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FREE BOOKNOTES - ON THE BEACH BY NEVIL SHUTE
The Scorpion’s voyage of exploration to cities in northern Australia that are “out” (the term consistently used throughout the book to mean radio communications with that place have ceased, and the assumption is that everyone there has succumbed to fatal radiation sickness) is used in this chapter to explain the nuclear devastation that has come to most of the world. The striking observation is that there is virtually nothing to observe. This is partly because in the “hot” zone (at this point everything north of the 20th parallel south), the crew of the submarine observes conditions only through the periscope. Their inquiry for survivors is done by spending about five hours in each city hailing (calling) through the sub’s loud hailer, or loudspeaker, to shore from far enough away that no contaminated person or animal can get onto the submarine without permission. The Scorpion’s crew finds no sign of human life, nor even a seabird, using these methods, but at Darwin a large black dog runs to the end of a wharf and barks at them. They also find a large tanker, registered in Amsterdam, with apparently no one alive on board. She is very rusty, and they conclude she must have been drifting throughout the oceans since the war. Other than that, John Osborne’s radiation readings are almost the only information they return with. It all seems unreal to the officers and crew, even as they consider that they are probably the last living people who will ever see Darwin, Cairns, and the other cities. The cities look as they would normally look, virtually unscathed, except that there are no people about. John Osborne suggests that they’ve all gone to bed, at home or in hotels, to die, like dogs who go off by themselves to die. Peter Holmes and Dwight Towers note that the report of Scorpion’s sister ship, USS Swordfish, which had explored the eastern United States and Europe, reported the very same observations: almost no description of changes onshore.
Scorpion’s officers wonder if anyone has or will record what has happened, even if there will be no future generations to read the history. This leads to John Osborne disclosing what he has learned at the C.S.I.R.O., and Commander Towers relating what he’d been told of possible scenarios before the war. They piece together the following: Hostilities started when Albania bombed Naples. After that an unknown country dropped a bomb on Tel Aviv. This prompted a warning sortie over Cairo. The next day Egypt sent bombers with nuclear payloads to Washington and London. The planes were Russian made, however, and before a Russian marked, Egyptian plane had been captured on its way home in Puerto Rico, the Western allies had annihilated Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Odessa, and three Soviet nuclear installations. No one knows how China got involved, but Dwight had learned in a pre-war briefing that both China and the USSR were developing cobalt bombs to use on each other. The Russians wanted Shanghai for a warm water port, and the Chinese wanted to de-industrialize Russia by bombing their cities and reducing them back to an agricultural society, both to de-fang their powerful neighbor, and to eliminate competition for industrial exports.
When Dwight and Peter go ashore, Peter and Mary invite Dwight to Falmouth (at Moira’s urging), Moira joins them, and the gentlemen reconnect with their ladies. One crew member of Scorpion has come down with measles, not radiation sickness, and Mary worries that her baby, Jennifer, might catch measles from Peter or Dwight. Moira, in the course of hearing what Scorpion discovered on this voyage, gets Dwight to tell her of Swordfish’s voyage, and the implication that all his family has perished with everyone else in the United States. This is when he reveals that despite knowing his wife and children are dead, he can’t imagine it, and to him they are still alive. Moira assures him that she doesn’t think he’s crazy for this, indicating that she will play along with his notion by asking him questions about his family in the present and future tense.
As the normal appearance and the unreality of the situation in the cities that are out becomes apparent to the Scorpion’s crew, their matter-of-fact, even joking attitude toward the end of life on the planet becomes understandable. Several times in this chapter a character makes a fatalistic observation with a grin.
John Osborne injects an air of coldly scientific objectivity into the discussion of the unreality of the end of the world, which doesn’t seem to change the others’ feelings about it.
The author’s way of painting a word picture is evident in the understated way he describes some things that are pregnant with implications about impending doom. For instance, in this chapter Peter Holmes and John Osborne go to lunch at an exclusive men’s club called the Pastoral in Melbourne, after debarking from their submarine. In describing the club, Shute says that “Before the war it had probably been the best club in the Commonwealth. Now it certainly was [because all the other clubs have ceased to function, being in places that are already dead].”
In the Pastoral Club, Peter and John join Sir Douglas Froude, John’s great uncle. He cheerfully explains that he’s doing the best he can to drink up the club’s excellent store of port before the end. “If I’m to die, as I most certainly am, I’d rather die of drinking port than of this cholera thing (radiation sickness).” When he hears that a member of the submarine’s crew has contracted measles, he comments that it’s better than this cholera thing.
Mary Holmes’s response to the travelers’ return is to be nervous about her baby getting the measles, as if the child wouldn’t be dead of radiation sickness in less than a year anyway.
Moira and Dwight joke about the fact that his crew did not find a single seagull to bring back for the Prime Minister; the only thing they did bring back was the measles. For a moment the tragedy of their predicament hits home to Moira, and she gets restless, wanting another drink and exclaiming, “I want to go somewhere - do something - dance!...We can’t just sit here mooning and moaning about what’s coming to us!”
Later on the beach in Falmouth, Dwight has his moment of pain when he tells Moira about the Swordfish’s discoveries, and entrance into New London, Connecticut, near his home in Mystic. Moira comforts him by tacitly agreeing to think of his family as still living, as he does.Table of Contents | Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version