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Free Study Guide/Summary for On The Beach by Nevil Shute - Free Book Notes
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Chapter 1 establishes the state of the world and two of the primary locations in Australia where most of the book’s action takes place. It also introduces the four major characters, and reveals what their activities will be for the next several months, the main framework of the plot.

The book begins with Peter Holmes awakening at home in Falmouth, on the beach near Melbourne, one of the southernmost locations in Australia. The geography is significant, because we soon learn that there has been a one month long nuclear war in the northern hemisphere, and after massive seismic activity, loss of radio contact, plus some observations of “dust” clouds and high radiation levels above the Equator, naval personnel and authorities below the Equator have concluded that everyone in the northern hemisphere is dead of radiation sickness due to cobalt bomb fallout. Furthermore, as the seasons change and the Pressure Equator shifts (it moves, unlike the geographic Equator), the winds of the northern hemisphere are blowing radioactive particles, heavy and light, through the atmosphere of what later is the southern hemisphere, when the Pressure Equator shifts. That means that winds full of radiation fallout are working their way south toward Antarctica throughout the earth, and when they arrive in a location, the inhabitants all contract fatal radiation sickness, and die within a month or so at the most. People living near Melbourne will be among the last human inhabitants of the earth to go.

At the beginning of the chapter we only know that Peter awakens with a sense of pleasurable anticipation. Is it Christmas day? No, as he wakes up he remembers stringing colored lights on an evergreen in his yard to echo a larger Christmas tree near the town hall in Falmouth, and having some friends to his home for a barbecue, swimming, and sailing on the beach Christmas day. His wife Mary wakes up and they discuss the fact that they are both sunburned, as is their infant daughter Jennifer, and they should both cover up with shirts today and keep the baby off the beach. (At this point readers from the northern hemisphere remind themselves that the seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere, so that Christmas comes in the middle of summer in Australia.) Peter finally realizes that this is the day he has an appointment in Melbourne at the Navy Department, the Second Naval Member’s office. This means a new assignment from the Navy, seagoing if he is lucky, for Peter longs to go to sea again. The navy has retained him on full pay since he was promoted to Lieutenant Commander in August, fortunately for his family, but times are so uncertain that he hasn’t worked for seven months, and there’s no telling how much work will remain to do, for how long. When he went to bed the night before, Peter was happy considering the prospect of doing the work he loved again, and this hints at a major theme that recurs throughout the book: life, certainly with death looming at a reasonably predictable time, is more bearable, satisfying, even joyful, with work or some purposeful activity to give us reason to live.

As Peter proceeds through the activities of his day, we get a clearer picture of his world. Peter and Mary were married in 1961, six months before the catastrophic nuclear war, which has been over for some months or a year by now, and they have Jennifer, who is at least old enough to sit up, but who cuts her first tooth before the book ends, so is probably six to nine months old. On the Beach was published in 1957, and in this post 1961 Australia, television is not yet a factor. There is a serious paper shortage, so there are no more newspapers. The people get their news and information solely from radio. Peter looks at his small Morris Minor car, his very first car, in which he courted Mary, parked in the garage of the flat he rents in a large house that has been divided into apartments. He thinks of how he returned home from sea after the war and drove the Morris, using up most of the gas in it, plus part of a refill, before he and everyone else in Australia realized that all oil came from the northern hemisphere, and there wouldn’t be any more coming in. Most of the gasoline in Australia at that point was restricted for use in essential governmental functions, such as some of the Australian Navy’s activities. The rest was hoarded and hidden by private citizens, to be used at some later time of greater necessity, closer to the end. Peter and Mary run their errands on bicycles, transporting Jennifer and carrying items in a trailer that Peter has made using two bicycle wheels. Their only problem is a long hill going up to their house from Falmouth. Peter rides his bike with the trailer to a dairy farm outside town to buy milk. (There are no more milk trucks, and the routes are too far-flung to be covered by horses or other pack animals.) The dairyman, Mr. Paul, asks Peter if he can get Mr. Paul some bicycle wheels, so that Mr. Paul can make a chair trailer for his wife, and take her into Falmouth twice a week for an outing, since she’s isolated out in the country now that there’s no gas. Some people have taken the windscreens (windshields) off their cars and converted them to wagons or carts pulled by bullocks, but they move very slowly. The businessmen going to catch the train to Melbourne from Falmouth ride horses from their homes to the station, then stable the horses in what used to be garages or tie the horses to what used to be gasoline pumps. There’s not a huge rush, because many businesses and people have given up their former workaday routines. Mr. Paul offers to take milk to Mary in Falmouth while Peter is at sea, if Peter can get Mr. Paul those wheels to make a trailer with.

