Use of Place and Setting in The Shipping News

Superficially, Newfoundland is merely the setting of E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News. More fundamentally, however, Newfoundland is instrumental to the action, characters and ideas of the novel. Newfoundland’s ruggedness generates the unique conditions in which the development of the protagonist, Quoyle, is possible. There, he finds a community in which he completely belongs and, in turn, develops resilience and a sense of self that allow him to overcome the past. The contrast between Mockingburg and Newfoundland also allows Proulx to discuss more obvious contemporary issues, such as rural decline and modernisation. Before looking at how Proulx uses place to develop the novel’s characters and themes, it is important to examine place as a literary technique to provide insights into the characters and foreshadow imminent events. Descriptions of the weather, natural environment and sea are constant, often beginning chapters or sections (including chapters 11, 15, 19 and 24). This creates a vivid impression of the remoteness and harshness of Newfoundland. Rather than didactically explaining why Newfoundland is so important, Proulx uses these snapshots to provide a more nuanced sense of significance. These descriptions also bring depth to the characters. When Agnis is recalling sexual assault at the hands of her half-brother Guy, she remembers ‘the clouds in thin rolls like grey pencils in a box… Deepest silence, the vapour of her breath floated from her mouth… She was eleven or twelve.’ (p.225) Her comparison of the clouds to ‘grey pencils in a box’ or the image of her breath on the air is not only haunting, but also very child-like. The vividness of her memories suggests that the impact this event had on Agnis was very severe.Further, Proulx uses place to foreshadow the action that is about to occur. Just before Billy Pretty and Tert Card have an argument about the future of Newfoundland, Quoyle describes the bay crawling with ‘whitecaps like maggots seething in a broad wound. A rough morning.’ (p.197). The image of the rough seas echoes the rough morning Quoyle does in fact have, finding himself in the middle of Pretty and Card’s argument. Similarly, prior to Nutbeem’s party ‘a warm fluke, a tongue of balmy air, licked out from the mainland and tempered the crawling ice margins.’ (p.250) Despite the unfortunate events that occur at the party, this rare and enjoyable change in the weather foreshadows a rare and mostly enjoyable night. The first idea from The Shipping News that is inextricably linked to place is the need to overcome the past. In Newfoundland, Quoyle develops resilience, an acceptance of the nature of life and death, and an understanding of his ancestors, all of which allow him to deal better with trauma. The Killick-Claw community demonstrates to Quoyle that life is a constant struggle that requires adaptability. One small example of this is Quoyle’s changing approach to the local food. At the beginning, he thinks the coffee is ‘filthy’ (p.53), but by the novel’s end he admits that ‘fried bologna isn’t bad’ (p.252). This adaptability is reinforced by the behaviour of other characters around him. The Aunt embodies practicality; in the way she relocates to Newfoundland, trains herself in an entirely new career and even makes tea in used-soft drink cans when they first arrive (p.41). Likewise, when Quoyle asks Nutbeem why he is so calm about the wreckage of his boat, he replies ‘no use crying in my beer’ (p.268). This is a nonchalant response to an understandably devastating event. The influence of these people on Quoyle results in his change in sentiment towards Petal. When the Aunt first arrives, Quoyle tells her that Petal was just ‘starved for love’ (p.23) – he even attaches sentimental value to the eggs she gives him instead of a proper Christmas present (p.281). Eventually, Quoyle recognises ‘something now [he] didn’t know a year ago… Petal wasn’t any good.’ (p.308) This is largely thanks to the role models he finds in Killick-Claw, who lead him, by example, through his grief.One specific problem that prevents Quoyle from moving on is his inability to come to terms with death. This is most evident in his failure to explain adequately Petal’s death to Bunny. When he tells Wavey that ‘children should be protected from knowledge of death’ (p.332), she asks him how, if they do not understand death, they can possibly understand ‘the deep part of life?’ (p.332). Newfoundland is instrumental in helping Quoyle come to terms with both death and the deep part of life. Quoyle is constantly surrounded by the sea and its danger. The Buggits, who become close friends of Quoyle, have lost their eldest child and nearly lose Jack at sea. These losses normalise death to some extent. Even Mrs Buggit is ‘surprising[ly] calm’ (p.329) on hearing about her husband’s death, because she has been expecting Jack to die at sea since they were first married. But it is not just the Buggits who face this fear each day – as Billy Pretty acknowledges at Jack’s wake, ‘the water is a dark flower and a fisherman is a bee in the heart of her.’ (p.332). Proulx uses this metaphor to illustrate both the danger and allure of the sea, and the dependence of the fishermen upon it. Quoyle is also helped to come to terms with death by facing his own mortality. He almost dies while retrieving the body of Herman Melville (p.211), and could have died if he had remained in Mockingburg at the time of the mass shooting in the office of the Mockingburg Record (p.291). In this way, death becomes a paradox: by being in Newfoundland Quoyle has come closer to death than ever before, but has also been saved from it. Quoyle’s return to Newfoundland is another paradox, because while he wants to reject everything the old Quoyles were, he is also accepted into the Killick-Claw community because of them. Quoyle desperately wants to avoid following in his family’s footsteps. He does this first by avoiding Cousin Nolan as much as possible, and also by addressing Bunny’s alternative behaviour. Quoyle fears that his ‘weird kid’ (p.132) may, in fact, have inherited some of the negative traits of his own father and Quoyles before him. These characteristics are personified in the house on Quoyle’s Point, in which Quoyle is never really comfortable. He believes ‘the house was wrong. Had always been wrong, he thought… That was it. In the house he felt like he was… swallowed by the shouting past.’ (p.263). Proulx uses the destruction of the house both as a symbol both of Quoyle’s acceptance of the past and victory over the personality he seeks to escape. The second major idea in The Shipping News is belonging, which Quoyle finds in the Killick-Claw community in a unique way. The impact of different communities is shown through the contrast between Mockingburg and Killick-Claw. In Mockingburg, Quoyle has no friends but Partridge; in Killick-Claw, he makes friends with the Buggits, Nutbeem, and Billy Pretty to name just a few. In Mockingburg, Quoyle is emotionally abused by Petal; in Killick-Caw, he finds love with Wavey. This differentiated sense of belonging is even reflected in the quality of babysitter Quoyle finds: in Mockingburg, Mrs Moosup ignores the children and spends most of her time watching TV (p.15); in Killick-Claw, Beety Buggit cares for Bunny and Sunshine like her own. At a personal level, Killick-Claw gives Quoyle a much stronger sense of self. He becomes more comfortable with his body and realises he is, in fact, at a ‘prime physical point’ (p.327). It is clear the whole community is behind Quoyle and Wavey’s relationship when Alvin Yark asks Quoyle when he is going to ‘do the deed’ (p.303). This, along with his growing understanding of love, gives Quoyle the courage to approach Wavey. Finally, Quoyle has much more confidence in his abilities at The Gammy Bird than he ever did at the Mockingburg Record, which is shown in his adroit management of the front-page following Jack’s death (p.330). This accepting community is exclusive to Killick-Claw. The isolation and remoteness of the town mean the inhabitants do not feel the same pressure as the people in Mockingburg to conform to superficial modern standards that someone like Quoyle can never achieve. The shared struggle of life on the island also develops strong bonds between the residents, and highlights the need they all have for support from each other. Finally, Proulx uses Killick-Claw and Mockingburg to contrast the effects of modernisation, a very contemporary issue. As fish become scarcer and oil conglomerates start operating in Newfoundland, traditional ways of life die out. To some – particularly Tert Card – this appears to be a positive development. But to others it poses dangers. Billy Pretty is concerned about the possibility of ‘drugs and crime… prostitutes… alcoholism, moral degradation of the lowest kind.’ (p.199). For other characters, such as the fish plant supervisor, the harms are less tangible; ‘”they used to say ‘a man’s set up in life if he’s got a pig, a punt and a potato patch.’ What do they say now? Every man for himself.’” (p.200). This comment suggests that modernisation is weakening the traditional values of Killick-Claw; hardiness, practicality and mutual support. While Mockingburg may be superficially more developed than Killick-Claw, it lacks the latter’s strong bonds of community. These bonds stem directly from the remoteness and isolation of Newfoundland, and generate a tradition of cohesive and supportive community. The Shipping News is a story of one man’s journey, operating on two levels; a physical journey from America to the remote Canadian province of Newfoundland, and a spiritual journey towards self-confidence and contentment. These two journeys rely on one another. In this way, Proulx uses place both to contextualise her characters and to provide a resonance without which her novel would lack dimension. Newfoundland situates The Shipping News dramatically and poignantly.