The Shipping News

It is called loss of soul among indigenous people--something like being in a half-coma, a zombie-like, living-dead existence. Nowadays we call it chronic depression--a state of low energy, loss of meaning and vitality, despair, aimlessness, ennui.
A Man's Journey to Recover His Soul:
Psychological Reflections on the Movie
"The Shipping News"
by Gary Toub, Ph.D.

There is … the fairly general assumption that an invisible substance, separable from the material body, is responsible for the phenomena which distinguish the living from the dead. … According to the views of some peoples, this element is the 'soul' or 'life-substance' of a person, and its temporary separation from the body leads to illness or loss of consciousness, while permanent separation causes death.
     Man, Myth, and Magic (1970, p. 2636)
It is called loss of soul among indigenous people--something like being in a half-coma, a zombie-like, living-dead existence. Nowadays we call it chronic depression--a state of low energy, loss of meaning and vitality, despair, aimlessness, ennui. In the beginning of the movie "The Shipping News," we are introduced to Quoyle, a man suffering from such a condition. There is clearly something psychologically wrong with him. The film suggests he was crippled early in life by unloving, critical parents--especially his father. In a repetitive dream image, Quoyle re-experiences a childhood scene--his father yelling at him for not being able to swim. "What's wrong with you!" his father admonishes, after throwing Quoyle into the deep, cold water. "Just dog-paddle with your hands and feet." Quoyle slowly sinks below the surface. Looking up, he sees only a glimmer of daylight filtering through the water. Symbolically, this image depicts Quoyle's soulless condition. His ego has fallen into the chilling, dark waters of the unconscious, the spirit of life dim and out of reach.

The Negative Father

As he grows up, Quoyle is repeatedly unable to live up to his castrating father's expectations. As a young man. he loses one job after another and drops out of college. Soon enough, his father expects only failure from him. Under these conditions, Quoyle has fallen prey to a horrific father complex. Like the Greek god Uranus, the negative father complex psychologically devours him. He has no chance to develop his own identity. The fact that he goes by his family name, Quoyle, rather than his given name, shows that he has not emerged as an individual. His identity is determined solely by his paternal lineage. Yet he is unconscious even of that. He has no idea who he is or what being a Quoyle means.

By adulthood, Quoyle has become a pathetic, beaten man who expects little out of life. He is isolated and alone. He has lost touch with his feelings and emotions. In an early scene in the movie, Quoyle is working unenthusiastically at his lackluster job as an ink setter at a local newspaper. Machines surround him, incessantly moving papers from here to there. That is how his life is--repetitious, circular, and mechanical. All that exists is the dull, monotonous activity of the unconscious complex that runs machinelike in Quoyle's psyche. In the distance, however, a sign is visible--"Emergency Equipment, Life Support." Symbolically, this suggests that there is something in Quoyle's background, in the unconscious, that could provide emergency assistance. Dormant in Quoyle's psyche is the potential to restore him to life.

The Anima

In the next scene, we see Quoyle sitting in his car at a gas station, a symbol of potentially mobilizing energy. It is here that an event occurs that radically alters Quoyle's psychic inertia. An animated, feisty, attractive woman is fighting with her boyfriend. Quoyle watches passively while she grabs her things and jumps in his car. "Come on, let's go!" she urges Quoyle. Already she is creating movement and excitement in his dull life. This is Petal. She talks fast and a lot. She is aggressive, brash, flirtatious, selfish, and has an enormous appetite for food and sex. There's no shyness in this soul. "Let's eat," she says. Quoyle is mesmerized and drawn to this trampy, seductive siren. "You want to marry me, don't you?" Petal teases. He does. Within hours, they are in bed together, she on top, riding him like a bucking bronco--except she's the one doing all the bucking. Quoyle is in shock.

Petal symbolizes Quoyle's anima, the feminine energy in his psyche that can either connect him to his own individual life or destroy him. According to Marie-Louise von Franz (1964), a figure such as Petal represents the lowest form of the anima. She typically first emerges in a man's psyche through sexual attraction and physical beauty. An immature anima, Petal nevertheless succeeds in awakening Quoyle's unconscious sexual appetite and primitive capacity for love. Furthermore, she exposes him to her expressiveness, aliveness, and spontaneity. He sees in her the possibility of being active in life, going after what one wants, taking what one desires. Petal's presence in Quoyle's life suggests these qualities are coming closer to consciousness.

