The Shipping News

by: Annie Proulx

The aunt

Characters The aunt

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.