Shipping News by Annie Proulx tells the story of Quoyle, a man who begins the book naive, buffeted by life, and passive, but by the end has earned his place in a small town in Newfoundland. Quoyle, unsure of himself and troubled by his looks, allows the ups and downs of life to toss him without resistance. Eventually he marries, but his wife, Petal, is unfaithful. In the ultimate act of her selfishness she sells their two daughters, Bunny and Sunshine, to a pervert, but they are returned to Quoyle after Petal's death in a fiery car accident. Aided by his Aunt Agnis, he takes his family to live in the Quoyle homestead near Killick-Claw, Newfoundland, Canada, to start anew.
In Killick-Claw he works for the town newspaper, gaining self-confidence and writing skills, learning the foreign ways of the fishermen and their wives. He meets Wavey, a widow, and slowly spirals toward loving her. In his ignorance of the sea, he nearly drowns. As winter approaches, his family must move to town and cannot remain isolated on Quoyle's point. Shortly after they move, a huge winter storm washes the house out to sea and he learns that his father had molested Aunt Agnis as a child, a secret that he had known must exist. Now free of the past that had haunted him, Quoyle remains in town to run the paper and declare his love for Wavey, comfortable in his place in Killick-Claw.
It is possible to analyze Quoyle's story from the point-of-view of a hero's journey, a theory of mythology developed by Joseph Campbell. As described in his book, A Hero of a Thousand Faces, Campbell's archetypal hero undergoes twelve steps in his story journey. It is Campbell's theory that these twelve steps underlie most of mythical story telling and can be applied to the hero of modern literature as well. In "The Shipping News" Quoyle does undergo the twelve steps of a hero, although in modern fashion, his journey is more of self -- an internal voyage of discovery -- than of one of place as the heroes of classical myth.
According to Campbell, the hero begins his story in the ordinary world, one filled with boredom, suffering, and anguish. At the book's opening, Quoyle's world reporting municipal government is well described this way, as he got fired each summer and hired each winter to allow the boss's son a job. "And so it went. Fired, car wash attendant, rehired... Back and forth he went, down and around the county, listening to the wrangles of sewer boards... In atmospheres of disintegration and smoking jealousy he imagined rational compromise" (9). Life gets very bad for Quoyle as he writhes under the thumb of his flagrantly unfaithful wife.
Finally she can take no more, "Look, it's no good... Find yourself a girlfriend -- there's plenty of women around" (16), Petal says. This offer is a type of "call to adventure," a possible escape from his unhappy life. But in archetypal hero fashion, Quoyle cannot do it. "I only want you, said Quoyle. Miserably. Pleading. Licking his cuff" (16). So he remains stuck in his unhappiness until events conspire to send him on an adventure. When Quoyle's parents commit double suicide, Quoyle "meets his mentor" as Campbell puts it, in his Aunt Agnis. She proposes that she, Quoyle, and his daughters move back to the Quoyle homestead, hopefully still standing on a point jutting into the Atlantic Ocean off of Newfoundland. Although Newfoundland has no conscious pull for Quoyle -- unlike for his aunt, who grew up there -- he decides to go, answering the call to a new life.
Quoyle's experience in crossing the first threshold, that is, his entry into his new world is nothing short of nightmarish. Although the house still stands, it is horribly isolated and requires significant work to be habitable. The only available housing is a decrepit motel room; ironically called "The Deluxe Room and Bridal Suite" that rents out for an outrageous fee. Quoyle attempts to take a shower and water runs out of a leaky tile. "His clothes slipped off the toilet lid and lay in the flood, for the door hooks were torn away. A Bible on a chain near the toilet, loose pages ready to fall. It was not until the next evening that he discovered he had gone all day with a page from Leviticus stuck to his back" (53).
Quoyle then undergoes numerous tests, gaining allies and enemies, as he learns more about the ways of the Newfoundland people. He gains a bevy of friends to help him with his work and family. Billy Pretty and Nutbeem, fellow works at the newspaper who help him adapt to his new job, and Dennis and Beety Buggit, who have children the same age as his and represent domestic bliss. Quoyle observes "A fine part of [his] day came when he picked up his daughters at Dennis and Beety's house. His part in life seemed richer, he became more of a father, at the same time could expose true feeling which were often of yearning" (136). Another central test Quoyle is the need for him to learn to write, that is, to be able to express "The Shipping News" of the title. A turning point comes when he interviews the owners of Hitler's boat and he writes a story that reveals he has finally learned the way of news. Quoyle receives the starting news from his boss, Jack Buggit. "Got four phone calls last night about that Hitler boat. People enjoyed it.... From now on I want you to write a column, see?" (143). Quoyle went back to his desk flush with pleasure. "Thirty-six years old and this was the first time anybody ever said he'd done it right" (144).
Quoyle approaches the "innermost cave" from many directions. First, he learns more about his family history from Billy Pretty. He finds out the Quoyles were inbred pirates that lured unsuspecting boats to crash upon the rocks of their island so they could scavenge the wreak.
He also learns that he has a living relative still in Killick-Claw, a cousin of his mother's who is old and crazy and is rumored to resent Quoyle's reclaiming of the house. He has met Wavey, a widow to whom he is physically drawn; a tall and silent woman with a Downs syndrome afflicted son. On the brink of making love to Wavey, she refuses and tells him the story of her dead husband's drowning on a tipped oilrig. "So, not to hurt your feelings, but that's how it is... I think of it every single time I am at the edge of the water." So, like Quoyle, she is haunted by the memories of a dead spouse. Both have those specters as inhabitants of their "innermost cave."
The first time Quoyle is alone in the homestead, he undergoes the "supreme ordeal." He discovers a dead body floating in the sea and is determined to report it to the Coast Guard. Foolishly neglecting to check the weather, he hops into his small boat, a misshapen clunker that he had been mislead into buying. Neither the boat nor his boating skills are up to the bay crossing. The boat capsizes and he is thrown into the sea. "He came to the surface gasping, half blinded by some hot stuff in his eyes, and saw bloody water drip. 'Stupid,... stupid to drown with the children so small.' (211)" Ironically, because he forgot to fill it with ice, the cooler in the boat saves him as a float. He swims through a flotilla of matches, something he had remembered to buy. "Guessed they would wash up on shore someday, tiny sticks with their heads washed away. Where would he be?" But Jack Buggit saves him from the frigid water, still alive because of the insulation of his bulky body, the form Quoyle could never face.
At this point, Quoyle has gained self-confidence, his reward for facing himself, his family history, and his unhealthy continued attachment to his dead wife. He must use this new strength to meet the challenges of his life. His aunt moves out of the house, leaving him to raise the children, so he moves in with Dennis and Beety. He must say good-bye to Nutbeem and he lives through a riotous party, to walk to Wavey's house and glimpse her homey warmth through the window. Finally, he goes out to check on the house and realizes that his cousin is bewitching the house with knots tied in a rope, so he must come face-to-face with his ancestry. He goes to see his cousin. "In the man before him, in the hut, crammed with the poverty of another century, Quoyle saw what he had sprung from. For the old man was mad, the gears of his mind stripped long ago to clashing discs with the stubs of broken cogs" (264). The man ultimately tells Quoyle…