Quoyle and Petal marry and have a daughter, Bunny. This informs us that something has been born from this initial coniunctio between ego and anima--a young feminine, a new image of the anima. The daughter's name is Bunny--a child's name for a rabbit. As a symbol, a rabbit represents the timidity and fear that has stultified Quoyle. But a rabbit is also known for being extremely fertile and reproductive, a symbol of springtime (new growth after the winter) and resurrection. Though fearful, this rabbit-anima has the potential to give birth to a multitude of new possibilities. When she comes of age, she will be able to produce new life in Quoyle's psyche. Until then, the ego must learn to nurture and protect this vulnerable young part of the psyche.

In the meantime, the darker side of Quoyle's anima starts to emerge. Petal becomes bored and critical of her husband. He is incapable of fulfilling her insatiable appetite. A puella aeternus, Petal is used to living life on the edge. She begins having affairs with strangers. She sells her daughter to the black market. These behaviors represent the destructive aspect of this immature anima. She can give birth to new life, but she is not responsible enough to protect, nurture, and develop it. Instead, she abandon's the new potential as she compulsively satisfies her own hedonistic desires. In the end, Petal crashes her speeding car over the edge of a road into the water below. Symbolically, her energy has been driven back into the unconscious. Fortunately, Quoyle is able to retrieve Bunny. He cares for her as best he can, consumed by his grief over the loss of his first love.

Death, the Wise Old Woman, and the Journey to his Roots

At about the same time, Quoyle receives a phone message that his parents have committed suicide. There have now been three deaths--almost simultaneously. In the collective unconscious, the symbol of death often occurs as a harbinger of change, the first stage of the death-rebirth archetype. Old structures no longer useful to the psyche are destroyed, new patterns formed. Deaths of this magnitude can indicate nothing less than a huge transformation in the works--a complete new beginning in this individual's psyche. New male and female imagos will need to emerge. Big changes are in store for Quoyle.

Soon after the deaths, Quoyle's long lost Aunt Agnis (his father's sister) shows up unexpectedly. She symbolizes the arrival of new, positive feminine energy. She is both maternal and guiding. Like Dante's Beatrice, this anima figure leads Quoyle away from his suffering to completely new psychological territory--Newfoundland, the new-found-land in Quoyle's psyche. Agnis is a complex and rich character. She is an earthy, mysterious woman who exudes a kind of Sophia/Wise Old Woman feeling. She knows things Quoyle does not. She imparts her advice in frank, pithy remarks. She has a shadowy trickster side too--she is bold, sneaky, and sacrilegious. For example, when Quoyle isn't looking, she steals his father's ashes (indicating something more will happen with the remains of the father complex).

We learn that Agnis is returning to the Quoyle family's ancestral home. Taking Quoyle with her indicates that the ego is being guided towards deeper roots in the unconscious, the ancestral layer of the psyche. In order to learn who he is, he must uncover his psychological roots. His unknown legacy and his unconscious potential lie hidden there. Going back to the home of his ancestors is also a form of returning to the womb where rebirth can occur.

After crossing a body of water, the three wayfarers--Agnis, Quoyle, and Bunny--come upon the old family home near Killick-Claw, Nova Scotia. It is a huge house, abandoned for 40 years, standing alone on a rocky outlook. According to Aunt Agnis, it is structurally sound. It just needs some work. The house and its stark environs are imbued with a sense of magic and mystery. People who live here speak of curses and ghosts. This is an image of a psychological realm closely connected to the collective unconscious. It is here that the deepest psychological changes occur. That there are three travelers is significant. The number three is frequently associated with transformation and change over time. In many fairytales, a threesome leads to a fourth--a final outcome, the completion of a process.

