The Shipping News | Study Guide

E. Annie Proulx

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The Shipping News | Plot Summary

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Quoyle grew up in an emotionally and sometimes physically abusive home. Because he was constantly taunted about his weight and appearance as a child, he matured into a self-conscious and insecure adult. As a young man, Quoyle worked odd jobs, including a temporary, periodic job on a small local newspaper in his upstate New York town. Quoyle was amazed when the flashy Petal Bear seemed to fall for him. They married and had two daughters, Bunny and Sunshine. Quoyle truly loved Petal, but she spent most of her time with other men. Finally, she left Quoyle and her daughters to run off with another man, but she was killed in a car crash as she fled her family.

Now Quoyle, a journalist, does not know what to do with his life. Agnis Hamm, his aunt, talks him into relocating to the old family house on the Canadian island of Newfoundland. Life in the small town of Killick-Claw, Newfoundland, leaves Quoyle disoriented. The dilapidated old house and the way of life of the fishermen on the island are hard for Quoyle to adjust to. However, his boss at the upstate New York newspaper refers him to the owner of The Gammy Bird, a weekly Killick-Claw newspaper. Quoyle is hired to write the shipping news for the paper, recording the ships that come and go from the harbor in Killick-Claw and nearby towns. Quoyle is nervous; he knows nothing about ships or shipping, but he's helped by the editor and his coworkers. Quoyle is also charged with writing about and photographing car crashes, a type of news that makes him uneasy because it reminds him of Petal.

Quoyle and Aunt Agnis get to know the contractors who help them fix up the decrepit old house where they must live. Quoyle gains some confidence as he tries to fix up parts of the house himself. He even buys a barely seaworthy secondhand boat to help him get around. Using the boat helps him overcome his fear of water. Meanwhile, his aunt establishes a business making upholstery for yachts and ships. She's stiffed by the owners of a yacht that supposedly had belonged to Hitler, but Quoyle writes a profile of the boat and its owners for the newspaper. The article is so good he's tasked with profiling other interesting craft that dock in town.

Through his friendship with coworker Billy Pretty, Quoyle learns about his Newfoundland ancestors. They had a reputation for criminality, including murder and piracy. Everyone in town knows about his ancestors, but they do not judge Quoyle. Quoyle is accepted for who he is, and he begins to become less self-conscious and accept himself.

Quoyle also meets Wavey Prowse, a widow whose husband died at sea. She has a young son with Down syndrome. Wavey is a strong and self-reliant, and somewhat reserved, woman. She and Quoyle begin to have feelings for each other.

Bunny, Quoyle's older daughter, is a feisty and straight-talking girl, but she is also fearful. She fears death and is confused about where her mother is (she was told Petal "went to sleep"). She is also terrified of noises in the night and of a "white dog with red eyes" she claims to see around the old house. Some of her supposed imaginings may in fact be the work of an old man named Nolan, a distant relative of the Quoyle clan. Nolan leaves bits of knotted rope around the old house as a kind of hex, and these further frighten Bunny. When Quoyle goes to Nolan's house to confront him about scaring the children, he finds that Nolan has a white dog. Perhaps Bunny's "visions" are not imaginary after all. Although for a time Quoyle tries to help the destitute Nolan out, eventually he must be put in an asylum.

The distance and bad roads from the old Quoyle house to the village of Killick-Claw where both Quoyle and Aunt Agnis work make it difficult for them to move to town. They rent a small house and adapt to life in the small, close-knit village. Over months the two middle-aged single parents develop a friendship, then explore the first tentative gestures of further intimacy. They are both quiet, thoughtful, and kind and have many pleasant conversations together.

On a walk one day Quoyle spots a dead body floating in a sheltered cove. He runs to his badly made boat and tries to get help, but his boat sinks and Quoyle is stranded far off the coast, clutching for dear life to a buoyant, insulated ice chest. Jack Buggit, Quoyle's boss, seems to have second sight. He intuits someone is in trouble out at sea, so he takes his boat out and finds and rescues Quoyle.

Back at the newspaper, a conflict arises between those who want to live according to old Newfoundland traditions, such as fishing and timbering, and those who embrace more modern ways of living, such as drilling for offshore oil. Throughout the book, the tension between tradition and modernism is explored. Most of the characters are traditionalists to some extent. Many are master craftsmen or, like Billy Pretty, are repositories of traditional tales and stories.

When Nutbeem, a British newspaper employee, finally finishes building his new boat, the whole newspaper staff and most of the townsmen get together for a farewell party. Alas, many of the partygoers get drunk and destroy the new boat. Nutbeem has planned to sail to Brazil, but he now must change his plans and fly there.

The "modernist" editor of the paper, Tert Card, leaves Killick-Claw to write about oil rigs and ships for an industry newsletter, and Quoyle is made managing editor of the newspaper. Spring comes after a terrible winter. Some of the Newfoundland men try to make a living fishing or lobstering, but the fisheries are so depleted it's almost impossible to support a family. The economics of the island form another strand in the tradition-versus-modernity debate. Some characters are committed to staying on Newfoundland and finding a way to make a living there. Others dream of moving away to cities where they can get jobs.

A violent storm hits Killick-Claw while Quoyle and his family are staying in town for the winter. When the storm passes, they see it has destroyed their old house and dragged it out to sea. Quoyle and his daughters must live permanently in a house in town, while Aunt Agnis buys a store in town to sell her upholstery.

Jack Buggit, the newspaper owner, has an accident at sea and is believed to have drowned. Yet at his wake, he suddenly starts to cough and sits up in his coffin, resurrected. Soon afterward, Quoyle and Wavey get married.

The Shipping News Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Young Quoyle is emotionally abused and lacks confidence.

Rising Action

2 Quoyle marries Petal, who later dies. They have two girls.

3 Quoyle, his kids, and Aunt Agnis move to Newfoundland.

4 The local newspaper hires Quoyle to write the shipping news.

5 Quoyle nearly drowns when his old boat capsizes.

6 Quoyle is made managing editor of the local newspaper.

7 Quoyle forms a relationship with Wavey, a widow.

8 Quoyle has a handcrafted, sea-worthy boat made.


9 The old Quoyle house blows into the sea in a terrible storm.

Falling Action

10 Quoyle buys the Burke house in town.

11 Jack Buggit is "resurrected" from the dead.


12 Quoyle and Wavey get married.

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