Comedic Transformation and Human Adaptability in Proulx’s The Shipping News
Deep in the heart of every human being lies a place, real or imaginary, where the boundaries of past and present are blurred beyond recognition, where the errors of long ago seem at once more distant and all the more relevant, and where the winds themselves whisper change. For the characters in E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, that place is the island of Newfoundland – to the protagonist Quoyle, his ancestral home; to his aunt, her childhood home; and to the rest, simply “home.” A great part of the novel’s outstanding poignancy can be traced exactly to Proulx’s portrayal of this homeland, especially its cataclysmic battle between days gone by and days yet to come, which contest is mirrored in the comedic hero’s own life. Indeed, it is the resolution of this conflict that ultimately forms the very heart of Quoyle’s comedic redemption.
That this resolution truly embodies Quoyle’s redemption, however, is somewhat surprising, for he is actually “reborn” in a number of ways, seemingly demonstrating a variety of comedic archetypes. He finds a new love to replace the one he lost (or never had to begin with), he finds success in a world in which success has always eluded him, and he patiently persists through what seems an eon of hardships, eventually prevailing. But in truth, every one of these accomplishments pales before the fundamental psychological and emotional transformation which Quoyle undergoes – coming to terms with his own tortured past. Through Quoyle’s ultimate overarching, albeit multifaceted, redemption, exemplifying the comedic archetype of “Beautiful Changes,” Proulx demonstrates an optimistic vision for humanity’s fundamental adaptability, with the protagonist serving as a microcosm of the greater human condition.
Among the clearest elements of Quoyle’s rebirth in The Shipping News is his eventual worldly success, despite a personal history of failure and derision. This accomplishment suggests a comically optimistic view of the world, reminiscent of Sandburg's poem “The People Will Live On;” specifically, that most anyone who persists through periods of difficulty, endless though they may seem, can find a place for themselves somewhere in the world. Proulx establishes Quoyle’s potential for this sort of rebirth very early in the novel, by characterizing him as having failed at everything he has ever attempted, ranging from being a poor student as a child to struggling through college to his low standard of performance at the Mockingbird Record. With such a miserable past, the success Quoyle finally obtains at the Gammy Bird is all the more impressive in its contrast, demonstrating a clear progression towards “worldly” or material redemption during the course of the novel.
However, what most emphasizes the aspect of change or transformation in Quoyle’s redemption is the manner in which he achieves his success. Despite a continuing awareness of his own failures and shortcomings, Quoyle maintains a vision of ultimate accomplishment. In this area, Quoyle follows the example of Partridge, who, until he moves to Newfoundland, is Quoyle’s only friend and therefore the most influential person in his life, after Petal: “Partridge saw beyond the present, got quick shots of coming events as through loose brain wires briefly connected. ... He was sure of his own good fortune” (4-5). And indeed, Partridge’s own material success in California seems to vindicate such an optimistic outlook towards the future, indicating a theme of redemption via a conscious effort to change one’s circumstances. That Quoyle himself, by the end of the novel, has something of Partridge’s vision of future prosperity becomes apparent only when he moves beyond merely persisting at the Gammy Bird and begins to thrive there. Specifically, when he is appointed successor to Tert Card as managing editor, Quoyle brings with him many innovative ideas for the paper, strongly suggesting that in fact he had envisioned himself filling that role even before he was placed in it. It is this conscious reach for prosperity, using the human gift of imagination, which defines the comedic archetype of “Beautiful Changes,” so that although other archetypes may seem applicable to Quoyle’s success, in fact it is most meaningful within the larger framework of his overall transformation. And because Quoyle’s own life clearly demonstrates just how dramatic humans’ capacity for change can be, as he progresses from the bottommost depths of failure to a meaningful, successful life, this transformation is indicative of the redeeming quality of human adaptability.
But Quoyle’s overall transformation goes beyond merely finding success in the face of a past full of failure; perhaps far more significant to him is that he finds within himself an ability he had thought long lost – the ability to love. Indeed, by far the most important person Quoyle meets in Newfoundland is Wavey Prowse, the first woman whom he sees himself as being able to love since his harrowing experiences with Petal. That he eventually learns to love her, and she to love him, proves quite a dramatic transformation, and one that is emphasized by her similarly conflicted feelings for her own deceased spouse. Proulx demonstrates clearly that until towards the end of The Shipping News, Quoyle is emotionally quite incapable of normal romantic relationships, first because of his “grotesque” appearance and personality and then because of the psychological damage done by Petal’s departure and demise. This is shown most clearly early in the novel, when Petal literally haunts Quoyle’s life, both in waking and in dreams, such as when she appears in a vision to him as he guts fish. But more dramatic is when he first begins to be attracted to Wavey, but finds himself reminded of Petal every time the thought of being with a woman crosses his mind. In fact, Wavey’s life is haunted in an analogous manner, but to perhaps an even greater extent. Fully aware of their mutual attraction, each of them is nonetheless unable to realize their feelings for fear of being hurt. For example, when Wavey uncontrollably launches into an explanation of Herold’s death, Quoyle thinks to himself, “...What of Petal’s essence riding under his skin like an injected vaccine against the plague of love? What was the point of touching Wavey’s dry hand?” (195).
