The Shipping News | Study Guide

E. Annie Proulx

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The Shipping News | Chapters 4–6 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 4: Cast Away

Quoyle, his daughters, Aunt Agnis, and her dog, Warren, take the ferry heading to Newfoundland. Quoyle thinks Aunt Agnis's argument he should "start a new life" in a "new place" makes sense. He has nothing back in New York; he has no job and his wife is dead. Quoyle received insurance money after Petal's accident and decides to use the money to build a new life for him and his children. They'll start their new life in the town of Killick-Claw, Newfoundland.

Before he leaves New York, Quoyle phones Partridge, who's doing well as a trucker in California. Quoyle tells his friend his news. Two days later, Partridge phones Quoyle to tell him he knows of a local newspaper in Newfoundland looking for a reporter to cover the shipping news. Partridge suggests Quoyle contact Tert Card, the managing editor.

It's a long trip to Newfoundland—a 1,500-mile drive followed by a ferry ride. A ferry passenger approves of Agnis's "comin' home." Agnis thinks of the history of the island, its inhabitants, its long-gone fisheries, its sometimes frightful weather, and the inhabitants' struggle for survival. She lived in Newfoundland as a girl and remembers her life then. Her family moved to the States when she turned 17, a month after her father died when "a knot securing a ... hook failed."

Chapter 5: A Rolling Hitch

Quoyle drives the family along the west coast of Newfoundland toward Quoyle's Point, where the old Quoyle house still sits. The land is "fissured" and the "tombstone houses" are visible from the road. Out to sea, they see immense icebergs on the water. Their ancestral house is distant and remote, and the road narrows to two lanes as they travel on toward the isolation of Quoyle's Point. The road "home" is "churned mud." Quoyle doubts his car can make all 17 miles of it. After three miles, even this road gets wilder and more impassable. Quoyle, who sometimes thinks in headlines, muses, "Car Disintegrates on Remote Goatpath." With the road ahead little more than mud strewn with rocks, Quoyle wants to wait until morning before attempting the final 11 miles to the house. The kids are hungry but there's little to eat. They spend the night sleeping in the car and in a tent.

The next morning, they tackle the road again. In daylight it looks more manageable and soon becomes a decent gravel road. The road ends at a parking lot next to a concrete building, the old shuttered Glove Factory. They wonder what to do next. While they're making tea on the camp stove, Aunt Agnis spies the house in the distance and they all hike toward their new home.

The "gaunt" house is anchored to rock by cables. It tilts and rocks in the wind. Many of its windows are broken and there are holes in the roof. The inside is not much better. Wooden planks anchored by rusty nails cover the windows. Inside, the house is cold and damp; the stairs on the "funnel"-like staircase are concave with wear and ancient wallpaper droops off the walls. It all looks "mean and hopeless." The family starts to clean and fix it up a bit.

Quoyle starts a fire outside; they cook dinner and eat it by the campfire. Bunny asks if Petal is going to live with them, but Quoyle tells her Petal is "asleep ... forever." He's gripped by grief. Bunny wanders away toward the back of the house and screams as she sees (or thinks she sees) a white dog with red eyes. Quoyle comes running but can't find any white dog nearby. Even Aunt Agnis's dog, Warren, "snuffled without enthusiasm."

Aunt Agnis is thankful she's home again at last. "Nothing would drive [the Quoyles] out a second time," she thinks.

Chapter 6: Between Ships

Quoyle and Aunt Agnis discuss the difficulties living in the derelict house. Maybe they should rent a place in town while the house is repaired. Agnis suggests Quoyle get a boat to avoid driving on the terrible, roundabout roads, but Quoyle fears water and storms. Agnis tells Quoyle she earns a living as an upholsterer, specializing in yachts and ships.

Quoyle and Aunt Agnis make a list of all the repairs needed on the house. They drive away but even though it's May it starts to snow. They are soon engulfed in a raging snowstorm. They drive to a seedy motel where even the "deluxe room" is a dump, but it's the best they can do under the circumstances. Quoyle is troubled by thoughts of Petal. He tells his daughters a made-up story as he puts them to bed. In the morning, the blizzard is still raging and will continue for another whole day. "I like a storm, but this is more than enough," Agnis comments. On the second day, the weather warms and the snow turns to rain.

Analysis

Epigraphs

  • The epigraph to Chapter 4 defines the term cast away, which refers to how Quoyle feels as he's forced by circumstances to leave his home in New York and head for a new life in Newfoundland.
  • The epigraph to Chapter 5 references the condition of the old house on the point. It is anchored by cables to a rock, somewhat like the way a "rolling hitch" is said to anchor something to a surface that "is not too slick."
  • The epigraph to Chapter 6 contains lyrics from a traditional song, which refers to the fact the house needs such extensive repairs the family must "leave 'er" and live in town while the repairs are being made.

Chapters

The "stouthearted" Aunt Agnis is looking forward to returning to her ancestral home—Newfoundland. The setting there is seen through her eyes and is enriched by her evocation of the island as the place where she grew up and the home of her ancestors. She is carrying the ashes of her dead father, who had wanted them scattered in his native Newfoundland. He died because of a faulty knot, which represents a break, or untangling, of Agnis's family from their home in Newfoundland. On the trip over, she recalls scenes from her childhood. Clearly, Agnis is emotionally attached to her ancestors and her family, as well as to the ancestral home of her clan. Even the site of the house they are to live in is located at a place named after the family: Quoyle's Point.

The phrase "cast away," the title of Chapter 4, aptly sums up Quoyle's situation. His life in New York ended in a disaster when Petal was killed. He is now a castaway, but one whose fate is not to drown at sea but to find a new life in a new place. His lack of comfort at sea stands in sharp contrast to his aunt's, setting up an emotional conflict Proulx will gradually resolve in the course of the novel.

Bunny's character is clarified in these chapters. She is bold and straightforward, sometimes uncomfortably so for adults. She can declare the old house "awful" while at the same time wondering where her room will be. She's quite self-centered and, unlike her father, self-assured in her perceptions and feelings. Yet, as readers will see throughout the novel, Bunny cannot come to terms with her mother's death—or with death itself. Partly this is because of the unsatisfying and false idea of death she got from Quoyle, who told her Petal was "asleep ... forever." True to form, Bunny counters with: "If I was asleep I would wake up." Bunny's frequent nightmares likely have to do with her fear of death or her confusion about what really happened to her mother. Her terror at seeing the white dog with red eyes may or may not be real, but she reacts strongly to the dog because it reminds her of death.

The old house at Quoyle's Point symbolizes ancestry as well as the conflict between tradition and what is new and modern. Described in anthropomorphic terms, it seems almost to be a character in these chapters. It is "gaunt," with a large window "flanked by two smaller ones, as an adult might stand with protective arms around children's shoulders." As it rocks in the wind, it "sings through [its] cables," and sometimes during fierce winter storms the wind causes the house to make a "moaning" sound. It is a place that links the present to the past and to generations of family. It will also be a key link between Quoyle and his children and the local, native Newfoundlanders, who value their own and welcome them back to the ancestral place where they belong.

The house is obviously a wreck, much as Quoyle's life at this time is a ruin. But he and Aunt Agnis will see to it the house—and his life—are repaired and made livable again. She contemplates the house: "Miracle it's standing." It may be a miracle, but so is the transformation the house will effect on their lives.

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