Proulx writes this novel at a time when the northern cod supply has reached an all time low. Generations of men who have made their living from the sea are grappling for a sense of purpose. As oil becomes a more desired commodity, international companies move in on the Newfoundland way of life. Technological changes have replaced the local, small, seasonal fishing with mass, year-round operations. Billy Pretty's sadness over depleting natural resources is a nostalgia not only for a place that will never return to its former state, but a way of life that is lost. Along with the cod and seabirds stuck in the oil spills, the Billy Pretty, Alvin Yark, and Jack Buggit types are also becoming obliterated in favor of the machinery of mass production. This change also marks a dying out of the "how-to" genre. With the onslaught of mass production, there is no need for an individual to possess a diverse skill set—how to make a boat, plant a garden, prepare for the storm, navigate through the rocky shoreline, catch cod, herring or lobster.
This theme goes along with the theme of social and economic change. The narrative, in the same tradition as Willa Cather or Sarah Orne Jewett, seeks a story out of a specific geographic place instead of a story told with a place as backdrop. The conflict and tension in the story stem from the local way of life, the local personalities, the very entities that make this place different from any other. Billy Pretty is a good character to consider in the context of regionalism because he embodies the old way of life. When Tert Card introduces him to Quoyle for the first time, the narrator notes that Billy resembles a "landmark." He is the source on local lore and oral history. He knows the rocks along the shore to the point that the narrator calls his navigating "poetic." Indeed, Billy Pretty dramatizes the way regional skill intersects with aestheticism: like the writer of regional literature, he has the sense of the artistic value in marking and remembering geographic place and time. He knows the names of the rocks, why they are named such, and he returns to repaint his father's grave. When he thinks Jack is dead, he immediately imagines his skin markings like punctuation and metaphorically writes on the body of this old local stalwart. He is more of an artist than Jack Buggit or other true locals with his rhyming couplets that remind him how to navigate, and his commitment to the "lifestyle" section of the newspaper.
Again, the fragility of regionalism shows in the imminent social and technological changes. Without a need for skills of daily living (represented by the "how-to" / operating manual genre), there is no preservation of the aesthetic value that goes along with the skill. Quoyle's column about the painting is a good example of this. The eight schooners in the painting are beautiful partly because they require skill and hard work to sail. When they are replaced by oil rigs, both the occupational skills and the beauty are lost simultaneously.
Throughout the novel, Quoyle continues to grapple with his place in a family of loony murderers and cruel abusers. Quoyle's quest is to separate himself from the pain exerted upon him by his family, and then, to avoid turning into the painful perpetrator that his family was inclined to produce; he both must recover from his own wounds, and then, perhaps more heroically, break the chain of abuse. By including three generations of Quoyles (the aunt, Guy, Quoyle, Bunny and Sunshine) in the cast of characters, Proulx can dramatize the effects of the older generations on the next, and the potential for a change in terms of what the younger generation becomes. The journey back to Newfoundland is superficially a way of starting in a new place anew, and yet, it actually catalyzes the process of looking deep into his familial roots in order that Quoyle may face them, and ultimately, heal.
Hardly a chapter goes by without another character telling a new tall tale to add to the record of Newfoundland experience. This geographic area is well-stocked with storytellers. The proximity with the physical world creates a subculture that is less encumbered by the accoutrements of modern life in the United States. In this simpler life, story telling seems to take the place of mass media or video entertainment.
The reader is never quite sure which details are factual and which exaggerated, but that is really beside the point: what is important is the way in which these tales form a collective consciousness of a people and place. Like Beety's literal performance at the Christmas pageant, these stories are daily spoken performances that act out the bounds of cultural norms—what is appropriate, expected, right, wrong, funny, or feared. As is true with any anthropological study, these stories mark the values of a peculiar subculture. In a book such as The Shipping News that takes place in an obscure setting, the author is obligated to provide substantial evidence in order to build a case for a kind of lifestyle. Most readers will most likely not have traveled to Newfoundland, and therefore will have no context in which to understand the story without these stage-setting devices.
The explanatory or instructional excerpts that precede every chapter of this novel These introductions, most often excerpted from Ashley's Book of Knots, The Mariner's Dictionary , or Quipis and Witches Knots play a variety of functions: they offer a symbolic way into the chapter, foreshadow an event that will come in a later chapter, or merely draw attention to one of the chapter's mundane details. As a collective, all the introductions function to blur the lines between fictional and non-fictional genre. They serve to teach the reader how to read the book. They literally are excerpts from a "how-to" manual, a totally different kind of writing genre—the kind, in fact, that Newfoundland natives are perhaps more likely to have on their shelves. The introductions anticipate stories of people whose lives are based on the functions of every day living (how to fix up a family house, how to write a news story, how to buy or steer a boat, how to start a business, how to sail round the world).
Lawrence Buell, a scholar of American and environmental literature, suggests that literature's layers of representation in environmental writing paradoxically invite critical analysis that often leads one further from nature, instead of closer to it. The literary critic is trained to examine the way that the text is representing its subject, and in this way considers the representation instead of the subject itself. By invoking a different genre of writing, Proulx jolts the reader back to the physical world (instead of remaining in the representational-fictional world). The how-to genre, moreover, brings the reader as close as possible to the physical world; indeed, a how-to manual, instead of representing life, asks that life imitate it. The "how-to" genre crops up within her prose, as well as in her chapter introductions, providing a stark contrast to Proulx's penchant for poetic description and calling the reader back from an overtly representational form (poetry) to the technical, practical tone that is more closely aligned with the physical world.
Knots symbolize the versatility and variability of the human experience. Knots permeate every part of life: not only are there myriad forms used in the shipping industry, but knots are essential for upholsterers (Chapter15), travelers (Chapter 13), and housewives (Chapter 16). Although these chapter introductions do not suggest symbolic reading of the individual chapters, they collectively show that knots—entities so essential to the shipping and wilderness experiences in general—are also essential to the human experience. Through the knot, the shipping life comes to stand in for the human experience in general.
Knots signify different kinds of connections and strengths depending on their specific form; they can always be untied and retied, made and remade. As Quoyle and the aunt return to Newfoundland to both return to their past and find a new future, their past has a hold on them that must be reformed. Knots in many ways bind Quoyle to his ancestry—Nolan leaves knots around the house and Quoyle finds a knotted brooch left by a dead ancestor. The excerpt from The Ashley Book of Knots that introduces the last chapter synthesizes well the symbolic use of knots in the book. It states that there are still old knots that have not been recorded and new knots not yet invented. This excerpt addresses the very quality of knots that make them a unique symbol: they can be reinvented according to life's needs. Such is the life of the Quoyles. They must examine the binds of the past in order to discover a new life free from pain; the must essentially, undo and retie the knot.
The house symbolizes the weakness, and ultimately the breakdown of the old Quoyle dynasty. Quoyle eventually recognizes just how "wrong" the house is; it feels heavy, winched to the rock like a prisoner. At one point in the novel, Nutbeem states his disgust at the modern world that has left the days of "knots and lashings" behind in favor of the "brute force of nails and screws." The house on the point belongs to the brute world of winches, weldings, and chains. The entire base is shackled to the rock. Symbolically, the Quoyles cannot make the house into another place; the metal shackles do not allow for a reinvention, but serve as anchors to a shoddy past. The house therefore plays an important role in the novel's moral scheme: the house falls, in accordance with the idea that that which cannot flex and reform, must break forever. There is also something unnatural about the house, since it was brought over from Gaze Island by sheer force, as if it was never supposed to stand where it stood—it could not stand on its own weight against wind and weather.