The Shipping News | Study Guide

E. Annie Proulx

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The Shipping News | Chapters 31–33 | Summary



Chapter 31: Sometimes You Just Lose It

Quoyle is writing a column about a ship that crashed into a rocky cliff. The ship's watchman had fallen asleep but was awakened by the collision. Tert Card charges into the newspaper office yelling about how cold the weather is and saying he can't wait to move to Florida. Billy Pretty states he would "never go down there" to Florida. Billy is writing about the strange penchant of criminals to strip naked in court. He recounts a host of other bizarre crimes and incidents in Newfoundland. Nutbeem is writing a story about the government health service and hair removal and one about a cholera epidemic in Peru. Quoyle's got his ship collision story as well as one about a truck that seemingly spontaneously combusted. Nutbeem confirms he's leaving for the Caribbean the next Tuesday, even though the sea can be dangerous in winter, and there's to be a going-away party at Nutbeem's trailer on Friday. Billy Pretty says he thinks Quoyle will be the next to leave, but Quoyle insists he's in Newfoundland to stay.

Chapter 32: The Hairy Devil

On Friday Quoyle goes over to Nutbeem's trailer to help set up the party drinks and food, complete with lots of liquor. Quoyle looks over Nutbeem's trailer as a possible residence for the winter. Giant stereo speakers take up most of the living room. As guests begin to arrive, Tert Card is already drunk. "A crowd of men, shouting and swaying" push into the trailer to get booze and snacks. The trailer rocks on its cinder-block foundation. Quoyle enjoys himself in the "mood of rough excitement" of the men-only party. He notes the party felt more like "a parking-lot fight ... than a jolly good-bye" celebration.

Tert Card recounts the long story of the hairy devil that lived in a hole in Labrador, an island near Newfoundland. It seems Card's father's friend disappeared down the hole and then saw the hairy devil with its red eyes jump in afterward.

The party crowd grows, becoming huge. Quoyle gets drunk. Men start throwing and destroying things. Fights erupt. The music from Nutbeem's speakers is deafening. Some partygoers kick the cinder blocks out from under the trailer, which then begins to list dangerously. It was a "swaying, wild madness" that overcame the partygoers. One drunk picks up an ax and, ignoring Nutbeem's panicked protests, leads a crowd of drunken men to Nutbeem's new boat. The men in the crowd, armed with whatever tool of destruction they can find, hack and rip the new boat to splinters. "In ten minutes Nutbeem's boat was underwater."

Quoyle does not take part in destroying the boat. In the wee hours, he staggers away from the trailer and through town. He looks in neighbors' windows, and he sees Wavey playing the accordion. He forgets to return to Beety's house and instead heads for the inn.

Chapter 33: The Cousin

Quoyle wakes in his inn room, sick with a hangover. He refuses breakfast, as he has to get things from the old house. When Quoyle finally locates his car, he drives to Beety Buggit's house. When asked, he says he remembers nothing of the party. Beety tells Quoyle the drunken men sank Nutbeem's boat. Quoyle is astonished as he'd had no part in it. He's also surprised the trailer is damaged and probably uninhabitable. Beety says the Burkes might now be willing to rent their vacant house.

Quoyle leaves and drives to the old Quoyle house out on Quoyle's Point. The desolate house feels "wrong" to him. Quoyle goes upstairs and finds "lengths of knotted twine on the threshold of each room." He is enraged. He puts the knots in his pocket and decides to go find Nolan.

The old village that once occupied the area around Capsize Cove is a deserted ruin. At the edge of the village, he sees smoke rising from a shed and finds his cousin Nolan inside. The wrecked place stinks. Nolan looks "cadaverous" and ragged. His white dog is old, nearly dead. Quoyle recognizes a version of his large chin on the old man's wrinkled face. Quoyle thinks Nolan is insane, "mad with loneliness." Quoyle takes the knots out of his pocket and drops them on the floor in front of Nolan. Nolan grabs them and throws them into the fire. "They'll never undo now," Nolan asserts. Quoyle hasn't the heart to argue with him. He just says, "You don't need to do this," and then leaves.

Quoyle drives to Alvin Yark's boat workshop. Yark says he's found a good tree with good wood for Quoyle's boat. Yark describes his process of boatbuilding while Quoyle helps him lift timbers.

Quoyle leaves to visit Nutbeem's trailer. It's back up on its cinder blocks, but it's still heavily damaged. Nutbeem's boat is a total loss, but Nutbeem is philosophical about his situation. "I wouldn't have made it anyway," he says. He decides he'll fly to Brazil instead. As he rhapsodizes about the great seafood in Brazil, Quoyle and most of the other hungover men at the trailer grow queasy. Billy sums the situation up, saying simply, "It's too bad."



