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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

SHORT PLOT / CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)

On the Beach opens with Peter Holmes preparing to report to Australian navy headquarters to receive his next assignment in the Royal Australian Navy. At the interview with his superior officer, Peter is informed that he has been assigned as liaison officer aboard the U. S. S. Scorpion, an American nuclear submarine. The sub is one of only two useful vessels working with the Australian fleet. Both are American nuclear submarines, which happened to be south of the Equator when a quick, confused nuclear war annihilated human life in the northern hemisphere. They are useful because they do not require petroleum based fuel, which before the war was imported to Australia from north of the Equator. The Australian navy has experimented with converting some of its fleet to coal powered, with unsatisfactory results.

After determining what had happened in the war, the scattered remnants of the American navy have been commanded by their ranking officer to put themselves under command of the Australian navy, which is now using the two subs to assess conditions in the war zone. It seems that they can safely navigate into the area if their supply of uncontaminated air is adequate, and if they remain submerged. Like its sister sub, the U. S. S. Swordfish, Scorpion is to use its periscope and loud hailer (loudspeaker) to determine if there is anyone left alive in its area of exploration, and to measure radiation levels going north from Melbourne, the southernmost city in Australia.

Their mission is to determine the accuracy of conclusions that radiation fallout from the cobalt bombs used in the war has killed everyone in the northern hemisphere. Furthermore, contrary to popular perception in Australia before the war, the shifting of direction in the equatorial winds will send the fallout into the southern hemisphere, and scientists believe the fallout will engulf the rest of the earth, killing the entire remaining population. A significant part of Scorpion’s mission is to take radiation levels to determine if this seems correct.


On his way to and from his interview, near Melbourne, from the little town of Falmouth, where Peter lives on the beach with his young wife Mary, and his infant daughter, Jennifer, Peter makes arrangements to get milk to Mary while he is at sea. This is a problem because there is no petrol (gasoline) available for private use, so Mary cannot drive the car into town to get the milk.

Peter meets the American sub captain, Dwight Towers. Peter thinks that probably Cmdr. Towers had a wife and children, who are all dead in the United States, although Peter doesn’t ask. On impulse, Peter invites his new superior officer to come to Falmouth for the weekend, and Dwight accepts. Mary Holmes invites a friend living in the country outside Falmouth and Melbourne, Moira Davidson, to join them. Moira drinks too much, but she’s lively company, and Mary hopes that if there’s never a dull moment, the American won’t break down at the evidence of family life and home, as other northern hemisphere natives, whose families and homes are all gone, have done at their house. Moira and Dwight get along well, in spite of the fact that she does drink too much, and Moira, not Dwight, breaks down as they talk about the end of the world. The weekend, including a sailing race and a small party at the Holmeses’, is a pleasant success. Dwight and Moira plan to see each other again, when Dwight is not busy with duties concerning Scorpion’s upcoming refit and voyages.

A week or two later, Moira visits Dwight aboard the Australian ship where he berths when ashore, and tours the submarine. She is upset by John Osborne’s implacable insistence that the knowledge they gain on these voyages is worth searching for, even if they won’t live to use it. She learns over dinner with Dwight that he still thinks of his wife and children as alive. He is grateful to have his responsibilities for the sub to keep him busy, but his idea that he is going home to Mystic, Connecticut, and will see his family in September (when scientists believe the radiation sickness will hit Melbourne) is very real to him. Moira tells Dwight that she’s been unable to find a job since she graduated from college, because she can’t type or take shorthand. It seems pointless to her to learn those skills, but Dwight says it would be a better way to pass her time until the end than drinking too much.

On the first trip Scorpion makes, they pass by northern Australian cities where the radiation fallout has already arrived. They find no signs of life, except for a black dog that runs to the end of a dock in one of the cities and barks at them as they pass. They have strict orders not to take aboard any living creature, not even a human, that might have been contaminated by radiation.

