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The Shipping News | Context



Geography & Climate

Newfoundland is an island in the North American continent near the easternmost edge of Canada. Summers in Newfoundland are moderately warm, with temperatures averaging about 59°F, but it is generally quite cold in the winter, with low temperatures dipping to near 0°F but more often hovering at about 20°F. All the water surrounding Newfoundland causes passing air currents to pick up lots of moisture, so rain, snow, and storms are fairly common. Storms are used as warnings and catalysts in The Shipping News.

Newfoundland's largely rocky shoreline is a haven for shorebirds, and the island serves as a breeding ground for black ducks and eiders, also called gammy birds. The Gammy Bird is the name of the fictional Newfoundland newspaper where Quoyle blossoms as a reporter.

Settlement and Ancestry

Explorer John Cabot landed on Newfoundland in 1497 and planted the British flag on the island. Cabot's descriptions of the island's seemingly limitless fisheries attracted fishermen to the waters around the island, though the population grew slowly. Today, most Newfoundlanders are descended from Europe, especially southwestern England and southeastern Ireland, with much smaller populations of Scottish, Welsh, and French. The greatest influx of European settlers occurred from the mid-17th through the mid-19th centuries. Most modern Newfoundlanders can trace their family history back 100 years or more to the island's early settlers. Presumably Quoyle's Newfoundland ancestors are of European extraction. When Quoyle arrives on the island, the Newfoundland natives mistake him for a local.

Rise and Fall of the Fishing Industry

Fishing was the mainstay of Newfoundland's economy for centuries. The waters around Newfoundland contained a seemingly infinite supply of flounder, hake, and especially cod. Newfoundland's fishers made a good living, as did migrant fishers from Europe and other parts of the world. Fish-processing plants also provided many jobs for local residents.

In a misguided move to further boost Newfoundland's economy during the last half of the 20th century, the Canadian government increased the number of fish that could be harvested. Huge fishing boats used immense nets to sweep vast numbers of fish out of Newfoundland waters. A single drag of a net routinely hauled in 25,000 pounds of cod and other fish. A single trawler could catch 200 tons of cod in one hour; many could also process and freeze the fish. These factory ships plied the waters 24 hours a day, every day of the year, except in the worst storms. The cod harvest peaked in 1968, and by 1975, the harvest of Newfoundland cod had declined 60 percent. In addition, small-scale local fishers could not compete with the factory fishing trawlers that scooped up most of the fish. The economy of Newfoundland began to falter.

The Newfoundland Grand Banks cod fishery had been the most productive fishery on the planet. In July 1992, the cod harvest reached its lowest recorded level, and the Canadian government implemented a moratorium on all cod fishing off the coasts of Newfoundland. There were too few fish left to reproduce and the cod population could not be maintained. The people of Canada—and especially Newfoundland—suffered enormously, with 40,000 jobs lost. The Shipping News is set during this time of change as the economy shifted toward the oil industry, eradicating traditional ways that revolved around fishing and boats and raising new environmental issues.


E. Annie Proulx uses an epigraph, or short quotation, to introduce each chapter of The Shipping News. This literary device focuses the reader's attention on the theme most prominently exhibited in that chapter. The author also ties the epigraphs into the novel's main symbol: knots.

Most of the chapters are introduced with the description of a distinct knot and a corresponding quotation from The Ashley Book of Knots (1944). In this text, author Clifford W. Ashley describes the names, classifications, uses, procedures, and history for nearly 3,900 different kinds of knots. The text also includes illustrations and anecdotes. This text, which Proulx purchased at a garage sale for less than one dollar, inspired the structure of The Shipping News.

A few chapters contain an opening quotation from The Mariner's Dictionary (1952) written by Gershom Bradford. This illustrated text chronicles the development of American sailing vessels. These quotations support the novel's recurring motifs of water and boats.

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