The Shipping News

by: Annie Proulx

Chapters 19–21

Chapter 20 further develops the theme of ancestry. We learn that Jack Buggit called up Quoyle's references before hiring him to make sure Quoyle was not a murderer. Ironically, Buggit knew that Quoyle was associated with murderers before Quoyle did. Quoyle continues to learn from the locals in Killick-Claw about his own family. This idea points to the importance of place and setting in this novel. Quoyle's personal journey in understanding himself and his family is in a way created by the setting. That is, Quoyle did not really know all he still had to learn about his history until he arrived in Newfoundland and started hearing remarks here and there about his own ancestry.

The scene at Gaze Island dramatizes this connection between Quoyle's conflict and setting. Going to the site of Billy Pretty's father's grave—and the site of his ancestors' home—conjures up images of Quoyle's father and demands that Quoyle revisit painful memories once again. The images of Quoyle's father again suggest the quiet violence that characterized Quoyle's childhood; the memory of the beating Quoyle unfairly received for stealing his brother's blueberries is a good example. Seeing the grave of Billy Pretty's father symbolically reopens Quoyle's father's grave.

Although Gaze Island is named for its high lookout, we should recognize the symbolic meaning the name carries. The island forces Quoyle to "gaze" into his family's history, and into his own traumatic past. The image of a mirror in this chapter further affirms the symbolic significance of "Gaze" Island: when seeing his ancestors' cemetery for the first time, Quoyle's head jerks back "like a snake surprised by a mirror." In this scenario, the mirror is the cemetery—literally markers of Quoyle's family history. This simile also casts Quoyle as a snake, which calls attention to the malicious wildness that is associated with the Quoyle family.

The excerpt from The Ashley Book of Knots that precedes Chapter 20 could be read as an allusion to Quoyle's relationship with his family. His ancestors were a band of pirates, and he, like the pirates' prisoner, is still somehow held in their grip. The excerpt presents a riddle: how do the prisoners free themselves from the pirates? This riddle represents Quoyle's same dilemma. The knots that tie the prisoners' boat to the pirate ship symbolize the way that Quoyle is tied to his past. He must find a way to live a life without pain (free himself) despite his cruel and unusual ancestry.

The story of the Quoyle's house adds another tale to the vast annals of myth and folk history on Newfoundland. We should appreciate the irony that the Quoyles were ultimately driven out because of their disinterest in joining the Pentecostal Church. This detail reaffirms the quirky characteristics of Newfoundland folk; again, we feel pulled out of his or her reality, and thrust into a place in which essentially murderers are tolerated until they refuse to put on their church shoes. The novel requires that one look at the "truth" of oral literature. One might question the validity of pulling an entire house on an iceberg like a sled, for instance, but the novel values local legends as reflections of a culture and a people.

These chapters also help develop Billy Pretty's character. Billy grows as a sensitive character in his diligence about his father's grave, and his kind remembrances of the old man. He also seems aware that Quoyle is discovering his own past, and concedes that many people were plunderers in the old days on Gaze Island, not just the Quoyles. The name "Pretty" also becomes more significant in these chapters, as Billy shows himself to be appreciative of aesthetic values. He carefully decorates his father's grave, and even his descriptions of the rocks show his capacity to see the creativity in their names. His "poetic navigation"—navigation based on a few rhyming couplets—implies that navigating is perhaps as much an art as a science. Billy uses his skills to maneuver in whatever safe path he can figure given the conditions.