The Shipping News | Study Guide

E. Annie Proulx

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The Shipping News | Chapters 20–21 | Summary



Chapter 20: Gaze Island

Quoyle goes with Billy Pretty in his boat to Gaze Island and is astonished every rock they pass in the water has a name. They discuss Nolan, who is a very old recluse and Quoyle family member. Billy tells Quoyle it is really Nolan who owns the old house Quoyle and the aunt live in. Quoyle will soon learn what Billy means when he says Nolan is "an old-style Quoyle." Billy tells Quoyle his ancestors' reputations are so bad, Jack Buggit called Quoyle's old employer to get a reference before he would hire Quoyle.

Billy then tells the history of his family and how he grew up on Gaze Island, as well as the story of the five families who had lived there. Billy expounds at length about his family history and how his father became a Newfoundlander. He recites old rhymes that have helped Newfoundlanders negotiate the numerous rocks in the sea offshore. Billy maneuvers the boat into a barely visible, hidden cove, or tickle, where he can dock the boat. They walk to the cemetery Billy came to visit. Billy's father's grave makes Quoyle think of his late father. His memories are of pain and shame. Quoyle remembers going berry picking with his own father and brother. He recalls how his brother lied to his father, saying Quoyle had stolen his collected berries. Quoyle does not defend himself against this false charge, and his father gives him a beating for his thievery.

Billy's father had suffered, too. He spent part of his childhood in an orphanage and barely escaped forced farm labor after he was in a shipwreck. He survived and was hidden and then adopted by the Pretty family on Gaze Island. The family was close, was "joined" together. Those children who slaved on Canadian farms were treated terribly by the families they lived with.

They visit the cemetery where the Quoyles are buried. Quoyle sees where his old house had originally sat before it was dragged across the ice to its current location. Billy tells Quoyle his ancestors were "pirates" who pillaged valuables from shipwrecks, but Quoyle has a difficult time "trying to imagine himself as a godless pirate spying for prey or enemy." Quoyle becomes more uncomfortable about his ancestors when Billy tells him they deliberately "lured ships onto" rocks to cause shipwrecks they could pillage.

Chapter 21: Poetic Navigation

As Billy and Quoyle return, the boat enters a huge bank of fog. Quoyle sees a suitcase on a rock and hauls it into the boat. The suitcase is locked so they'll have to wait until they're ashore to open it. As the boat enters the fog, Quoyle becomes uneasy, dreading "things unseen." When Billy sees the Home Rock, he believes they're on course for Killick-Claw, but they're east of their destination. Billy decides to dock at Desperate Cove because of the fog. Billy steers by the sound of the water hitting the rocks and the faraway shore. As they dock the boat, the pair smell something terrible coming from the suitcase.

Billy smells food cooking at the town restaurant. They secure the boat and head in for food. Quoyle leaves the reeking suitcase outside while they eat. Billy phones Tert Card asking for someone to pick them up in Desperate Cove and drive them back to Killick-Claw. When they finish eating, Quoyle drags the suitcase under a wharf light and uses a pipe to break its lock. When he gets the suitcase open, Quoyle sees "the gelatinous horror"—the head of Bayonet Melville.



  • The epigraph to Chapter 20 makes a key reference to Quoyle's "pirate" ancestors. Like the pirates' prisoners, Quoyle is tied with a knot and "hitched" to his forebears in ways he is not comfortable with.
  • The epigraph to Chapter 21 defines and explains how fog forms in the Newfoundland region. Billy and Quoyle are caught in a boat in a dense fog, which makes Quoyle uneasy.


Tradition, ancestry, and attachment to place dominate these chapters. Billy is revealed as a repository of what seems like all the lore and tales of Newfoundland. He knows the name of every rock—and every rock is named because each is like a part of the Newfoundland family. He can navigate the sea in a dense fog because he can interpret the sound of the water slapping off rocks or its far-off lapping at the shore.

Billy's tale about his father has a special resonance and meaning for Quoyle. Billy's father narrowly escaped being sent into virtual slavery on a Canadian farm. His correspondence with other orphans who suffered this bondage in many ways links them with Quoyle. Not only were the orphans nearly worked and/or starved to death, the farmers they worked for ridiculed them and "jeered and made [their] life hell." Billy says of one boy, "never once did anyone say a kind word to him." This cruel treatment hits home with Quoyle.

The issue of identity becomes serious for Quoyle. Disquieted by Billy's stories of his ancestors who were pirates who pillaged shipwrecks, he can't accept he's sprung from such cruel and bloodthirsty forebears. He feels contaminated by their "filthy blood [that] ran in his veins, who murdered the shipwrecked, drowned their unwanted brats, fought and howled, beards braided in spikes with burning candles jammed into their hair." But this is part of Quoyle's lineage; it's in his blood, like boating. Until he comes to terms with it and can accept his heritage doesn't define him, he will not be fully integrated within himself and with his new home in Newfoundland.

Billy insightfully contrasts family life then and now. He speaks of family cohesion as a key characteristic of the old ways of Newfoundlanders. Billy describes how his father's adopted family lived "a satisfying life in a way people today do not understand. There was a joinery of lives all worked together, smooth in places, or lumpy, but joined. The work and the living you did was the same things, not separated out like today." Readers will recall Billy's similar love for the old style of working in Chapter 8; to him traditional work and family life are one and the same. Billy feels the modern separation of work, family, and play is unhealthy because it does not reinforce the cohesiveness and support a close-knit family should have.

Chapter 20 contrasts shame and how a person reacts to it. When Billy Pretty tells Quoyle he never married because he "had a personal affliction," his matter-of-fact manner shows he accepts himself for who he is—warts and all. In contrast, as soon as Billy reveals his "affliction," Quoyle's hand shoots up to cover his chin. Quoyle is still sensitive about and ashamed of his physical appearance. He still hasn't accepted himself.

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