The Shipping News

Everyone loves a good story of personal triumph. Seeing a character beaten down and at their lowest point only to get back up, keep fighting and come out on top. No novel can be more satisfying! Annie Proulx's The Shipping News (1997) brings us Quoyle, a man who has lost it all and experienced such a devastating tragedy that he decides to pack up his life and move to Newfoundland – the home of his ancestors. But moving back to the home of your family's distant past can be a challenge in itself. Quoyle must learn of the disturbing, dark history of his heritage and tackle the abusive legacy left behind by his forefathers to pursue a better, more rewarding life for himself and his daughters. Ready to be inspired? Let's go!

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The Shipping News The Shipping News

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Table of contents

    The Shipping News: summary

    The Shipping News follows the story of Quoyle, a news reporter from New York whose life has been destroyed by a series of harrowing traumas. His parents have committed suicide; his abusive wife, Petal, died in a crash while attempting to leave the town with a lover and sell their daughters, Sunshine and Bunny, into the sex trade. The daughters are returned to Quoyle after being found by police, and after being convinced by an aunt, Agnis Hamm, he and the girls move to Newfoundland to start a new life.

    Newfoundland is an island on the coast of North America. It is historically famous for its fishing exports, cold weather and rugged coastline, perfectly suiting the lives of the local fishermen who reside there.

    After moving into the home from Agnis's childhood, Agnis starts upholstering for work and soon receives a task to upholster a ship by two strange clients, Bayonet and Silver Melville. Apparently, the ship once belonged to Hitler and has a destructive history. The couple eventually leaves without paying Agnis. Meanwhile, Quoyle finds work at the local newspaper. He is asked to report on shipping news, meaning he notes the departures and arrivals of ships. He also reports on traffic accidents, reminding him of his ex-wife's fate.

    As the family get used to their new home, the aunt sets up a new business, and Quoyle buys a boat after overcoming his fear of water. One of the daughters, Bunny, reports feeling terrified at a white dog she keeps seeing.

    The previous families that lived in the house, Quoyle's ancestors, had a bad reputation for being murderous. After spending the day with Billy Pretty, a fellow newspaper worker, the two find a suitcase in the water balanced on a rock containing the head of Bayonet Melville.

    Quoyle notices Wavey Prowse, an attractive woman in town who has a child with down syndrome. She carries herself uniquely, causing Quoyle to become attracted to her. The two meet and become physically intimate. However, Wavey, whose husband has died, gets cold feet and leaves because the physical intimacy with Quoyle reminds her of her marriage.

    Despite all of this, Quoyle is beginning to feel more at ease with his position in society. After feeling downcast and beaten by his trauma for so long, he finally starts to feel comfortable with himself. Billy Pretty informs Quoyle that he has a remaining relative, a cousin named Nolan, in Newfoundland that believes the family's house belongs to him.

    Strange things begin to happen. Quoyle keeps finding pieces of twine tied in knots left as a sign to him, and one night he awakens to see a stranger pointing a torch at him before fleeing his home. As all of this is happening, modern industry is beginning to enter Newfoundland, with bigger ships and oil rigs replacing previous smaller operations.

    Quoyle discovers a floating body, and his boat capsizes while he tries to save it. He is only saved from drowning by Jack Buggit, a friend and the editor at the newspaper Quoyle works for. The dead body floating in the water turns out to be that of Bayonet Melville, the man whose head Quoyle and Billy found in a suitcase earlier.

    The aunt and Quoyle decide to move out of the family home when winter comes around, with everyone going their separate ways. However, when Quoyle finds knotted twine at the entrance to his daughters' rooms, he decides he needs to find his cousin Nolan and put an end to the situation.

    Eventually, he locates Nolan, a poor, filthy, mentally unstable man living with a white dog – the one Bunny kept seeing. Quoyle realises there's no point in fighting with the man, so he returns with food for Nolan, who is eventually put in an asylum. Nolan also tells Quoyle that his father molested the aunt when she was young.

    Quoyle takes his job back as an editor in Newfoundland and grows closer to Wavey over time. Agnis returns to Newfoundland, where she sees the family home collapse into the water following a brutal storm. Wavey gives Quoyle's daughter, Bunny, a white dog. She loves this one.

    One day, Quoyle investigates why Jack Buggit has not returned home from a fishing trip. He is found drowned after getting his foot caught and pulled underwater. However, after some time, he coughs and is revived. Much like Jack saved Quoyle from drowning, Quoyle returns the favour and Jack lives. The novel ends with Quoyle and Wavey arranging to marry.

    The Shipping News: characters

    Let's look at some key characters in The Shipping News.


    Quoyle is the main character and changes the most as the narrative progresses. At the novel's beginning, he is lonely, obese, and miserable. His lack of confidence allows him to be treated cruelly by his wife, Petal. Once Quoyle moves to Newfoundland with his daughters, the opportunity for a new life arises. Quoyle begins writing for a newspaper, builds his confidence, and tackles his family's uncomfortable past. In doing so, he creates a more stable future for himself and his family.

    Sunshine and Bunny

    Both Sunshine and Bunny dearly love their Father. They are one of Quoyle's major reasons for confronting and solving his problems. Sunshine is the youngest daughter and is relaxed and mellow, while Bunny, the eldest daughter, is more emotionally anxious than her sister. Bunny is also afraid, as she keeps seeing a white dog that no one else can.