Peter, Mary, Dwight and Moira have a chance to see each other and relax a little before Scorpion leaves on her second, longer voyage. Peter takes care of a matter that concerns him, in case radiation sickness gets to Melbourne and Falmouth sooner than predicted, while he is still at sea. He goes to a chemist’s shop (drug store) and purchases suicide pills for himself and Mary, plus a lethal injection for their baby. He shows Mary how to use the syringe for Jennifer, so that once Jennifer has gotten sick, she will not be left alone and sick if Mary dies first. Mary becomes hysterical, screaming that she won’t murder her baby, and that Peter hates Jennifer and wants to get rid of both of them. She eventually calms down and apologizes to Peter.

Between the two voyages of the Scorpion, Dwight also makes some preparations for his family. On a weekend visit at the home of Moira’s parents, Dwight sees a battered pogo stick that belonged to Moira when she was about the age of Dwight’s daughter Helen. He decides that a pogo stick would be the perfect present for Helen. He spends a day shopping in Melbourne, where he buys a fishing rod for his son, Dwight Junior, an emerald and diamond bracelet for his wife, Sharon, but has no luck finding a pogo stick. When Moira hears from a friend of her mother’s that Dwight has been inquiring about pogo sticks, Moira promises him that she will find him one for Helen. Dwight kisses Moira, telling her that the kiss is from Sharon, too, for helping to find Helen’s present.

Scorpion sets off on its mission to investigate the western coast of the United States, as far north as Kodiak, Alaska. The cities look eerily undisturbed, but no one responds to their calls through the loud hailer for survivors. Somewhat north of Seattle, the Scorpion passes by the seaside town of Edmonds, Washington. Edmonds is the hometown of a radar operator aboard Scorpion, Yeoman First Class Ralph Swain. The Captain lets Ralphie look through the periscope, and Ralph is surprised that the drugstore’s neon sign is on in the daytime. It’s not like the druggist to waste electricity. Obviously the drug store is open, since the shades are up and the door is unlocked. A few minutes later, when the executive officer takes back the periscope, Ralph Swain goes out the hatch of the submarine and starts swimming toward the jetty at the end of Main Street in Edmonds. He refuses to return to the Scorpion when ordered to do so, even though the captain promises that they will risk taking him back on board, if he comes back immediately and goes through decontamination. The Scorpion leaves Yeoman Swain in Edmonds and continues north. John Osborne responds to Dwight’s queries about how long Ralphie will last in Edmonds. At the radiation levels there, Ralph will probably start vomiting the next night, and will likely live no longer than one week.

Another objective of Scorpion’s voyage is to investigate the source of an erratic, occasional radio signal that’s been intercepted since the end of the war. Once in a while, actual words can be decoded from the transmissions. The military officers who’ve studied the situation guess that the source of these radio transmissions is two huge radio towers on Santa Maria Island, in the middle of the channel beyond Edmonds. When Scorpion gets to Santa Maria, the lights are on there, and the crew speculates about whether the generators there could have kept working for two years without maintenance. A crew member disembarks on Santa Maria in a radiation suit to search for the source of the signal. While looking, he finds the building in a seeming state of normalcy, except for the decomposing bodies at the desks, in the rest rooms, etc. The source of the mysterious transmissions turns out to be a window frame that blew out of place in an air blast associated with a nuclear explosion. The frame is resting on the radio console in such a way that occasionally the wind moves it onto the keys. The Scorpion crewman broadcasts a message explaining that there will be no further transmissions from this site, then switches the transmitter off. He is tempted by all the evidence of everyday American life in the office, and finally takes an issue of The Saturday Evening Post, a weekly magazine, to decontaminate and read back in the submarine.

As he heads back to the submarine, the crewman is surprised to come upon a party in progress - men with drinks lifted, women’s summer dresses blowing in the breeze - until he realizes that the partygoers are all dead, stopped in their tracks by the nuclear blast. The radio officer gets back to Scorpion, gets decontaminated, and the sub continues north.

