The Shipping News

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Main Ideas


Main Ideas Themes

Knots / "How-to" genre (used to introduce chapters)

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.

Quoyle family house

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.