Before long, a local youth arrives and begins reconstructing the house to make it habitable. Here we see the appearance of constructive masculine energy going to work in Quoyle's psyche, fixing things up, making this important aspect of his psychology ready to be integrated. This young man personifies the spirit of renewal. He might be likened to Osiris, the Egyptian god of death and rebirth. In fact, like Osiris, the youth nearly drowned once and had to be miraculously rescued and brought back to life.

Quoyle's daughter, Bunny, begins to demonstrate mediumistic qualities in this new land, suggesting the young anima is tuning in to unseen psychic forces. For example, she "hears" that the old Quoyle house is sad. This suggests Quoyle's anima is receptive to emotions and feelings. She can tell that the house doesn't like being "tied down." Quoyle's ancestors secured the house to the rocks by huge cables--presumably to secure it against the powerful winds that blow at the ocean's edge. It is an excellent image for something having been bound up, or repressed, in Quoyle's psyche. He, like the house, has been unable to be moved by the spirit, or winds, of change. The psyche doesn't like it.

The Positive Father

Before long, Quoyle looks for work at the local newspaper. He just wants to work in the same low level job he had before. This is what C. G. Jung (1953) calls the regressive restoration of the persona, the psychological dynamic of slipping back to an old adaptation in the face of a new challenge. But Quoyle's psyche doesn't allow this to happen. The newspaper's publisher, Jack Buggit, follows a hunch and hires Quoyle as a reporter, even though Quoyle has no experience or obvious talent. He's to cover local car wrecks and the shipping news. Jack symbolizes a new father imago, one that is positive and supportive. In one scene, Quoyle tells Jack he is afraid of the sea. "Nonsense," Jacks says. "You are a Quoyle--you're a water person." He believes in Quoyle's potential and gives him an opportunity to learn and grow. This father figure's positive intuition replaces that of Quoyle's negative father complex, which expected only failure. Jack Buggit's role as a rescuing positive father is further emphasized in the movie by the fact that Jack had once single-handedly saved the life of his own son.

To be a news reporter, Quoyle learns that he will have to develop several new capacities: To be more conscious and observant (i.e., be "present")
To differentiate what has value and meaning from the mundane and ordinary (i.e., develop his feeling function)
To cultivate his imagination and creativity (i.e., see the world more colorfully)
A fellow reporter teaches Quoyle to "invent" interesting headlines for things he observes. For example, in one funny exchange, Quoyle looks at the weather and says the headline would be, "Distant dark clouds over the sea." "No, no, no," his mentor replies. That is "Ominous storm threatens local village." "But what if it blows in another direction?" Quoyle queries. "Well, then, 'Village spared from savage storm!'" In essence, Quoyle is getting lessons in feeling life more dramatically. Poetic imagination is being called forth.

The Mature Anima, the Wise Old Man, and the Integration of Evil

As one might expect, Quoyle's feelings begin to stir more strongly. He develops a love interest in Wavey Prowse, a single mother with a mentally retarded son. However, Quoyle is reluctant to fully acknowledge his feelings and his desire. Wavey represents a new anima image, one that is more mature than Petal. For example, Wavey can clearly nurture new life. In addition to being a single mother for a slow-developing young male, she runs a child care center. This anima is steady and strong, and has a sense of humor. As a friend, she supports Quoyle's burgeoning ego strength. She also confronts Quoyle after a near fatal boating accident. She doesn't dwell on his failure, but challenges him to get a better boat and learn how to use it. Like Jack, Wavey challenges Quoyle to look forward to his future. She does not coddle his fears. Instead, she encourages him to take risks and enjoy living.

Quoyle develops his relationship with this anima, helped by the friendly chiding and nudging of his coworkers, beneficent masculine shadow figures. He also encounters two Wise Old Man figures who tell him things about his dark family history. It turns out the Quoyles of Newfoundland had been pirates--a selfish, greedy, destructive lot who tricked, murdered, and pillaged innocent people. They were eventually driven out by the local townsfolk. Quoyle also learns that his ancestral home is cursed. Quoyle's psyche foments. He has disturbing dreams of violence, aggression, and greed as his psyche struggles to integrate his abominable roots.

