Commentary on Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News Essay

In this excerpt taken from Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, the writer describes the initial reactions of a man named Quoyle, his two children and his aunt upon arrival at an abandoned house that is standing by a bay. The text is mainly composed of description but there is a substantial amount of dialogue as well. It is obvious that this excerpt is not the very first part of the story as the characters are not presented in an introductory manner. However, it is made clear that the text was taken from one of the earlier chapters of the novel as Proulx is clearly trying to illustrate this new setting in the finest amount of detail (a task that would not be necessary if the location was unheard of previously), while also developing the characters through the portrayal of their reactions.

Proulx writes in the third-person and uses numerous literary techniques, most notably consonance, vivid imagery, personification and an interesting use of diction, so as to achieve an attention-grabbing and in depth descriptiong of the characters and the house. Through Quoyle, his children and his aunt’s eyes, I find that Proulx is able to create a melancholy, but reassuringly familial atmosphere within the house, evoking a mood that is sadly nostalgic but not as sad as would be expected with a scene that is so vividly unattractive.

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In the opening paragraph, the reader is first given the setting in terms of location instead of date or time. The time of day is established later on with the reference to breakfast, but only briefly, and Proulx makes it obvious that the house and the scene that the characters are in should be the primary focus at this point, and not the time in which they are situated. Being specific with the location and not the time also suggests that the house will not change as time goes by, but the characters and the other features of the story might, or it can also be an implication that improvements may potentially be made to the house and the current features should be paid more attention.

The house is described as a ‘gaunt’ structure with a window flanked by two smaller ones like ‘an adult might stand with protective arms around children’s shoulders’. This implies that the building is, in fact, aged and weak, but is still able to provide security to those that occupy it. Such figurative language so early on is only one example of how the writer personifies the house. Also, Proulx states that the first thing Quoyle notices is ‘half the panes were gone’, allowing the reader to learn that Quoyle is fairly observant. The short sentences that follow let the reader picture Quoyle as he changes his fixation on one thing wring with the house to another. This idea is further emphasize with the mention of the bay that ‘rolled and rolled’, giving the reader’s imagination a greater sense of pace in Quoyle’s movements.

From lines 5 to 15, Proulx speedily tells the reader more about the characters and the house. After Proulx writes about all that Quoyle has seen wrong with the house, it is ironic that the aunt says, ‘Miracle…ruler’ this giving a complete antithesis contrary to the truth. The aunt’s actions speak louder than her words as she trembles when she says that, and the reader, by this point, knows that the house is truly in a dismal state. This also reveals that the aunt perhaps has an optimistic personality as a means of reassuring herself. This may also be an indication of Quoyle’s character being either pessimistic or realistic as he does not appear to be behaving in the same way.

We can also learn that the aunt is loud and outspoken as she shouts ‘joyfully’ with ‘her sentences flying out like ribbons on a pole’. Throughout the text, Quoyle does not seem to be in such an upbeat mood, showing that the aunt must have her reasons for being so excited despite the poor conditions. A reader that has only been exposed to this part of the novel may also find it interesting that Proulx does not give the aunt a name. Her anonymousness hints at the fact that although she may be open, she may only be acting in such a way to successfully hide some of her personal secrets. This suggestion is stressed some more when Proulx writes, ‘The aunt was remembering a hundred things’ and when the aunt briefly mentions that ‘Other rites have occurred [in the house] as well’.

From lines 11 to 38, the aunt gradually tells Quoyle, the children and the reader more and more about the house’s history. The aunt explains the reason for the house being ‘lashed with cable to iron rings set in the rock’. The noise made by the wind blowing through the cables is described to be like ‘a moaning’. The fact that the cables are there lest the house will rock back and forth, but are ‘bristled with broken wires’ too demonstrates the sheer unpleasantness of such a residence. Also relating to sound in lines 6 to 9, the exceedingly repetitive sounds created by the letter ‘l’ in the words, ‘all’, ‘floors’, ‘fallen’, ‘cellar’, ‘laughed’, ‘likely’, ‘joyfully’, ‘lashed’ and ‘cable’ create a cacophonous effect which is paralleled in the poor condition of the house.

The nails in the front door are rusted, and the wood of the door is corroded, but Quoyle is not able to open the door since the wood is hardened by time. The rusted nails, the hardened wood and the smoothed rock referred to later all show that the house can be seemingly defenceless but is actually stronger thanks to its long experience in braving external forces like the wind or even Quoyle heaving the planks off and wrenching the latch. Proulx vividly describes the planks as being so strong that heaving them off is like ‘pulling on the edge of the world’.

While Quoyle is demanding entry, the aunt and the children are also demanding authority over each other. Bunny, probably the older and more mature of the children, does not hesitate to slap a mosquito on Sunshine’s hand or to correct Sunshine’s childish comments. This shows her ability to stand up for what she thinks is the good or right thing to do, an ability that possibly develops from being the older sibling. The aunt also takes control of Sunshine when she threatens to beat Sunshine if she does not stop howling about wanting to take a glimpse of something that she cannot. The aunt’s face is red with anger and this shows that she is not really a cheerful person as opposed to an emotional one in general.

There is no mention of the aunt speaking any more until line 53, which may imply that she is deep in thought as she recollects the memories of her past. In lines 43 to 48, there is no apparent metaphorical language or special techniques being used except for maybe the repetition of the ‘r’ sound in the words, ‘rushed’, ‘room’, ‘fresh’ and ‘rooms’ in line 47, generating an unpleasant ambience as the children explore the house. Here, Proulx also displays Quoyle’s parenting style as Quoyle charmingly makes ghostly laughs and moans, but promptly tests the floorboards. This also insinuated that something might be hidden underneath them and the mention of ghosts could be alluding to mysterious forces that may surround the house.

By the time the aunt finally speaks up again, she is picking up a broken broom, showing the ugliness of the house once again in addition to the dusty air, loose door hinges, peeling wallpaper, rusted stovepipe and ruined tables. The chairs are said to be ‘unfit’ which brings back the personification of the house as a living being that is ‘unhealthy’, with so many flawed things inside it that are similar to corporal organs corroding the house’s body internally.

Perhaps once more in an attempt to make herself feel better, the aunt says, “Needs a good scurrifunging’, which shows her natural talent of finding something positive to say about a dire situation. This again also shows her direct character as she omits the pronoun ‘it’ at the beginning of her sentence. Proulx uses this technique of leaving out words that are not necessary for meaning throughout the entire passage in order to illustrate the aunt’s straightforward nature. As we near the end of the text, there is reference made to two pictures, each of a dead aunt. The aunt that we know best remembers their deaths and the reader can sense the grief she has felt for them.

I have actually read the entire novel some time ago but I do not enjoy the way in which Proulx has written this part of her story, as I find the text at this point to be getting rather tedious as Proulx still continues to put emphasis on the house’s gloominess, referring to the holes in the roof, the cracks in the ceiling, the definitively paint-slobbered chair, the slanted floorboards and the bare wood. I would like to think that perhaps the bleakness of the house is meant to have some greater purpose such as to worsen our impression of it so that improvements later on in the story will be more apparent, or perhaps Proulx describes the house so extensively to reflect upon how one of the characters actually see the house. Nonetheless, there were many things to look for meaning in, but I will not be reading this novel again any time soon.

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