Later, in Melbourne at the Second Naval Member’s office, Peter receives his new assignment. He accepts the new posting for the first two of several contemplated cruises, or five months, because of the uncertain circumstances in their world. He wants to be at home, not at sea, to help Mary with the baby when the end comes. He is to be Australian liaison officer aboard the U. S. S. Scorpion, a nuclear submarine. What’s left of the American Navy, ships that were south of the Equator at the end of the war, have reported to the Australian Navy command. Scorpion is the only useful vessel in the combined fleet, since nuclear fuel can be prepared for it, while the other ships run on gasoline. In later chapters we discover that a sister sub to Scorpion, the U. S. S. Swordfish, has done some reconnaissance of global damage and reported to the Australian command, but none of the characters will ever encounter Swordfish or its crew, except by cable and radio contact. Peter goes to see his new captain, Commander Dwight Towers of the U. S. Navy, and they discuss Scorpion’s missions, which will be to go as far north as possible while submerged and evaluate conditions in places of interest, mostly harbor cities in the Pacific and on the west coast of the United States. They will look through the periscope and call through the loud hailer, a kind of loud speaker, for survivors. Possibly they will put a man on shore in a radiation protective suit, decontaminating him when he returns. They may go near Seattle, Washington, from whence occasional radio signals, mostly gibberish, but infrequently broadcasting a whole recognizable word, are being intercepted. This is a matter of curiosity, since scientists and other experts have concluded that everyone above the Equator is dead.

On impulse, Peter invites Commander Towers to come to Falmouth and spend the weekend with Mary and him. Dwight Towers considers this thoughtfully. There is a huge breach between the northern and southern hemisphere natives living in Australia. The Australians know that the Americans and others have lost their families, their homes, and their countries. The sympathy is so uncomfortable as to be almost intolerable. Still, Dwight thinks that some change from rattling around in his cabin on the Scorpion’s mother ship, the Australian aircraft carrier H. M. S. Sydney, all weekend, would be nice, and in the line of duty, it might be well to see what kind of man his new liaison officer is. So Dwight agrees to meet Peter at the train station in Falmouth on Saturday. When Peter tells Mary, she worries that Dwight will find being in someone’s home, with nappies (diapers), bottles in pans of hot water, and other evidence of a baby and domestic life too much of a reminder of what he’s lost. This has happened before when they had guests from the other hemisphere. An R. A. F. (English Royal Air Force) squadron leader had broken down in tears. Another weeping man had gathered Mary’s friend Moira Davidson in his arms, telling her that she reminded him of his wife. Mary calls Moira, a live wire, and asks her if she will come help entertain Dwight. Moira thinks the whole idea sounds grim, but promises to see that there is never a dull moment in the American’s weekend.

