of subjects addressed, Proulx's books have much to say. Just as they are about the realities of life and are set in a real place, so too they make use of symbolism and metaphor. Consequently, they provide a variety of topics for discussion.

In The Shipping News, Proulx is interested in such topics as knots, the sea, the small town newspaper trade, saltwater fishing lore, the rules of sailing, shipwrecks, weather and its effects on the Newfoundlanders, their patois, their superstitions, and their saga. Discussion of the setting alone would appeal to the traveler since Newfoundland is not the place where a majority of novels are situated; however, the lore which Proulx explores in relation to that setting makes it much richer for the traveler and the historian as well.

Readers who search for metaphorical relationships and symbolical meaning, those who find delight in words or phrases which carry double meanings or signals which act as clues will take pleasure in discussing what their detective work has uncovered in a name or a knot.

1. To begin, then, at the beginning of the novel, which is where the reader encounters knots first, what is the significance of them and how are they used in The Shipping News? They not only open each chapter and define segments of chapters, but one also closes the book. What do they mean?

2. Likewise, what is the significance of the naming of characters and places? While Quoyle's name links him to the knots, what about the names of the other characters and the names of the places where they live or work?

3. Proulx seems to set up a contrast between Mockingburg and Killick-Claw. Do the names indicate differences between the two? What about the newspapers which represent the two places? How are they alike; how do they differ?

4. The contrast goes further than that of two towns; it extends to regions and to nations. What are those contrasts between the coastal region of Newfoundland and that of Long Island, between Canada and the United States — and how are those contrasts significant to the story line?

5. What other contrasts are there in the book? Between characters? Between mannerisms? In what ways are the contrasted characters, work places, regions alike? In the parallelisms which the book explores, what are the truths which Froulx seems to be establishing about person and place?

6. If The Shipping News does represent the ship of life and Quoyle the protagonist of a bildungsroman, what is it that Quoyle learns as he sails through life? Is he a passenger on the ship or does he steer his own way?

7. Does Quoyle really change very much from his days in Mockingburg to his life in Newfoundland? If so, what are the events or words which cause or signify the changes?

8. Why does Proulx invent an oddly demented old cousin as one of the novel's characters and have him shadow Quoyle and his family, apparently hexing them with knots? What do the old man's knots mean? And, what do his ghostly appearances suggest in a realistic novel? Could the novel be said to have a gothic quality as well?

9. What societal concerns is Proulx addressing when she has a lesbian aunt replace a promiscuous mother as the adult female figure in the family? Are there any other instances of societally-determined aberrancy supplanting the norm? If so, what meaning can be drawn from the topsy-turvy displacements?

10. Does the house at Quoyle Point carry any symbolical meaning?

11. Why are the Melvilles in the novel? Do they represent more than a couple of sensational moments in a good story?

12. With the conclusion of the novel, is it fair to say that it is a novel of realism? That it is gothic? Modern? More? Does Proulx pack her novel with characteristics from various prose fictions? If so, what is the effect? Does the novel hold together as an integrated and comprehensive work of art?

Social Concerns

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In The Shipping News, Proulx tells more than a story; it is news, ultimately good news. Metaphorically, Quoyle is on the ship of life. Proulx's fictional The Shipping News frames Quoyle's nonfictional shipping news in that Proulx's novel — in the telling — paradoxically and ironically reports the real news about humanity (and inhumanity), the same as that which is told daily in late twentieth century newspapers and on radio and television news shows, such as dysfunctional families, parental and spousal abuse, incest, extramarital sexual encounters, rape, murder, and even the presence of child pornography.

Quoyle's life begins in a dysfunctional abusive family, verbally abusive if not physically; yet, he survives the abuse and grows up and into a loving, kindly, and functional adult. Quoyle not only does what is right as a responsible human being but he also does what is right because he cares for his fellow human beings.

The predominant setting of the novel, Killick-Claw, Newfoundland, provides the backdrop for a dwindling breed of men and women, those who have withstood the harsh northern seacoast while they drew their livelihood from the sea. The remaining residents of Killick-Claw, quirky though they may be, ply on not only against the elements but also against the modern world, realizing (some more, some less) that the twenty-first century, as Proulx observes, "hangs over Newfoundland like a clenched fist." The yield from the sea is shrinking, and the hard life of the northland is not what some of the older generation want for their younger ones. On the other hand, the culture of the cities to the south is encroaching as a new generation looks to Newfoundland for hidden treasures in offshore oil beds and mineral deposits, those treasures which contemporary society needs in order to support modern technology. While the novel, like many before it, implicitly affirms the natural and quickening world of the "outport," in contrast to the unnatural and demeaning world of asphalt and concrete, the novel also knots the two worlds together. Neither is self-sustaining any longer.

Literary Precedents

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When The Shipping News was published in hard cover, it was hailed by The Boston Globe as being in the tradition of George Eliot, the two writers alike in their love of observation, and their understanding of place in relation to person. George Eliot's classic statement defining her intent to be realistic in her writing, to focus on the common life and everyday experiences, is representative of what Proulx has done as well. Like her nineteenth-century British predecessor, Proulx has a sharp eye for setting as well as a good ear for regional voices. The dialogue of the novel makes character reflect region. However, Proulx's portrayal of character seems more in the manner of Dickens than in the vein of George Eliot. From Dickensian-like names to similarly caricatured personalities, the people of Killick-Claw (and Mockingburg as well) call to mind the Uriah Heeps and the David Copperfields or even the Pickwickian types and the Pips of a previous century. Likewise, Proulx's education of Quoyle follows in the line of a Dickensian bildungsroman. Like a Copperfield or a Pip, Quoyle's education comes from his encounters with quirky one-dimensional characters and not from more fully-developed supporting characters such as those of Eliot's novels.

The novel's forebears are not only British; Froulx's work has been likened to that of the American writer Wallace Stegner. Verlyn Klinkenborg traces Proulx's interest in landscape and in work to Stegner; accuracy of setting and authenticity of historical evidence place Proulx, like Stegner, within the tradition of American realism. In that respect, place, voice, and person reflect the work of Twain as well. The terseness of Proulx's sentences (with language clipped, pithy, and aphoristic) like that of the poet Emily Dickinson further secures Proulx within the tradition of realism.

Yet Proulx is thoroughly modern in her inclusion of once taboo characters such as the lesbian aunt and the pornographic photographer. Even by including young Herry, Wavey Prowse's son who is born with Downs Syndrome, the author places herself within the spirit of modernism which does not deny the range of human aberrations. That range includes grotesqueries as well. For example, the Melvilles — Bayonet and Silver, gross in their slovenly and drugged state of overconsumption — show up initially in their battering ram of a boat, Hitler's elegantly outfitted Botterjacht, obnoxiously loud and abusive toward one another, and return a second time, at least part of Bayonet does, in a suitcase, dismembered apparently by his wife. Silver. The talk can be blatantly frank, too, whether it comes from Petal Bear's vulgarities or Bunny's innocent bluntness; Nutbeem's call for stories about car crashes, shipwrecks, or spousal beatings; or an aunt who tells it like it is. Behaviors, too, touch on the forbidden or reflect the extremes of human responses. Agnis Hamm takes pleasure in knowing that her brother's ashes are in the bottom of the privy where she put them, retribution for his long past rape of her, yet long suffered and long remembered by her.

As modern as Proulx is, her novels do not do what the modern novel does over and over: explore the psychological depths of the characters. The reader is not allowed to understand what impulses are at work. However, in detailing their responses to work, place, and one another, the author presents real folks with real drives and real desires.

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Critical Essays