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.