The Shipping News opens by introducing the main character in the novel, Quoyle. The narrator tells that at thirty-six, Quoyle goes off to Newfoundland, home of his ancestors, but then the narration flashes back to provide some background information. Since he was a small child, Quoyle was regarded as a failure by his family, and he grew up ashamed and lonesome. The narrator describes him as a "great damp loaf of a body," his "chief failure, a failure of normal appearance." Not only is Quoyle extraordinarily large and fleshy, but he also has an abnormally large chin, a "freakish shelf jutting" out from his face.
After dropping out of college, Quoyle lives in a town called Mockingburg, where he meets a friend, Partridge at the Laundromat. Hungry for friendship, Quoyle begins spending many evenings dining with Partridge and his wife, Mercalia. An excellent cook, Partridge also works at the local newspaper and gets Quoyle a job as a reporter. Quoyle is a terrible writer, but still feels energized and inspired by his job. Partridge is harsh with him at work, but helps him nonetheless, and remains his friend outside the office. Ed Punch, the editor, repeatedly fires and hires Quoyle, and Quoyle finds odd jobs to do in between the newspaper stints. The editor notes that for all Quoyle's faults, he has an uncanny way of inspiring people to talk and tell their stories.
Partridge and Mercalia move to California. Mercalia has become the first black woman truck driver in the country, giving up academia in favor of blue-collar work. Quoyle feels lost left in Mockingburg, uncertain of where his life will take him next.
Quoyle meets Petal Bear at a meeting he is presumable covering for the paper. Quoyle falls for her erotic provocation immediately, and they begin a love affair that only offered one month of happiness, and six years of suffering. The narrator likens Petal to Genghis Khan, constantly conquering men with sexual encounters. She was attracted to Quoyle for the sex, but finds his form and personality detestable. They marry quickly, and Petal unashamedly spends all her time going after other men. She calls Quoyle from Alabama to make him read her a drink recipe; she brings home a man and has sex with him in the living room within Quoyle's earshot. She gives birth to two daughters, Bunny and Sunshine, who she neither wants or loves. Quoyle suffers deeply, wanting her desperately in spite of her cruelty.
Quoyle's parents, who belong to the Dignified Exit Society, commit suicide together after both being diagnosed with tumors. His father leaves a message on Quoyle's answering machine, telling him that they have made arrangements for the cremation. Quoyle's brother does not come to the funeral, only concerned with his inheritance. Quoyle's father's sister, Agnis Hamm does not go either, but comes to visit Quoyle to pick up the ashes.
Around this time, Petal leaves with another man, taking her daughters with her. Quoyle comes home to the unpaid babysitter, and goes about trying to get his children back. The aunt arrives, and comforts him with tea and kindness. Although Quoyle keeps trying to defend Petal, the aunt understands immediately that Petal is a "bitch in high heels." Eventually, the police find Petal and the man dead from a car accident. The children are found in a child molester's house; presumably, Petal had sold them to him. They have not yet been sexually abused, and are returned to Quoyle. His children gravitate toward his arms. The aunt decides she will stay for a little while, until things get settled again.
The excerpts from the Ashley Book of Knots that precede the chapters introduce a motif that will recur throughout the book. The definition of "quoyle" precedes Quoyle's character, anticipating his personality for the reader. The quoyle (or coil of rope), when made in one layer only, can be used for walking on. Quoyle, as a character, is continually put down, submissive to the cruelty of those around him. This definition also frames the boundaries of Quoyle's character, in effect teaching the reader how he or she should read Quoyle. The reader automatically looks for evidence in the text that Quoyle is a walked-upon character.
Indeed, these chapters develop Quoyle's submissive, resigned character, one constantly the object of cruelty. On the first page of the novel, the narrator says that he long learned to "separate his feelings from his life"; in other words, he makes no effort to stave off others' insults and cruel behavior. At the newspaper office, he does not even feel hurt when others bellow names at him, and constantly insult his work. Any other person would be less likely to put up with an editor consistently firing him, but Quoyle endures others' disrespect as if he does not believe he deserves to be treated any better. He cries when he stains all of his laundry; he is not only a failure, but he is also resigned to his status as such.
Proulx creates a world that is hyperbolically cruel, almost to the point of comedy. The plethora of hurtful characters creates a sense that the reader has entered an exaggerated world, in which almost without exception, bad news is followed by bad news. Quoyle's father, when not trying to drown him, taught him he was a failure, while his brother offered incessant insults. Petal Bear is so cruel that she borders on caricature. Small details add humor, but only in the context of a dark world. The father leaves a message on Quoyle's answering machine in order to give instructions about his funeral; Sunshine slides in dish soap, covered in chocolate, avoiding a close brush with sexual abuse; Petal sells her kids to a child molester before taking off to Florida with a new man, and then dies on the way.
In the context of this world, any neutral circumstance comes as a relief. The idea that Quoyle finds such fulfillment in the mundane jobs of a third-rate newspaperman suggests that a world absent of pain is a good world. The list of world crises at the end of the first chapter, like the cast of hurtful characters, is another example of hyperbole. The terrors of disease, natural disasters, and economic downfall make the stories Quoyle reports—mundane local affairs—seem comforting and even fulfilling. He finds great satisfaction in the idea of entering a world where nothing of any importance happens. In the context of local meetings, he finds order and clarity that a confused, cruel world at large does not offer. By the time the aunt shows up, making tea for Quoyle in his crisis, the reader most likely regards her as a literal saint.
The knot itself crops up in the text in myriad forms. In general, the knots that are used as chapter titles symbolize a theme or event within the chapter. The story of the love knot that precedes Chapter Two describes in detail how the tightness of the knot symbolizes the strength of a lover's commitment. Like a sailor at sea with an uninterested sweetheart at home, Quoyle has received numerous signs from Petal that their love is no longer. A "loose" woman in the sexual sense, she resembles the knot in its most loose form. Quoyle, alternatively, holds on to the idea of their marriage so tightly that he is living in perpetual misery. One may liken his emotion to the knot in its tightest form. Even the language in the chapter relates back to the knot; when he meets her, Petal "[throws] loops and crossings" in his stomach, as a cruel lover might tease (suggest the possibility of a tied knot) when in fact she has no interest. The strangle knot of Chapter Three, that holds "a coil" suggests that the events of this chapter will sufficiently strangle Quoyle. Indeed, he breaks down when he finds Petal is dead, and his children have narrowly escaped tragedy.