Entrapment and Escape in Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and Richard Russo’s Empire Falls
At first glance, the settings of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and Richard Russo’s Empire Falls are wildly different. What could Proulx’s bleak Mockingburg and remote Newfoundland possibly have in common with Russo’s decaying Empire Falls and picturesque Martha’s Vineyard? Upon deeper inspection, however, the locations in the novels parallel each other. Portrayed vividly and populated with casts of unforgettable characters, they serve as much more than backdrops for their respective plots. Because the places that flawed protagonists Quoyle and Miles live in are either of entrapment or escape, they are instrumental in shaping the development of these characters. This progression occurs in three stages, beginning with the men trapped within their lives, transitioning to a period of temporary escape on islands, and culminating in more permanent escape and personal fulfillment where they now call home.
The novels begin with a palpable sense of confinement. Both men are stuck in ruts in their small towns, feeling as if they are waiting for something but unsure if it will ever appear. In Mockingburg, New York, Quoyle of The Shipping News watches television in his rented trailer and works as a cheap reporter for the local newspaper, periodically getting fired and rehired by his boss. Just north in Empire Falls, Maine, Miles Roby is going on fifteen years as manager of the Empire Grill. He is still standing by for wealthy owner Mrs. Whiting to die so that the business will finally pass to him, “an event Miles continued to anticipate without, somehow, being able to imagine it” (Russo 23). Not only are the lives of Quoyle and Miles stagnant, but they are also restricted by old loves; or, more accurately, loves in the process of becoming old. Quoyle is angered by his unfaithful wife, Petal Bear, but confused as to why he still has feelings for her. These “circumstances enclosed him like the six sides of a metal case” (Proulx 17). Miles’s situation is hardly better, as a divorce is in progress with his wife, Janine, but he does not know if it is what he wants. Finally, the protagonists are trapped by their devotion to their daughters. Quoyle wants to do what is best for young Bunny and Sunshine, both of whom he loves passionately but “with a kind of fear” that harm will come to them in Mockingburg (Proulx 23). Miles desires the same for his own daughter, Tick. When criticized for raising Tick in Empire Falls, he cannot see a way out: “Maybe I was wrong to come back, but I’ve got Tick now, and I can’t put her in jeopardy. I won’t” (Russo 118). Like Quoyle, he is aware that his hometown impacts his family; what he does not know is how to improve the situation. Neither of the main characters is where he wants to be in life, but each feels so restricted in his town that change seems impossible.
Eventually, there are breaking points in the novels when Quoyle and Miles have to escape, if only temporarily, from this shared sensation of entrapment. Their flights to the islands of Newfoundland and Martha’s Vineyard, respectively, serve the sole purpose of getting away. Quoyle packs up and leaves with his daughters and aunt, Agnis Hamm, after a series of misfortunes: he loses his job again; his parents commit joint suicide; and Petal Bear is killed in a car crash. The abrupt move back to the place his family came from is not his idea but Agnis’, and the overwhelmed Quoyle comments that he merely “needed something to brace against” (Proulx 31). Similarly, Miles vacations with Tick not completely of his own volition but because his mother used to do the same with him when was he was a kid. His brother, David, astutely observes: “The sad part is that you don’t love Martha’s Vineyard. It was Mom who loved it . . . You were just a little boy who tagged along, who got to ride in the little yellow sports car. And you’re still that little boy.” (Russo 224) Miles is behaving as a child would, scampering off to a nostalgic safe haven for two weeks and hoping his problems will resolve themselves in his absence. Due to the naive natures of their decisions, neither Miles nor Quoyle is able to find comfort in his new setting. Quoyle is a foreigner in his new job at the Gammy Bird newspaper and in Newfoundland in general: “[The paper] gave Quoyle an uneasy feeling, the feeling of standing on a playground watching others play games whose rules he didn’t know. Nothing like the Record. He didn’t know how to write this stuff.” (Proulx 63) It seems he has simply substituted one life’s isolation for another. Miles shares this sensation of disappointment, for he comes back from Martha’s Vineyard not rejuvenated but “haunted by a profound feeling of personal failure” (Russo 102). Like Quoyle, he goes to his island for a change of scene, but that is not enough to grant peace of mind.
Time proves to be the only remedy for the protagonists, who must undergo more tests of character before finding the permanent escape and personal fulfillment they seek. Quoyle and Miles eventually learn that the reason makes all the difference; when they start escaping not from something awful but toward something better, something changes. The second time Miles takes Tick to Martha’s Vineyard, he goes to give her a fresh start and chance to recover after the shooting at her school. Going to the island for his daughter’s sake is a vast improvement over going to attempt to relive his own childhood memories. Quoyle, too, manages to let go of his past and instead look forward to the future, acknowledging that “[h]is part in life seemed richer” upon doing so (Proulx 136). Their shifts in attitude also completely change how the men view themselves. Miles starts seeing himself as a successful parent instead of a failed businessman, remarking that “seeing Tick alive and well was enough to confirm his sense that his best destiny in life was as this child’s father” (Russo 468-69). Likewise, Quoyle’s opinion of his physical build changes dramatically. Previously ashamed of his body and the way he towered over everyone else, to the point that he acquired the habit of hiding his chin behind his hand, he now sees his features in a positive light: “[T]he effect was more of strength than obesity. He guessed he was at some prime physical point. Middle age not too far ahead, but it didn’t frighten him” (Proulx 327). Newfoundland has transformed him. For the first time since going to the islands, Quoyle and Miles find both long lasting relief within their escapes and what has been missing in their lives. For Miles, his restorative time with Tick on Martha’s Vineyard puts the final puzzle piece in place; he realizes he does not need to hide there anymore. He must return to his life in Empire Falls, and he remarks with the same astuteness of David before him that it is “[b]etter to be a man there . . . than a boy here” (Russo 472). As for Quoyle, it means he effectively wakes up and starts living: “Quoyle experienced moments in all colors, uttered brilliancies, paid attention to the rich sound of waves counting stones, he laughed and wept, noticed sunsets, heard music in rain, said I do.” (Proulx 336) He, like Miles, has come to terms with himself by the end of the novel and learned to embrace what his hometown previously locked away from him. The healing power of the islands is realized at last when Quoyle and Miles are ready to accept it.
Despite one’s first impressions, the The Shipping News and Empire Falls are remarkably similar. Proulx and Russo manage to craft two endearingly flawed protagonists who embark on personal journeys and emerge different men. These transformations would not be possible without the settings of the novels, which act as characters unto themselves and play significant roles in the progression of the plots. Mockingburg and Empire Falls, Quoyle and Miles’ respective hometowns, begin as places of entrapment. They suspend the men in their lives, leaving them conflicted between old loves and their beloved daughters. Then Proulx and Russo provide them with temporary relief in the form of Newfoundland and Martha’s Vineyard, but these retreats prove empty. Finally, after Quoyle and Miles discover their purposes for escape, these same islands offer them the fulfillment they have sought all along.
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