Two days later, Peter goes to the train station in Falmouth, where he is met by Moira Davidson. Moira has driven from her father’s cattle farm in the country in a salvaged buggy, drawn by a spirited gray mare. She is wearing a red shirt and red slacks, with lips, fingernails and toenails in the same shade of red. They meet Commander Towers’s train from Melbourne, the Commander and Moira go to a hotel in Falmouth for drinks, and Peter goes home to help Mary. Moira and Dwight spar over their liquor, he suggesting that she do something with her time besides drink, she suggesting that he is making up for lost time with his drinking. (It is a great curiosity to the Australians that American naval personnel do not drink alcohol on board ships or when they’re in uniform, while the Australians drink like fish on board ship and everywhere in uniform.) Later Moira and Dwight sail Peter’s boat in a race at the small yacht club he and Mary belong to. Moira contrives to get herself knocked off the boat by part of the rigging and takes off the top of her bathing suit. Then she teasingly accuses Dwight of ripping it off, and asks him to tie it back on. Never a dull moment! That night several couples join the others at the Holmeses’ house for a small party, and they dance to phonograph records and drink until 11:30 at night. Mary brings a tray of tea, hot buttered scones and cakes, a universal signal in Australia that the party’s over, and all the guests except Moira and Dwight go home after tea. The house is hot and full of cigarette smoke, so Moira and Dwight talk for awhile on the verandah outside. Moira is drunk, and bursts into tears after talking about the trip she’d had planned to England, Europe and America, and how now she’ll never make it outside of Australia, and even if she got married tomorrow, she wouldn’t have time to have a baby. She notes that she is doing just what she was afraid Dwight would do when Mary asked Moira to come and help entertain him. Dwight goes inside and asks Mary to comfort Moira and put her to bed.


While you would expect the tone of a book about the end of life on this earth to be hyperbolic (think of almost any disaster movie and its special effects!), On the Beach is remarkable for its quiet understatement. There is some matter of fact description of people’s reaction to the news that the end is near. There are a few more drunks lying in the streets of Melbourne, for instance, and the policemen simply look to see if they’re physically alright and leave them there, instead of arresting them. Later in the book there is a somewhat horrifying look at death and destruction during the preliminary races of the Australian Grand Prix, where participants and crews are callous about fatalities because they’re all going to be dead in a couple of weeks anyway. But in most of the book, even as Dwight and his crew survey the aftermath of the war in some North American locales (the closest we ever come to the nuclear holocaust), the striking surreality is how normal everything looks and seems.

Maybe it’s the character of the Australian people, or maybe it’s the author’s view of humanity, but notice as he describes the adaptations people have made to life without motorized transportation: there are no accounts of rioting or violence at fuel storage installations, no stories of looting of abandoned stores, or of violence for the sake of obtaining provisions that are in short supply. People simply find ways to make do, and when possible help others to do the same. When Peter goes into Melbourne and leaves his bike in the train station, it is always still there waiting for him when he gets back to Falmouth. If I were waiting for the end of the world after a nuclear war, this is the way I’d want it to be.

One subtle way the author conveys the sense of impending doom without hysteria is a phrase used four times in conversations by characters in this chapter. The phrase is, “...there’s not so long to go...”

In this chapter the characters also begin to reveal to us their life view, and we get some notion of how they will handle their own deaths and the end of the world. One of the major characters, the youngest, Moira, will change her life view radically before the end comes. We see that Peter does not philosophize or express any belief concerning the purpose (or futility) of life, the possibility of life after death, or any position about the fairness or unfairness of what has happened. He simply goes about his life, thinking and preparing as well as he can to take care of his wife and his daughter until the end. Mary understands what the northern hemisphere imports to Australia are going through, but she does not relate what’s happened to herself or her life. Her concerns are the everyday ones of a young mother nurturing her first child. Dwight has already lost all that’s dearest to him, and he is simply trying to do his best for the rest of his life. Once he thinks of his red Oldsmobile in the garage of his home in Connecticut: “It must be still in the garage...untouched perhaps, with all the other things he’d schooled himself not to think about. One had to live in the new world and do one’s best, forgetting about the old; now it was push bikes at the railway station in Australia.” Moira is defiant and furious, drinking and running wild with no job and no purpose, not because she’s afraid of death, but because of all the things she’ll miss, like seeing the Rue de Rivoli in Paris. Dwight explains how the winds will bring the radioactive air slowly to the southern hemisphere, where there was no war, and Moira angrily asks if there is nothing scientists can do about it. “You’ve got to take what’s coming to you and make the best of it,” Dwight replies. “...It’s just too big a matter for mankind to tackle.” Moira says she wishes she were dead now.

“It’s like waiting to be hung.” Dwight voices what we come to see is true for all the novel’s characters: “Maybe it is. Or maybe it’s a period of grace.”

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