The Shipping News | Study Guide

E. Annie Proulx

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The Shipping News | Chapters 1–3 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1: Quoyle

As the novel opens, readers are told, "Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle." Quoyle, the story's protagonist, grows up with his father and brother Dick, both of whom revile him and constantly call him a "failure." Quoyle is "stumbling along, going nowhere" in life, absorbing all the insults and ridicule his family heaps upon him. Alienated and defeated, he feels like a "distant figure" in his own family. "Until he was fourteen he cherished the idea that he had been given to the wrong family," but ultimately he can't deny the physical similarities with the very people who berate him on a continual basis. Quoyle's spell at college is lonely and his coursework is incomprehensible to him, so he drops out and starts his working life with a series of dead-end jobs.

Quoyle meets a neighbor, Mr. Partridge, at a local laundromat in his home town of Mockingburg, New York, and they become friends. Partridge tells Quoyle the managing editor of a small local paper is looking for a "cheap reporter" and suggests Quoyle apply for the job. The editor, Ed Punch, "smells submission" in Quoyle and hires him to cover municipal news for The Mockingburg Record. Partridge teaches him how to craft and enliven his articles. Quoyle becomes a good news writer, but the job turns out to be temporary. After Quoyle is let go, he drives a cab part-time. Thereafter, he takes and loses a series of temporary, low-wage, part-time jobs in upstate New York. From time to time, Punch rehires him as a reporter, then lets him go again, then rehires him, and so on, in an abusive cycle that, like his family's mistreatment, Quoyle accepts as his lot in life.

Partridge announces he and his wife are moving to California where she has obtained a job as a long-haul trucker. This distresses Quoyle a great deal. With his only friend gone, Quoyle is at loose ends, pacing around his rented trailer wondering what life will bring. "Who knows," he keeps asking aloud.

Chapter 2: Love Knot

Quoyle is amazed when a young, sexy woman—Petal Bear—winks at him at a meeting. One of the first things she says to him is, "You want to marry me, don't you?" Astonished, Quoyle simply says, "Yes." They go for a drink, and Petal kisses him. A month later, they're married.

The couple's happiness is short-lived. Soon after they're married, Petal's "desire reversed to detestation like a rubber glove turned inside out." Although she does not use the same insulting nicknames as his family did, Quoyle can hear her contempt for him in her voice. Petal is brazen with her infidelity, going so far as to sleep with another man in their own living room. But Quoyle truly loves and cherishes Petal. He envisions a marriage like that of his friend Partridge, despite all the blatant evidence to the contrary of his own marriage's condition. "What he had was what he pretended."

Petal gives birth to their two daughters. Bunny is the eldest, followed a year and a half later by Sunshine. Quoyle loves both children dearly, though Petal clearly does not. The children's existence does not subdue Petal's affairs and she continues to take off for extended periods of time, leaving Quoyle to care for the children. Mrs. Moosup, a paid babysitter, stays with the children while Quoyle works. Petal distances herself from her family, to the point that "sometimes she pretended not to recognize the children." Finally, she asks Quoyle for a divorce, but he refuses, wanting to hold on to their marriage and his illusion of love. "He was pulling her under. She was pushing him over." Quoyle cries, but Petal snaps at him to "grow up" before she leaves yet again. Quoyle accepts his suffering, believing it to be a test of his love. "The sharper the pain, the greater the proof."

Chapter 3: Strangle Knot

Quoyle learns first his father and then his mother has been diagnosed with incurable cancer. While at work, Quoyle gets a message from his father saying, "it's time for your mother and I to go." His parents commit suicide by taking an overdose of stockpiled pills. Part of the father's message to Quoyle is now "he will have to make his own way" and he should get in touch with Dicky and Quoyle's aunt, Agnis Hamm. His brother Dicky's main response to the news of their parents' death is, "Hey, Lardass, did they leave us anything?" Quoyle makes the funeral arrangements. His Aunt Agnis can't make the service but says she will see him in about a month.

At the paper, Ed Punch lets Quoyle go once again, this time because of a "business slump." Punch hammers the final nail into Quoyle's proverbial coffin when he says, "Afraid there's not much chance of taking you back this time."

Back home, Mrs. Moosup, the babysitter, is fed up and demands over three thousand dollars in back pay for the past seven weeks. Petal had been responsible for paying her, but she has disappeared altogether, this time with the children. Quoyle has a total of $12 in the bank and no job.

After Mrs. Moosup leaves, Quoyle calls the police. "I want my children back," he reports. Bunny is now six years old and Sunshine is four and a half. Sometime later, Quoyle gets a phone call from the police. Petal has been killed in a car accident. He learns she had sold the children to a Connecticut man who makes child pornography. When the police find the girls, they are naked but unharmed. The camera had jammed and the police arrived before any real damage was done.

Aunt Agnis arrives and tries to soothe Quoyle with some tea. She tells him he reminds her of his grandfather from Newfoundland, Sian Quoyle. She recalls some of their family's Newfoundland ancestors. Quoyle asks Aunt Agnis to stay with them, and she agrees to stay for "a few days." Because he has no other prospects, she suggests Quoyle and his daughters make a new start with her in Newfoundland.

Analysis

Epigraphs

  • The epigraph to Chapter 1 introduces readers to the protagonist Quoyle and features a Flemish flake, a type of flat coil. Readers will notice the Quoyle/coil homophone. At the beginning of the novel, Quoyle is flat and has such low self-esteem that he allows himself to be "walked on" by other people.
  • The epigraph to Chapter 2 discusses the historical significance of the love knot, which a sailor sends to his beloved loosely tied. If the knot comes back snug, the sailor's passion is reciprocated. But if the knot is returned "capsized," the sailor should "ship out." This epigraph reflects the disintegration of Quoyle's marriage to Petal and the one-sided feelings he still harbors for her.
  • The epigraph to Chapter 3 describes a "strangle knot," which is "first tied loosely and then worked snug." This describes the evolution of Quoyle's relationship with his various family members: his father, his wife Petal, and in a more positive way, his Aunt Agnis. It is also an apt descriptor of the traumatic events that take place in this chapter.

Chapters

The omniscient narrator often relates the events of Quoyle's life with a satirical tone, for there are many situational ironies at play within Quoyle's struggle to evolve. One such irony is how Quoyle "feared water, could not swim," yet he ends up living on an island off the coast of Canada, surrounded by icy cold water. He's descended from Newfoundland stock, but is afraid of the sea. Another of these ironies is Quoyle's own capacity to love after receiving a constant barrage of mistreatment from his family of origin, and later from his wife. This is best seen through Quoyle's reaction to his wife's abandonment and her sale of their two young daughters to a sexual predator. Here, in direct contrast with Quoyle's lack of ambition on the job front, he takes immediate action. Quoyle calls the police and, without hesitation, expresses his desire to get his children back.

His friendship with Partridge is another example of Quoyle's ability to connect with people despite his dysfunctional family life and unhappy childhood. In these early stages of the novel, Quoyle can't yet see his capacity to care for others as a strength; he is too mired in failure to recognize his own assets.

Though their friendship is brief, Partridge serves as an important mentor to Quoyle. He becomes more of a father figure than Quoyle's real father. He teaches Quoyle many practical things like cooking, helps Quoyle obtain and maintain his job as reporter (an important identity Quoyle grows into and maintains for the rest of the novel), and models critical life lessons Quoyle missed out on from his own overly judgmental father. One of these lessons becomes a theme for the novel. "Everything that counts is for love, Quoyle. It's the engine of life," Partridge tells him. As for Quoyle's feelings toward Partridge, "If Partridge suggested he leap from a bridge he would at least lean on the rail."

Fatherly roles will be examined throughout the novel, first through Quoyle's tense relationship with his father. The narrator says of the father, "Again and again [he] had broken his clenched grip and thrown him into pools, brooks, lakes and surf." Yet Quoyle never learned to swim. What Quoyle did learn as a child was to internalize his shortcomings and his father's resulting disapproval.

Another of Quoyle's failures identified by his own family is "a failure of normal appearance." His brother Dick, "the father's favorite," often calls Quoyle unkind names such as "Lardass, Snotface, Ugly Pig, Warthog," among others. Quoyle grows ashamed of his body, especially of his "monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face." Quoyle's instinct to frequently cover his chin reveals his lack of self-esteem, the internalization of his own family's ridicule, and his shame about his body and himself.

Petal's death by car accident is another example of situational irony, considering all the times she fled from Quoyle, her daughters, and her responsibilities to pursue the open road and what she thinks of as autonomy. There is also situational irony in that she sells their two young daughters into sexual captivity when she herself desires sexual liberation and freedom from the shackles of marriage and motherhood. The ultimate situational irony is found in Bunny and Sunshine's salvation. The combination of a malfunctioning camera and the swift, decisive reaction of their usually indecisive father saves the two children.

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