    Agnis Hamm (the aunt)

    The aunt is Quoyle's father's sister. She is determined, bold, and motivational. The aunt pushes Quoyle to move to Newfoundland to help him because she understands the trauma he has been through. She experienced trauma when Quoyle's father sexually assaulted her at a young age.

    Billy Pretty

    Billy symbolises the old way of life. He is a second cousin to Jack, works at the local newspaper, and is a fisherman. As a traditional local of Newfoundland, Billy misses the past, a time before powerful companies took over the fishing industry.

    Jack Buggit

    Jack is the editor of the newspaper, and, like his second cousin, Billy, is a fisherman at heart. Jack often skips work to fish, but still runs his paper with authority.

    The Shipping News: setting

    The Shipping News is set in Newfoundland, which is an island near the far north-eastern corner of Canada. The rough waters of Newfoundland are treacherous, and play a major role in the play's narrative.

    The Shipping News, a rocky coast in Newfoundland with a lighthouse and Canadian flag, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Newfoundland coast.

    Furthermore, as Newfoundland is historically a town that relies on local industries like fishing, Proulx shows how large-scale operations can impact men who make their living through small-scale business.

    The Shipping News: analysis

    The primary focus of The Shipping News, and the main concern that all other themes link to, is that of change. The novel sets up its protagonist, Quoyle, at his lowest point, and follows his journey to better himself and create a more promising future for his family. The history of his family is a source of shame for Quoyle. His father was an abusive rapist, and his ancestors were murderous, drunks, and generally unpleasant.

    The trauma caused by Quoyle's upbringing foreboded the shy, unconfident adult he would become, making him more susceptible to his emotionally abusive, psychologically manipulative relationship with ex-girlfriend Petal. Despite the harrowing pain Quoyle endures, he still manages to find the good in himself and others and comes out feeling more confident and self-assured.

    In this way, The Shipping News positions itself not as a tragic novel, but as one of hope, by showing that it is always possible to alter your life's path.

    The changes that Quoyle experiences in his life are mirrored both thematically and symbolically throughout the novel. Quoyle's family home is the opposite of change – a sturdy reminder of his dark heritage that only collapses into the water once Quoyle has changed for the better and left his past behind. On a broader scale, technological change begins to affect smaller businesses, and characters tell stories of a way of life that is now lost. Change, both sudden and gradual, is at the heart of The Shipping News, and all characters are impacted by it.

    The Shipping News: themes

    Let's look in more detail at the concept of change by looking at some of the themes that relate to it.


    The novel sets up multiple generations of Quoyle's family, allowing Proulx to emphasise the effects that generations have on one another. Quoyle's parents mistreat him, his ancestors are portrayed to be murderous, and Nolan reveals that his father raped his aunt when she was young. In showing a history of tragedy and trauma, Proulx also shows that Quoyle can break the chain of malice and abuse within his family for generations. By travelling to Newfoundland, the home of his ancestors, Quoyle is also travelling back to his past, where he can confront his dark family heritage, heal himself and create a future free from abuse for his daughters.

    The family home

    For Quoyle, the house is a constant link to his ancestry, and therefore a continuous link to his family's dark history. As the house is chained to the rock, it cannot be moved, and must forever remain, anchoring itself as a permanent reminder of the chain of abuse that has lasted for generations. Once Quoyle breaks this abusive chain, the chains to the house also break, and it falls into the water. Symbolically, the link to the old world has been shattered, and a new, brighter future can finally be built for Quoyle and his family.

    Technological change

    In the novel, larger international companies begin to make their way into Newfoundland, both in search of oil and to replace small fishing businesses with larger-scale operations. Many local fishermen are left behind with no feasible way of keeping up. Annie Proulx depicts the social effects of large-scale technological change on the individual. Cod and gulls are lost to oil spills, and fish supplies are at a devastating low. Fishermen like Jack Buggit and Billy Pretty cannot compete with huge yearlong operations and are left without purpose, longing for a return to a simpler past.

    Annie Proulx is mirroring actual events here. In 1992, as Proulx was creating the novel, cod supplies in North America fell to 1% of their previous levels. Overfishing from large industries was the fundamental cause of the issue. Local fishermen who had built their lives around the profession for decades were left out of steady work. The fishing industry had collapsed.

    The Shipping News - Key takeaways

    • The Shipping News was published in 1997, and written by American author Annie Proulx.
    • The novel starts off as a tragedy, but ends as a testament to hope, making it an inspiring story.
    • The main focal point of the novel is change and the effects that it has on all characters.
    • The key change in the novel is Quoyle's change to becoming more self-assured and confident, leaving the dark past of his family behind him to create a more stable future for himself and his daughters.
    • Some of the key themes in the novel are; Quoyle's ancestry, the family home, and the technological change affecting Newfoundland.
    The Shipping News The Shipping News
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    Frequently Asked Questions about The Shipping News

    Where was The Shipping News set? 

    The Shipping News is set in New York, USA.

    What genre is The Shipping News

    The genre of The Shipping News is domestic fiction.

    What is The Shipping News book about? 

    The Shipping News is the story of Quoyle and his struggle to rebuild a better life, after experiencing a series of traumatic events.

    What is the theme of The Shipping News

    The overarching theme of The Shipping News is that of change and the effect it has on characters.

    Who wrote The Shipping News? 

    The Shipping News was authored by E. Annie Proulx.

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