In the midst of this calcinatio process, Quoyle learns another disturbing fact--his father had raped his aunt when she was young. Quoyle now becomes conscious of his father's terrible violence against the feminine. Likewise, he discovers and eventually empathizes with Aunt Agnis' rage towards his father. This helps him process and accept these same emotions in himself--his own rage towards his destructive, overpowering, negative father. "Can I ever recover from such a horrible trauma?" he wonders. Aunt Agnis answers in the affirmative. She reveals to Quoyle her deep love for another woman with whom she had partnered. This lets Quoyle know that the damage can be healed through love.

Ego Strength and the Feeling Function

Quoyle continues to develop his relationship with three archetypal aspects of the feminine--the young maiden (Bunny), the mother (Wavey), and the crone (Aunt Agnis), along with the positive masculine energy embodied by his boss and two of his coworkers. Through his work reporting auto accidents, Quoyle gets more comfortable confronting tragedy. By learning about boating, he overcomes his fear of water. Quoyle also makes progress in tapping his imagination and identifying the main story, or meaning, in events.

Quoyle has developed a much stronger ego now. He begins to stand for his own values instead of complying with what he is told to do all the time. Having become conscious of the shadow, Quoyle takes the initiative to publish two significant stories. One is an expose about oil tanker spills, demonstrating his ego's capacity to fight against things that destroy life. The other is a piece about a yacht that once belonged to Hitler. This symbolizes his awareness of archetypal shadow and evil.

Stronger, more confident, Quoyle buys his own little boat, a symbol of his newly developed ego strength. One day, however, he encounters a decapitated body in the ocean. This literally throws him off balance and overboard. He nearly drowns. Archetypally, this encounter with death portends further transformation.

After learning about his cursed ancestry, Quoyle decides it's time to move out of his ancestral home. There is a positive feeling to this transition. It represents another step in Quoyle's individuation. Having integrated his dark past, he is ready to move on psychologically. His libido is now free to energize his romantic feelings toward Wavey. He chooses to temporarily live with the young man who helped rebuild his house (i.e., youthful, constructive male energy). Moving in with the Dennis Buggit also foreshadows a new syzygy, for this man is in a loving, stable marriage.

Transformation, Wholeness, and Recovery of the Soul

The movie ends with three final symbols of transformation:

The family house on Quoyle Point blows away, cables and all. Having been confronted and integrated, the power of the spirit removes Quoyle's haunted past. A hermetic coworker departs by plane after his boat is destroyed by drunken townspeople. When tragedy hits, this positive shadow has the capacity to facilely modify the means to change. Quoyle's boss and surrogate father drowns and is taken for dead; at his wake, he awakens. Another curse is broken.
Along with these symbols of change, the union between Quoyle and his anima, Wavey, deepens and they have sex together for the first time. This is clearly a healthy, healing coniunctio, a symbol of psychic wholeness. In the film's closing scene, Quoyle's mediumistic daughter takes him to see that his ancestral home has indeed vanished, blown away by the winds of change. Witnessing this awesome site, Quoyle creates one final headline: "Enormous storm destroys old family home. New view created." With these words, Quoyle acknowledges the power of the spirit in creating a new vision of life. His past no longer blocks his capacity to experience the vast landscape of his psyche.

By the end of the movie, much has changed in Quoyle's psychology. He is a water person--in touch with his energy and the mysterious depths of his psyche. He is capable of love, passion, and intimacy. He is able to know and express his feelings and emotions, including anger and love. He is creative and has a new capacity for imagination. He is more open to intuitive knowing and the irrational. He has integrated the dark shadow of greed, violence, cruelty, and destruction. At the same time, he has developed self-confidence, self-knowledge, the strength to go after what he wants, and the courage to stand alone when necessary. Quoyle has discovered who he is. He has regained his soul.

© Gary Toub 2003
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Cavendish, R. (Ed.) (1970). Man, myth, and magic. New York: Marshall Cavendish.

Jung, C. G. (1953). Two essays on analytical psychology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Von Franz, M.-L. (1964). The process of individuation. In C. G. Jung (Ed.), Man and his symbols. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Gary Toub, Ph.D., a Jungian analyst in private practice in Denver, is Training Director of the C. G. Jung Institute of Colorado, as well as a member of the Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts.