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Free Study Guide/Summary for On The Beach by Nevil Shute - Free Book Notes
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The setting for On the Beach is primarily smaller towns and rural locations near Melbourne, Australia and Port Phillip Bay, in southern Australia, and the city of Melbourne itself. Part of the book takes place aboard a nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Scorpion, which makes two voyages of exploration, mostly submerged, north from Williamstown, outside of Melbourne. The first voyage is to northern Australian port cities. The major voyage is to the northern hemisphere, as far north as Seattle, Washington, and Kodiak, Alaska. The Scorpion is observing conditions and looking for signs of life after a nuclear war. It is presumed that the war, involving Albania, Egypt, America, Russia and China, has annihilated everyone in the northern hemisphere. Now radiation is slowly spreading southward and beginning to cause the residents of the southern hemisphere to get sick and die. This will continue until human life has vanished from the earth. Melbourne will be the last major city on earth to die.


Major Characters

Lieutenant Commander Peter Holmes

Of the Royal Australian Navy: probably in his middle to late 20’s; a devoted husband and father, diligent and dutiful naval officer living in the small town of Falmouth, which is on the beach close to Melbourne, nearly the southernmost part of Australia. Peter is posted to the Australian naval installation at Melbourne. Peter is assigned to the U. S. S. Scorpion, an American nuclear submarine commanded by Dwight Towers (see below). The Australian navy and the American navy are working together, and Peter is the Australian liaison officer aboard Scorpion.

Mary Holmes

Peter’s wife: twenty-something, a naval officer’s daughter born in England, a true “domestic goddess” whose life is happily devoted to her infant daughter, Jennifer, immaculate housekeeping in their small rented house, and gardening. Mary supports Peter’s career, rejoicing for him when he gets the liaison assignment because she knows how much it means to him to go to sea again.

Commander Dwight Towers

United States Navy: thirty-three years old, captain of the U. S. nuclear submarine, Scorpion. Dwight is a quiet, competent, simple man who follows U. S. Navy regulations by the book to the end. Though objectively he knows that his wife and children, in his home of Mystic, Connecticut, are all dead, along with everyone else in the northern hemisphere, Dwight always speaks of them in the present tense. After Peter and Mary Holmes introduce Dwight to Moira Davidson (below), Dwight has a discreet social relationship with Moira.

Moira Davidson

An attractive, outrageous, outspoken twenty-four year old country girl who graduated from college with honors in history; friend of Peter and Mary. Moira has been drowning her disappointment at the end of the world and her life, before she’s had a chance to realize her dreams of adult life, in excessive drinking and partying. She is introduced to Commander Dwight Towers by the Holmeses, and from then until the end of the book, she “dates” Dwight, always respecting his position that he is a married man.

John Osborne

Late twenties; a civilian scientific officer with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (C. S. I. R. O.) “Very tall and thin. Mousey sort of hair. Wears spectacles.” He is assigned to Scorpion to monitor radiation levels and collect scientific data as the submarine conducts reconnaissance in “safe” areas to assess conditions, gain information, and search for survivors. J. S. Osborne is related distantly to Moira, who describes him as “totally mad”.

Minor Characters

Lieutenant General Sir Douglas Froude

A cheerful, well-informed sixty-something; John Osborne’s great uncle; retired, but still with military bearing, white hair, and red face. He is dealing with impending doom by going to the Pastoral Club in Melbourne three times a week, trying his best to deplete the club’s stock of excellent port wine before the end, even taking home a bottle with him each time he leaves. At the end he is still unaffected by radiation sickness when almost everyone else is down. He can be expected to last somewhat longer than everyone else, since people whose systems are alcohol pickled are apparently more resistant to contamination.

Mr. Davidson

Moira’s father: a grazier, or cattleman. Hard-working, hospitable, gets along well with Dwight Towers. Like Mary Holmes, Mr. Davidson continues to plan several seasons ahead for improvements to his farm, and to work on them when he has time, knowing that he will not live to complete these projects. Knowing that his cattle will outlive him, he is concerned how best to arrange the storage of his hay and silage so the cattle can get to it to feed when he is gone. One of the last things he does is to have the gates of his paddock opened, so his cattle can range over the countryside to graze and find water.

Yeoman First Class Ralph Swain

A young radar operator on the Scorpion. During Scorpion’s primary reconnaissance mission to the area around Seattle, Washington, the sub passes Ralphie’s hometown, and he jumps overboard and swims to shore. He refuses Dwight’s order to return to the Scorpion and be decontaminated immediately, preferring to have his end come in his own town, where his parents, girl friend, and every other person and pet are already dead in their beds. When Scorpion passes the town of Edmonds on its way back south to Australia, Ralphie is out in his own boat fishing, and has caught a salmon.

Jennifer Holmes

Peter’s and Mary’s infant daughter. She is apparently around six to nine months old, since she is just beginning to crawl and to pull herself up and suck on things she gets hold of. She cuts her first tooth before the end. She is also described as sitting on her pot first thing in the morning. This would suggest to American readers in the twenty-first century that Jennifer is a toddler, but since she doesn’t say any words yet, and is consistently described as an infant, she is probably the younger age.

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