The Shipping News

by Annie Proulx

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 245

The Shipping News is a work about another world. In one sense, that world is the richly regional, vanishing world of Newfoundland. In another sense, it is Never-Never Land, a place of magic spells carried in knotted cords and prescient dreams. Proulx, herself a native New Englander with Canadian roots, knows much about small-town life, which she explores with a surfeit of telling detail. Before becoming a fiction writer, she spent nineteen years working as a freelance journalist who supported herself by writing primarily for outdoor magazines, and that experience shows in her work. She writes with surpassing beauty about the land and seascape of Newfoundland and observes the minute particulars of a seal hunt with a practiced eye.

The specificity of such description is set off against the narrative shorthand employed by most of the characters, even the narrator: “The motel’s neon sign, TICKLE MOTEL, BAR AND RESTAURANT, flickered as he steered into the parking lot, weaving past parked trucks and cars, long distance rigs, busted-spring swampers, 4WD pickups, snowplows, snowmobiles.” Such lists often serve to set the scene and, like the diagrams and epigraphs from The Ashley Book of Knots, serve to tie the book together in a way that is less than explicit, that says much by saying little. The interstices between the words, in effect, create a space where the two worlds of the novel meet, where the large, lumbering Quoyle becomes Everyman and Killick-Claw a kind of magical kingdom.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 759

As a bildungsroman, the novel builds the main character as he moves from one world to another. While those worlds contrast with one another, they are also interrelated. The contrasts are of south to north (the United States to Canada), Quoyle's unnatural urban life of the early novel against nature holding sway over human interactions in Newfoundland, and the dysfunctional with the functional family. The contrasting worlds are not separated along two distinct lines; they overlap. In fact, they are lashed together by the interconnectedness which comes from the unfolding of human lives and the dependencies of one world upon another.

Unlike the typical bitdungsroman, The Shipping News is the story of a man whose life begins in a world in which the trappings are those of a late twentieth-century expose. It is a world which seems totally devoid of innocence, peopled by a brother who is meanness personified, by unloving and self-centered parents whose suicide message is left on Quoyle's answering machine, by a newspaper boss who hires and fires Quoyle at will, and by a wife who sells herself over and over to men up and down the east coast and finally, just before her fatal car crash, even sells their two young daughters to a pornographic photographer. Quoyle's growth out of that ugly world is a movement toward expressing and affirming his more kindly nature and a "gaining of innocence," according to critic Natasha Walter. Paradoxically, then, the novel reverses the traditional bildungsroman.

While Quoyle's life in Mockingburg, New York, is generally devoid of human kindnesses, he does encounter some kindliness there when he meets and is helped by Partridge, a newspaperman. Partridge (who bears a name which is symbolic of the bringer of peace and love) sets Quoyle on course. Then Quoyle's aunt steers him toward his new home in Newfoundland where he finds his life work. Dropping anchor in Killick-Claw (meaning anchor hook), Quoyle puts together his family with the aunt (as she is most often called in the book) and his daughters in Newfoundland. Having removed himself from the frenetic and screeching harshness represented by the Mockingburg of New York, Quoyle has returned to the land of his forebears, to his roots. It is not a return to a simplistic innocence of unknowing, but rather it is a movement into an understanding and appreciation of the simpler joys of life. Certainly, in the realism of the novel's form, the author does not deny the complications of life. They are there in the harshness of that northern landscape as well. With growing self-assurance, Quoyle faces them, usually with his chin up rather than in an earlier way of reflexively shielding his receding chin.

The simpler joys are those derived from being with family and friends and from being anchored to a place. The dysfunctional family of Quoyle's childhood and young adulthood is not that of his life in Newfoundland. He builds a functioning family when he sets up housekeeping with his aunt and daughters; he develops a relationship with a woman, Wavey Prowse, which grows into a marriage in the last pages of the novel; and he connects with his neighbors, befriended by them and befriending them through their shared experiences in the outport of Killick-Claw and inside the offices of The Gammy Bird.

The contrast of the dysfunctional with the functional is reflected in the differences between Mockingburg and Killick-Claw, between The Mockingburg Record and The Gammy Bird, between New York and Newfoundland. New York, devoid of the harshness of nature, should be an easier environment in which to function. Yet it is in the harsh ice-covered, bitter cold, squally north of Newfoundland where Quoyle and his aunt Agnis Hamm make a warm and caring home for themselves and Quoyle's daughters, Bunny and Sunshine. Proulx's novel, though, is not so simplistic as to suggest that New York is all bad and Newfoundland naturally good. The people of Killick-Claw can do evil things as well as those of Mockingburg. Certainly Agnis Hamm's rape by her brother, Quoyle's father, and Nutbeem's pursuit of sex stories and car crashes and all sorts of bloody events for The Gammy Bird, and the apparent murder and dismemberment of Bayonet Melville by his wife — are tied to Newfoundland even if they do not all occur there. Nevertheless, The Shipping News never becomes dark and brooding in its presentation of the tragic moments of life, but in the essence of comedy ends in a marriage, with Proulx closing the novel by saying that "love sometimes occurs without pain or misery."

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