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Free Study Guide/Summary for On The Beach by Nevil Shute - Free Book Notes
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ON THE BEACH BY NEVIL SHUTE

CONFLICT

Protagonist

The protagonist in On the Beach is the human race, especially as personified by Peter and Mary Holmes, Dwight Towers, and Moira Davidson.

Antagonist

The antagonist is doom, that is, premature, recognized, sure death by radiation sickness. All of the characters, including all the unnamed inhabitants of Australia who are described in the story, struggle to understand and accept the fact that they know when they will die, and it will be soon. Not only do they know when they will die, plus or minus a few months, the world as they’ve known it is already dead or dying. There is no one alive in the northern hemisphere, all the great cities there silenced, though some of them look the same as they did when human beings lived there. This is an eerie element that makes it hard to accept the end of the world, as the poet T. S. Eliot said, “Not with a bang but a whimper”.

When Scorpion surveys Seattle, it looks remarkably normal, except for one twisted and crumpled bridge, and the complete absence of human beings. Some of the characters plan ahead for projects they will not live to complete, and some, like Moira’s cattleman father, plan for the welfare of the people or creatures that might survive a little bit longer than themselves, like Mr. Davidson’s livestock and some people’s pets.

Most of the characters carry on with life, adapted to the new realities of having no petroleum, for example (since all of it came from the northern hemisphere), but more or less as normal. All of them occasionally mention the objective fact that the end is near, and make plans for what they will actually do when they get radiation sickness. But this does not seem as real to them as their own lives, and their plans for the future as if there were no impending doom.

This feeling that life will go on seems to be an overriding theme of life in post-nuclear Melbourne, Australia: the human desire to live, to cherish family, to pursue interests, curiosity, and plans for the future blunts the crash at the end of the world. There are some people whose philosophy is, “Don’t fear the worst, because it may never happen.” They are not convinced that the scientists are right about the impossibility of survival. There are even scientists who hypothesize that the nuclear radiation in the northern hemisphere will dissipate faster than they had anticipated, based on the half-life of the elements involved, so that by the time it reaches the southern hemisphere it may not be universally fatal. After all, they’ve never dealt with nuclear fallout in these quantities, and with all the atmospheric factors of the planet affecting the outcome. This Jorgensen effect, named after the scientist who proposed it, is disproved on the main voyage of the Scorpion.


At first there are predictable reactions to the news that doom is closing in on the seemingly unscathed survivors. Many people, like Moira, indulge in reckless behavior as if there were no tomorrow whatsoever. At the beginning of the book, the bars in Melbourne have never been busier, and especially since there is no longer vehicular traffic there, the police simply allow the drunks to lie passed out in the streets. Toward the end the city becomes “piggy”, as Mary says, because there is almost no business being conducted, the public transportation is barely functioning, no garbage collection or street cleaning takes place. Everyone has stopped working and gone home to family to wait for the end. At the Australian Grand Prix, the drivers use their precious, carefully hoarded petrol (gasoline) up with abandon, and take risks as if there were no tomorrow, because there isn’t. When a driver crashes and dies, other drivers do not hesitate to salvage parts from his car, and his wife and crew willingly allow them to do so.

Climax

But another phenomenon occurs as the story approaches its climax in September, when scientists think the radiation will hit Melbourne. A year or two has passed since the war, and many college age people like Moira, who had left school, enroll for classes to continue pursuing their education. They do this in record numbers, so that university officials have trouble hiring enough teachers to handle them all. Moira and Dwight go to the countryside for a weekend of trout fishing (where they stay in separate rooms, because he is a married man), and the resort is more crowded than Moira has ever seen it. In the café the night before they plan to start fishing, everyone is debating baits and fishing techniques with the excitement and zest of a child on Christmas morning.

Outcome

The outcome of the conflict is that the radiation sickness reaches Melbourne, and one by one everyone, including all the major characters, dies. Many of them choose their end using suicide pills and injections that have become available in the chemists’ (pharmacists’) shops. The chemist shop girl who waits on one of the characters says that when the time comes, she’s going to take hers with an ice cream soda. John Osborne comes home to find his mother dead, with a note expressing her concern for her Pekinese. He euthanizes the dog and puts it on his mother’s bed. Then he goes to sit in the red Ferrari in which he won the Grand Prix, and takes his dose there. When Moira leaves her house for the last time, she knows she’ll never see her parents alive again; they don’t plan to take the suicide drug; they are simply too sick to last. The book ends with Moira downing her pill, as she watches Dwight’s submarine off the southern coast of Australia, where he is going to sink the sub, with his crew, in international waters. The conflict may be ironically encapsulated by the fact that the last two people we see alive in the book are the man who says he’s going home to see his family, and the girl who went back to school to improve her job skills.

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