  • The epigraph to Chapter 31 is about both traditions and possessions. It refers to attaching lanyards to things you want to keep from falling off a boat, foreshadowing Nutbeem's loss of his boat and his trailer.
  • The epigraph to Chapter 32 discusses how to "untangle" a snarl or knot by allowing it "to unfold itself." This reflects the best way for Quoyle and Nutbeem to deal with the destruction that occurred during Nutbeem's going-away party.
  • The epigraph to Chapter 33 speaks of knots as potential "lethal weapons." This aptly describes how cousin Nolan thinks of them.


Sections of these chapters explore the role of insanity that undermine the identity of some Newfoundlanders. In Chapter 31, aptly titled "Sometimes You Just Lose It," the newspapermen describe a litany of crazy behavior among Newfoundlanders whom they're reporting on. Insanity caused by drunkenness is also on display in Chapter 32 when, out of their minds on alcohol, a group of men destroy the boat they have come to celebrate. Quoyle's cousin Nolan also seems mad, perhaps from loneliness or lovelessness or extreme poverty. With all these stories, Proulx starkly illuminates the psychological damage caused by Newfoundland's isolation, severe weather, and financial hardship. Pressures that would weigh on any community take a special toll on the marginalized.

Quoyle's growth as a confident character is reflected in his changing attitude toward the old house. His reaction to being back at the house is revealing. He now understands the house is "wrong ... had always been wrong," and he understands its atmosphere is poisonous, like "odorless gas." He thinks of it as "a bound prisoner straining to get free ... a tethered animal, dumb but feeling." These descriptions foreshadow what will happen to the house. For now Quoyle feels "swallowed by the shouting past" whenever he is near or in the old house. Quoyle longs to escape it, and with it, some of the negative aspects of his ancestors.

Proulx has created a unique character in Quoyle. Just when readers expect the protagonist to shine forth on his journey to self-confidence and help stop the destruction of Nutbeem's boat, Quoyle fails. This protagonist, it turns out, is not a hero, but a flawed human.

Nutbeem has built his new boat based on a traditional—even ancient—model. Yet again, Nutbeem's situation creates a type of situational irony. Nutbeem's new boat was proudly constructed in old, traditional ways with knots and lashings instead of nails and screws and other modern materials. He also protected the necessary items on his boat with knots and lashings. He could not protect the boat, however, from a group of drunk, rowdy men.

A more wholesome tradition—that of making home-baked bread—is under threat. Beety fears her bread-baking days may be over once a new (modern) bakery is opened in town. Here, again, a valued tradition is imperiled by modern-day business practices. Still, the author reveals there's still hope. Beety has taught four-year-old Sunshine how to knit. Knitting your own warm clothes is a tradition that might be carried on by the younger generation in Newfoundland.

Other Newfoundland traditions appear in Chapter 33. A taxi driver tells Quoyle the party he attended the night before was no big deal. "I seen pardies go on three, four days. Not no more, my son. Them good days is gone." Perhaps he was exaggerating, but the incident points up how native Newfoundlanders frequently compare present-day events with the way things were in the past. Alvin Yark compares his quite astonishing skill as a boat maker to the skill of his "old Uncle Les, Les Budgel." Although Yark uses the most traditional methods of boatbuilding, he's still in awe of the even greater skill and knowledge his Uncle Les had and which is now lost.

Modernity's devastation of traditional life in Newfoundland is exemplified by Capsize Cove. In its dereliction and abandonment, it draws a sharp contrast between the past and the present. What was once a thriving fishing village is now a ghost town, with only crazy cousin Nolan living alone in a broken-down shed. In fact, the abandoned village is described much the same as Nolan—as "skeletal ... [with] rotten planks fallen into the sea."

The symbolism of knots plays an important role in this section of the book. At the party Quoyle "began to enjoy himself in a savage, lost way, the knots of fatherhood loosened for the night, thoughts of Petal and Wavey quenched." Drinking allows Quoyle to free himself, at least for a while, from the knots binding him to his responsibilities, his daughters, the pain of his loss of Petal, and his uncertainty about Wavey. In this passage the knots represent mental and emotional bonds.

Nolan, in contrast, uses knots as weapons to put "hexes" on the interlopers who have taken over the house that, by rights, might be his. When Quoyle confronts Nolan with the knots he'd left on the threshold of the old house's bedrooms, Nolan throws them into the stove to burn. Now "they're fixed by fire," he says. Nolan is a crazy old man, but in a way, his knots accomplish his mission. They terrify Quoyle's children and make life at the old house more difficult than it should have been.

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