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The Shipping News | Symbols

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Knots

Each chapter opens with an epigraph, many of them taken from Ashley's Book of Knots, a real manual first published in 1944. These epigraphs serve to foreshadow a character's predicament or emotional state, an event that is about to happen, or something else significant in the chapter. Most of the epigraphs deal with knots of some sort, ranging from nautical ones to more figurative ones, such as braids or a straightjacket. For example, a particular knot may represent the entanglement—or perhaps the disentanglement—that Quoyle or someone close will experience in the chapter.

Epigraphs occasionally come from other books, such as the Mariner's Dictionary and Quipus and Witches' Knots. They, too, offer clues to the events in the chapter or help explain some nautical term or seafaring event from the chapter.

In epigraphs and throughout the novel, knots symbolize attachments. Some attachments are toxic or lethal, like the "strangle knot" of Quoyle's relationship to Petal and the slingstone knot that nearly kills Jack Buggit. Some, like those Nolan leaves around, are used as "hexes." Others, however, provide security and safety. Agnis uses knots and stitches in her upholstery work, which provides her livelihood. Quoyle is like the flat namesake "coil" knot at the beginning of the novel; transformed by his life in Newfoundland, he will discover "new knots" by the story's end, particularly in his marriage to Wavey.

Quoyle's Chin

Quoyle has an enormous chin, which, as a young man, made him very self-conscious. He thought his chin made him look ugly, so he almost always covered his chin with his hand when he was with other people. When he is near any conflict or potential disagreement, he reflexively covers his chin with his hand to hide his "ugliness." As Quoyle makes a new life for himself in Newfoundland, his self-consciousness about his chin begins to fade. In fact, he begins using it in gestures that show his newfound confidence.

Old Quoyle House

The Quoyles and Aunt Agnis come to Newfoundland to live in the Quoyles' ancestral home. This is a dilapidated old house anchored by cables to a piece of land near the sea. The old house represents the Quoyles' ancestry and their attachment to their native Newfoundland. In the same way, it signifies the old, traditional ways of Newfoundlanders. The house belongs to the Quoyles, and this connection gives Quoyle an "in" with the locals, who are more willing to accept him into their community because of it. The house is so decrepit Quoyle must hire local contractors to help him fix it up. By hiring his neighbors to fix it up and make it livable, Quoyle strengthens his connection to the close-knit community.

The old house also represents Quoyle's former, ruined life and his healing after Petal's death. The widower and father is still quite emotionally shattered when he comes to live in the old house, so as he fixes it up, he is also fixing himself up. Quoyle's plan is to make the house the family home, but it turns out to be too difficult given the logistics of his life there.

As his confidence grows, the meaning of the house changes. Once Quoyle has gained some traction and security at the newspaper, it is abandoned (at least for a time) and then finally swept away in a storm. The demise of the ancestral Quoyle house represents the sweeping away of the old, insecure Quoyle and the emergence of the confident man. More than that, it represents the emergence and liberation of all of the Quoyles from a violent and criminal past. They no longer need the house to feel a connection to Killick-Claw, Newfoundland. They have found a home in the community of people and in the love they share.

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