Scorpion’s crew finds nothing of note near Kodiak, Alaska, where they turn and head south, back toward Australia. When they pass Edmonds, Washington again, they see Ralph Swain fishing in the channel in his own boat. He has caught a salmon. Everyone in Edmonds is dead, including his parents and his girlfriend. He is not sick yet. Dwight tells him to take care of himself.

Scorpion returns to port in Australia, and official reports are made to the commanders of the Australian navy. Nothing unexpected has been discovered, and the Jorgensen effect, named for the scientist who hypothesized it, has been disproved. The Jorgensen effect theorized that the radiation dissipated much faster than previously thought, so that there might be hope for life on earth to continue.

Dwight is sick with the flu when he reports off of Scorpion, so he spends some time at Harkaway, where Moira lives, and gets to know her parents, especially her father, better. Mr. Davidson is planning improvements to his farm as if the end will not come, on the one hand. On the other hand, he is worrying about how his cattle will fare after he’s dead, since he’s heard that most animals will outlive humans.

Moira has found a factory that made a pogo stick for Dwight’s daughter, Helen. Dwight is touched that Moira kept her promise to find him a pogo stick to take home for his daughter’s birthday. He also wants to try out his son Junior’s present, a fishing pole. They plan a fishing trip for the beginning of the last trout season, and have a wonderful time in the mountains with throngs of people from all over Australia who want to enjoy the last chance to catch trout before the end.

John Osborne has begun driving his Ferrari, running it on a mixture of ethanol and other fuel. Many people have brought out their cars and begun using up their secret hoards of gasoline. Osborne enters several auto races in his Ferrari, and determines to race in the Australian Grand Prix., which he wins while Moira and Dwight are on their fishing trip.

Peter Holmes buys several items for Mary to use caring for their baby, house and yard, and humors her plans for the garden and the ways they’ll enjoy it next year.

Sir Douglas Froude is doing his best to consume his club’s stock of excellent sherry before the end.

Throughout Australia, there are two phenomena at play. On one hand, more and more businesses are shutting down because there is little or no demand for their goods or services, and because the staffs and the owners have quit and gone home to wait for the end. Melbourne is “piggy”, as Mary says, because no one is enforcing vagrancy laws, cleaning the streets, or hauling away the trash. On the other hand, college enrollment is at record numbers as students decide to go on with what’s left of their lives rather than be purposeless. People are enjoying their pleasures with greater abandon than ever before. Like the crowds of people in the mountain resort for the start of trout fishing season, there are crowds at the races preliminary to the Grand Prix, and at the culminating race.

Finally the radiation fallout and the ensuing sickness reach Melbourne, Harkaway, and Falmouth. Peter and Mary Holmes administer the lethal drug to their daughter, then get into bed and toast each other as they take their doses. John Osborne sits in the red Ferrari in which he won the Grand Prix to take his drug. Dwight Towers dismisses all the members of his crew who want to stay in Melbourne and meet their end with their Australian wives and girlfriends. He has been made commander in chief of the U. S. Navy when the last officer outranking him, in Brisbane, knew he was about to succumb to radiation sickness, and cabled Dwight to turn over command to him. Dwight, the dutiful soldier to the end, follows Navy policy because it seems the best alternative he has. He will not allow Scorpion to fall into unauthorized hands, with all of its highly classified and sensitive technology. He has resolved to sail it into international waters and sink it with the skeleton crew that remains aboard. Moira leaves her parents’ house knowing it’s the last time she’ll see them alive, and drives to a high point overlooking the waters through which Dwight will pass in his submarine. True to Navy procedure, Dwight has refused to allow Moira or any of the other crew members’ girlfriends or wives to depart with them on Scorpion. Moira spots the sub, asks Dwight to wait for her, because she’s coming too, and downs her suicide pill.

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