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FREE ONLINE STUDY GUIDE FOR ON THE BEACH BY NEVIL SHUTE - SUMMARY
In Chapter 2, the weekend at Peter and Mary Holmes’s house winds down, Dwight and Moira arrange to see each other again, and Dwight winds up the Scorpion and crew for its first tour out of Williamstown, near Melbourne, where Scorpion is berthed.
After breakfast on Sunday morning, Dwight declines an invitation from Peter to go swimming again, preferring to go to church, as is his habit. Moira is not up yet, having been sick in the middle of the night from drinking whisky on top of brandy, and too much of all of it. Dwight walks three quarters of a mile to the nearest Church of England, arrives fifteen minutes early, and sits in the back so he can follow the standing, sitting, and kneeling of the service, which is still unfamiliar to him. After offering a prayer he learned in childhood, Dwight thinks about his family. For the first time we learn who the members of his family are, and that Dwight thinks of them in the present tense, as if they were all still alive and he were going home to them in September when his present naval tour ends. (September is the best guess of the scientists and local authorities of the time the radiation sickness will arrive in Melbourne and wipe out everyone who lives there.) He makes a conscious effort to think of how they are right now, so they won’t think he forgot about them while he was away at sea. Dwight Junior will probably be old enough for a fishing rod, though Dwight probably can’t get a fishing rod to him by his birthday, July 10th. It will be fun teaching him to fish. Helen will turn six on April 17th, and again, Dwight will miss her birthday, but his wife Sharon will make it right by explaining that Daddy is at sea. Dwight must remember to tell Helen he’s sorry he missed her birthday, and to get her a present between now and then. The Commander leaves the service mentally refreshed after his daydream of his family.
When Commander Towers arrives back at Peter and Mary Holmes’s house, Moira is up, and her conversation with Dwight Towers reveals their relative states of mind. This is developed throughout the rest of the chapter. Dwight confirms Moira’s observation that he is the kind of person who stays busy, even when he doesn’t really have anything to do. She says that all she does is drink while waiting for the end. Moira asks Dwight if she can visit his submarine, and he says he’ll call her when he’s taken care of the preparations for the upcoming cruises.
Back at the H.M.S. Sydney, the Australian ship on which Dwight lives when he’s not at sea in the submarine Scorpion, he gets busy with the refitting of the sub and the business of the upcoming cruise. He meets John Osborne, of the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (C.S.I.R.O.), a civilian scientist who is assigned to monitor radiation levels in the submarine especially, so that it will not venture into the radiation zone if it’s unsafe. Osborne thinks they will be okay as long as they remain submerged. He doesn’t think they can go above the surface of the ocean further north than the 22nd parallel south. The next day Scorpion departs Port Phillip Bay for sea trials, heading west and north toward Adelaide. Off South Australia they submerge, rising to periscope depth once an hour. They return to port in Williamstown with only minor adjustments needed to prepare the sub for a longer cruise.
Dwight arranges for Moira to visit the sub, and they will go to dinner afterwards. When Dwight meets Moira at the train station, she insists that he take her for a drink before they go to the ships, because he says she must have a soft drink on board ship, even the Sydney. (The Sydney is an Australian ship, and Australian navy personnel are allowed to drink alcohol on board ship and in uniform. U. S. Navy personnel are not allowed to drink in uniform, or on board ship, which is why Dwight forbids Moira to have an alcoholic drink). At the hotel where they go for a drink, Dwight confesses that he went on a few “benders” (drinking binges) in Melbourne when he first got there, but has settled into a routine of quiet nights in his cabin on Sydney, occasionally seeing a movie in town.
On board Sydney, Moira is taken to Dwight’s cabin to change from her nice clothes into a boiler suit, so she won’t dirty her clothes in the submarine. She looks at the pictures of Dwight’s family, his dark-haired, pretty wife and two children, and tries not to think of them, knowing they are all dead. On board the submarine, Dwight tells her about the upcoming voyage to northern cities of Australia, and she wonders why they’re going, since apparently no one’s left alive there. He says that’s part of what they’re going to find out. His sister sub, the Swordfish, has safely cruised a lot of the northern hemisphere, including the United States and England. They talk about the difficulty of comprehending these places without anyone left alive. Dwight says he prefers to think of people as they were when alive, and he doesn’t try to comprehend the state of these places now. As she changes back into her dress clothes, Moira sets her mind on having a good time and not thinking about the losses. When Moira leaves the cabin, Dwight’s wife Sharon watches Moira with approval and understanding from her picture frame. Moira goes onto the bridge of Sydney and talks to John Osborne, a distant relative, about the voyage of exploration and the impending radiation. She is furious to learn that the scientists’ estimate of September for the end is plus or minus three months. Osborne is doggedly matter of fact and interested in what they will learn on the voyage in spite of its grim implications. Moira complains that Osborne is “taking his stick and poking it in my ear”. She warns Dwight that John Osborne is completely mad, and warns Dwight not to go poking his stick in her ear, either.
Over dinner, Moira tells Dwight that he’s lucky to keep busy commanding the submarine, something that’s never occurred to him. She says that she hasn’t been able to get a job because many businessmen have simply stopped going to work, and she can’t type. She’d been planning to take business courses when she graduated from college, but doesn’t see the point now. Dwight suggests that taking the courses anyway would be better than just drinking. He thinks Mary Holmes has the right idea planning her garden for next year. When Dwight sees Moira off on her train at the end of the evening, he thinks there’s something about her walk that’s a bit like his wife, Sharon.
At the end of Chapter 2, Dwight has a meeting with the Australian Prime Minister and the First Naval Member concerning the Scorpion’s cruise. They are to go to northern Australian cities which have already succumbed to radiation, to observe conditions and to look for signs of life, whether human or animal, and to gather information about sea birds, if they can. They are forbidden to take any risks, and are not to go to Townsville, where there are still some people alive, because they have radiation sickness, and the Scorpion’s crew is to have no contact with anyone who has been contaminated.
On the Beach describes various ways the Australians and others in Australia handle their last time on earth. Chapter 2 details how Dwight and Moira react to their feelings. Both of them might be said to be in denial, although there is an undercurrent of clear recognition that in September, give or take a little, it will be over. Dwight thinks of his family as alive, and he will see them in September. Moira has little purposeful activity to occupy her time, so she tries to drink and party herself out of thinking about what’s happening, and all of life she’ll miss. Still, after talking to Dwight about his work on the submarine, she is interested in knowing more about it.
The idea that purposeful activity is a good thing, especially when people know when they’re going to die, is a theme that occurs throughout the book.
Knowing that Dwight still thinks of himself as a married man who will see his wife in September, the comfort that he takes in Moira’s company is gracefully handled in the way the two characters, and the third person voice of the author, think about it. Although Moira is described as a wild party girl before she meets Dwight, she always respects his feeling that he is a happily married man, who must remain true to his vows. She never pushes him to do otherwise. Dwight and Moira are very needy, for their own reasons, of the comfort they find in each other’s company. When the author says that Dwight’s wife Sharon, from her picture frame, looks at Moira with understanding and approval, he makes it alright for Dwight and Moira to spend time with each other. Dwight questions whether he’s simply mixed up when he thinks that something about Moira reminds him of Sharon. When he decides that Moira’s walk actually is something like Sharon’s, it is a comfort to him.Table of Contents | Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version