The Shipping News
Analysis of Major Characters
Of all the characters in the novel, Quoyle undergoes the most extreme change and provides the dynamic force that drives the story forward. He is the hero-figure for the book. He saves not only himself, but his familial line as well. Of course, this change is not quite as optimistic as it may seem. Quoyle's extreme loneliness and misery in the beginning of the book lull the reader into a world in which the absence of pain resembles something like bliss. Quoyle is an obese, unconfident, unloved man who has been taught his whole life that he is a failure. Quoyle's transformation begins to take form as he makes his life on Newfoundland (metaphorically a new, found land for Quoyle). Assigned car wreck stories and the shipping news, Quoyle is forced to face two old fears daily: Petal's death and his fear of water. Quoyle himself dramatizes his own conviction that pain dulls when you see that "other people suffer as you suffer." When Quoyle takes the initiative in writing a profile of a ship in the harbor, he moves from reporting mundane car wrecks to writing his own column, a switch that allows him to prove himself as a worthy writer. Having the column seems to arm Quoyle with a voice of his own, instead of consigning himself to others' poor opinion of him. Quoyle slowly learns to stand up for himself, and also learns to take great pride in his work. With this larger sense of self- worth, Quoyle is able to stand up to the sins of his ancestors—specifically, the sins of his father—and overpowers a long blood line of hurt and malice.
Quoyle's character is introduced by way of his name; the first chapter introduction suggests that a coil can be rolled up and walked upon on the deck of a ship. Likewise, Quoyle is a walked-on character. Quoyle also does not have a first name throughout the entire book. Symbolically, this half of a name serves to connect him to his family, but not to distinguish him as an individual. He is, in effect, only his family. Finally, the first time he prints a newspaper issue under his new title of managing editor, the narrator gives him two initials to precede the last name, a small sign that he has established his own sense of self.
Quoyle's ultimate victory is indeed more an avoidance of misery than a true happiness, but he has nonetheless accomplished a drastic change. When the narrative begins, his physical appearance is his chief failure, and then one day his obesity protects him when he is catapulted overboard into the sea. The accomplishment seems to be that he is merely not dead, but his "chief failure" has saved his life. One day, he looks at himself in the mirror and does not find himself detestable. He finally realizes that with Wavey he will have a love without pain. This accumulation of double negatives eventually leads Quoyle to a more fulfilling life.
The aunt fills the role of the "stouthearted" woman in Quoyle's life. Her Newfoundland upbringing is evident in her willful attitude toward life. She serves as a kind of catalyst to move the narrative forward when Quoyle becomes incapacitated by the deaths of his wife and parents. She is almost Quoyle's polar opposite in her deliberate self-confidence. At the beginning of the novel, she serves to ground the narrative in a reality that the reader can believe. Quoyle is living in the midst of a hyperbolically cruel world when the aunt shows up—a world unrealistic in its incredible loneliness. The narrative remains more trustworthy at the beginning of the book because of the aunt's presence, the presence of at least one person who has some capacity to feel who can act as a stalwart against Quoyle's extreme submissiveness. These roles do not remain stagnant, however. Ultimately, her deliberate approach to the pain in her life rubs off on Quoyle. She is the one who tells Quoyle that he must go through with his newspaper job, even if he has to cover car wrecks. She is the one to tell him he must buy a boat, even if he fears water.
In fact, the aunt has her own set of past pains that cause her to falter a bit toward the middle of the book. The aunt's ferocious attitude toward fixing up the house becomes eclipsed by the persistence of her painful memories; seeing Bunny grow up and spending time at her old family house, she begins to remember old scenes of sexual abuse. The aunt shows her ambivalence about the house by not having her furniture shipped out. She seems to feel unclear about how much she wants to anchor herself back in this place and how much she wants to start anew. On the one hand, the place will always be a part of the person who she has become—indeed she is a stronger person for having suffered rape and the harsh living conditions of her time and place. On the other hand, the house's foundations are literally and symbolically weak, and she must ultimately concede to trying out another place anew.
The aunt's lesbian identity is treated in an interesting way in this narrative. Her sexuality is mentioned only once or twice in the novel, and is never comes to the surface like her other secret (Guy's sexual abuse) does. Proulx seems to be de-privileging sexual orientation as the most telling part of a person's identity. It is not the one trait that leads a person to live one kind of lifestyle or another, but for the aunt, it is paradoxically something everyone understands better not knowing. As long as the aunt talks about "Warren," Quoyle can identity with her feelings of romantic love. The aunt suggests that if she said "Irene Warren," Quoyle would not understand. In this novel, sexual orientation is not the subject of a confessional discourse, is not a buried shame that must surface in order to be understood. Familial histories and sexual abuse, on the other hand, do have to be made visible in order to heal.
Bunny is like a litmus test that will tell if Quoyle's deleterious inheritance has been obstructed. Quoyle's preoccupation with his daughters shows the way this theme plays out in his consciousness. Paranoid that Bunny will be dysfunctional or have some kind of psychological disorder, he is filled with relief when she comes home from the first day of school psychologically unscathed. Of course the most prominent symbol of the way the evil genetic line has been broken is the white dog. The white dog symbolizes the way that past generations haunt new generations, but by the end of the narrative, Bunny no longer fears this haunting. Bunny is not only protected from the ills of her ancestry, but she also proves to have a good heart, demonstrating that the chain of evil perpetration has been broken. Her instinct to push the teacher on behalf of Herry shows her ability to stand up for what is good and right.
Bunny's preoccupation with carpentry could be read symbolically as a yearning to build a better support device for herself and family. Bunny close call on the rooftop seems a warning sign about the house's ability to create a new, safe space.