Clearly, while the potential for love between the two is extremely powerful, this potential can never be realized while the memories of their respective spouses live on in their hearts. Quoyle’s approach to the topic of Petal’s death is actually one symbol for this remnant of his love; his unwillingness to explain to his daughters that their mother is not merely “sleeping” represents his overall reluctance to move on and leave Petal behind him. Similarly, Wavey’s insistence that he change this tack for sake of his daughters’ mental and spiritual health (and, implicitly, for his own) ultimately drives him to undergo the internal transformation which does enable him to move on. It is this transformation from an emotional incapacity for romantic love back to spiritual health, then, which adds another dimension to the “Beautiful Changes” Quoyle undergoes throughout the course of the book. When in fact Quoyle – and simultaneously, Wavey – comes to realize that “Petal wasn’t any good” (308), he is actually verging upon completing this transformation, a process finalized when the love he and Wavey share matures into a full relationship. Once again, however, this episode from Quoyle’s personal redemption represents a larger “lesson” in The Shipping News about human nature, which Proulx states explicitly in the final sentence: “And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery” (337), despite all evidence to the contrary. It is only humanity’s ability to change, to leave behind our painful pasts, which enables this to take place.
Finally, by far the subtlest, but certainly not least important, aspect of Quoyle’s comedic transformation and redemption centers on his escape from the ugly stain of his own family’s past. From the very inception of The Shipping News, the Quoyle clan is defined as an isolated and despicable bunch, a characterization which stems both from the physical isolation of Quoyle’s Point and their local reputation in Newfoundland, as well as from the horrible way in which Quoyle’s father and brother treat him as a child. In this way, the reader is led to observe, and agree with, the fact that the Quoyles have changed little from the days of old to Quoyle’s father’s own generation, who, while no longer “wrackers” by trade, retain much of the nastiness inherent in that way of life. And yet, the presence of characters like Aunt Hamm in this family implies that along with the despicable traits, the clan has a certain hardiness, as well as an adaptability, which proves to be far more indicative of Quoyle’s own personality. In Quoyle himself is realized the family’s ultimate transition from isolation to integration into society, as he leaves behind him once and for all everything of the bad name which he bears.
However, along with his own branch of the family, another Quoyle, the mysterious, crazy old cousin also demonstrates perseverance and hardiness. Indeed, another important aspect of Quoyle’s escape from his family history is when he commits the old cousin to an asylum in St. John’s. For ultimately, the old man’s Quoyle-craziness wins out, as he attacks the hospital with a jagged piece of glass, but Quoyle, as the one who brought about the man’s imprisonment in the first place, remains separate and apart from this violence, and can be confident in the knowledge that he has done the right thing, both for the man himself and for his own family’s safety. Incidentally, Quoyle is not the only one in his family who has to leave that family’s brutal past behind; in just the same way, Aunt Hamm seeks to free herself from that burden, as evinced by her hard work to establish her business. But more significant to her own liberation, and to Quoyle’s, is when he confronts her about his father’s sexual abuse of her as a child. While she does not seek therapy, or even openly speak about the issue, the fact that it is known by another, even if that other is merely Quoyle, frees her from some of her burden of silent suffering, and enables her to move on. Similarly, in coming to full realization of what a terrible person his father was, Quoyle, who never got along with the man anyway, helps himself to escape more fully from his own unhappy childhood, and thus the stigma of the Quoyle family’s past.
In the end, however, the most important image with regards to this aspect of Quoyle’s transformation and “moving on” is the demise of the house on Quoyle’s Point, by Act of God. Shortly, following the night of the storm, and Bunny’s dream of the house’s destruction, Quoyle “...felt spasms of joy. For no reason that he could think of except the long daylight or the warmth, or because the air was so clear and sweet he felt he was just learning to breathe” (320). When the disappearance of the house is confirmed, this springtime imagery may be more clearly understood as a reference to change for the better – that is, to the comedic archetype of “Beautiful Changes” – centering around this very abandonment of the Quoyle family’s bitter past. Also indicative of this is the aunt’s own reaction, as she resolves to move on, to roll with the punches and take the loss of her childhood home for what it is: the loss of a place of misery and torment, especially for her. All in all, Quoyle’s ability to move on beyond his family’s unhappy past and look towards a more positive future is further demonstration of human adaptability, and therefore represents the final major part of the protagonist’s redemptive, “Beautiful Change.”
On the whole, this archetype of positive transformation is what truly defines The Shipping News as a comedy; by displaying humanity’s capacity to triumph in the face of adversity, to love again where love was once lost, and to leave behind a tormented past, Quoyle serves as a beacon of hope for human redemption in general. It is important to recognize, however, that not all change is for the better, although in Quoyle’s case, his life was so bad that perhaps it could not have gotten any worse.
Indeed, it is ironic to think that the same mutability of fate that leads to Jack Buggit’s drowning also leads to his resurrection; that the same unstoppable march of progress which promises to revive the Newfoundland economy with oil money also threatens the local fishing culture with pollution and increased regulation. But in a sense, Proulx’s message in The Shipping News is that change happens, for better or for worse, and that to try to escape it is to resist the very nature of being human. Because of this, perhaps, places such as Newfoundland, where the past is somehow more tangible and within reach than elsewhere, are all the more valuable, and yet also more melancholy. However, although there is sadness inherent in the fact that sooner or later everything must change, there is also hope in the knowledge that there is always something new and different – a change, a redemption, a transformation – waiting to blow in with the changing of the seasons.
Node your homework.
All textual references are to the hardcover edition of the book.