The Shipping News | Study Guide

E. Annie Proulx

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The Shipping News | Chapters 22–24 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 22: Dogs and Cats

Mavis Bangs tells Dawn Budgel that Agnis was bold and calm when Melville's head was discovered. In contrast, Mavis says, the grisly discovery terrifies and shocks Quoyle. While Mavis speaks, Dawn barely listens, as she's writing endless, often comical letters in response to help-wanted ads. Mavis then starts speculating Silver Melville probably murdered her husband and set his head afloat in a suitcase. Mavis is angry the Melvilles never paid Agnis for their upholstery, but she also blames modern times and the Melvilles' "wicked" ways for all the "ugly things that happened here." Mavis chatters on about the old days as Dawn continues to ignore her.

Quoyle, Wavey, and Herry drive in Quoyle's car to take Wavey back home to her tiny, "mint green" house. Two men mend nets, including Herry's Uncle Kenny, Wavey's brother, who in a single glance takes in the budding relationship between Wavey and Quoyle who sit side by side in the car. Herry sees a neighbor has gotten a new dog. Wavey and Herry get out of the car, but Kenny leans in and gives Quoyle a long appraising stare. The two men shake hands, but Kenny questions Quoyle about what he is doing with Wavey. It seems everyone knows who Quoyle is and where he lives and works. They talk about the head in the suitcase. Then Ken asks for a lift into town, and Quoyle obliges. It turns out Kenny approves of Quoyle, as he asks him to come around to see Wavey "any time" he wants.

Chapter 23: Maleficium

The chapter title, Maleficium, is a Latin term that means "wrongdoing" or "mischief." It likely refers to the mysterious person with a flashlight who creeps around the old house at night.

Quoyle paints the old house, but no matter how much they fix it up, it still looks "gaunt" and twisted out of shape. Aunt Agnis concentrates on fixing up her own room. She agrees to put in a small garden to grow some decent vegetables. Outside, Agnis thinks she's seen someone walking toward the house, but Quoyle sees no one. When she walks out to see who it is, she finds footprints. Quoyle tells her it must be Nolan, "the old man" and distant relative of the Quoyles. Agnis, though, insists there are no other Quoyles left in Newfoundland. She even refuses to believe most of the stories Billy had told Quoyle about his ancestors and rejects them as "a pack of lies."

That night, a flashlight beam darts across Quoyle's bedroom ceiling, waking him. When he looks out the window, Quoyle sees "a spark restlessly twitching," which quickly disappears. Quoyle wants to go find Nolan, but Agnis wants nothing to do with it. Quoyle even suggests making it a day's outing with his daughters. He almost convinces the aunt, but "in the end they did not go" to visit Nolan.

Chapter 24: Berry Picking

It's September, the weather is getting cool, and Bunny is getting ready to go to school. After Bunny's first day at school she amazes her father by saying, "It was fun."

The wilds of Newfoundland are full of ripe berries, and Quoyle, Aunt Agnis, and the girls decide to pick some. He invites Wavey to come, and she agrees if she can bring Herry. Wavey says berries are not only eaten by Newfoundlanders; they're sold to tourists who pay top dollar for them. Quoyle watches and admires Wavey as she picks. At lunchtime Aunt Agnis remembers she forgot to bring the lunch basket. She has Quoyle retrieve it back at the empty glove factory while she watches the girls. Wavey agrees to accompany Quoyle.

On their walk back to the others during berry picking, Wavey and Quoyle see an iceberg tilting over into the water, with one tower of ice leaning over the other "like a lover." When the iceberg crashes into the sea, "a fountain of water is displaced." As Quoyle tries to embrace Wavey and make love to her, she is "transfixed." Wavey retreats from him because the iceberg makes her think of how her husband died when the oil rig he worked on collapsed in a storm. She describes the company's indifference to the 97 men who died. Wavey tells Quoyle how the company's oil rig was badly designed. The company also neglected basic safety measures, including proper training, lighting, and lifeboats. She says, "They was after the oil, no attention to the water or weather."

Wavey runs back to the berry pickers while Quoyle gazes after her. Suddenly he sees the minuteness of human life in relation to the vastness of the world and time. Quoyle experiences "a sense of purity renewed" by his epiphany. Everything, he feels, has meaning. This experience allows Quoyle's "gaze [to] pierce the past" in a loving and detached way. In this revelation Quoyle sees himself and other beings as part of the immensity of the world and of time.

Analysis

Epigraphs

  • The epigraph to Chapter 22 likely refers to the knots Wavey's relatives are using to mend their fishing nets.
  • The epigraph to Chapter 23 refers to the "mysterious power" of the stranger who seems to haunt the old house at night. This person frightens the Quoyles and so his actions are "injurious," although they may later be seen as somewhat "beneficial."
  • The epigraph to Chapter 24 parallels Quoyle and Wavey's situation. It talks about two knots that differ only in that one is attached to "another object" and one is wrapped "around its own standing part." At this point readers don't know if the characters will be attached to each other or will remain solitary.

Chapters

The contrast of the old ways to the new is a reoccurring theme of the vignettes in these chapters. Like most of the older characters in this novel, Mavis Bangs seems to love to reminisce about the old traditional ways. She blames the ways of the modern world and the "wicked people" who bring them to Newfoundland for the awful things that have happened, referring to the murder of Bayonet Melville. She says "We had some good ways in the old times."

The character's dream of the old days contrasts humorously to the attitude of her young coworker, Dawn Budgel, who barely hears her because she's answering want ads. Dawn is desperate to get away from Killick-Claw by finding a modern job in a more modern place. Proulx brings in a bit of the generational divide that affects most communities, especially rural communities with shut-down industry, and Killick-Claw apparently is no exception.

Mavis's dissatisfaction with the modern world cannot compare to the effects felt by Wavey. After she rejects his amorous advances, Wavey tells Quoyle how and why her husband died on an oil rig. Traditionally, Newfoundlanders helped each other when they got into trouble, especially on the sea. Yet, the modern corporation that ran the oil rig cared nothing about its workers and everything about its profits. As the reader is surely aware, knowing and reacting to the weather and the conditions at sea is fundamental to life among Newfoundlanders. The callous indifference of the modern oil company contrasts sharply with the traditional knowledge and caring of native Newfoundlanders.

The old house embodies this incompatibility of the old and the new. Quoyle reflects on the fact no matter how much they fix up the old house it still looks "gaunt." He blames its forbidding appearance on its being dragged over the ice to its current location. He thinks this "journey had twisted the house out of true, wrenched the timbers into a rare geometry." This passage may indicate Quoyle is trying to free himself from the negative aspects of his past, as symbolized by the old house.

Curiously, it is Quoyle, not Aunt Agnis, who wants to find and confront the old man who is very likely a Quoyle ancestor. Paradoxically, Agnis is so identified as a Newfoundlander she doesn't need to consider these old places, people, and hair-raising tales. She is forward-looking and so dismisses them. It is Quoyle who believes in and worries about them as significant aspects of his past. Perhaps he will be able to let them go when he, too, begins to fully accept himself, discard his abusive past, and move forward.

Quoyle's self-confidence and sense of identity improve, as seen in his self-assured pursuit of Wavey. The image of the falling iceberg Wavey and Quoyle witness foreshadows what Wavey will soon tell Quoyle about her past.

Proulx makes use of another powerful simile to show Quoyle's pain as he listens to Wavey tell her tragic story: "Petal's essence riding under his skin like an injected vaccine against the plague of love." He wonders "What was the point of touching Wavey's dry hand" when they are both haunted by tragic marriages. Yet Wavey gently assures Quoyle she's refused his advances "not to hurt your feelings, but that's how it is."

Quoyle's epiphany transforms his sense of identity. The vision frees him from his self-absorption and shame and foreshadows his coming ability to accept himself completely. The relationship between Quoyle's identity and his ancestry is cleansed when he sees his ancestors as "rinsed of evil by the passage of time." Quoyle feels "a sense of events in trembling balance" and sees "everything ... encrusted with portent." The "trembling balance" suggests Quoyle may finally be able to free himself from the damage Petal has done to him and his family. The final phrase, "encrusted with portent," suggests the passing of time and the change it brings will allow Quoyle to accept his ancestry.

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