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

CHAPTER 4

Summary

Sunday morning in Falmouth, Moira asks Dwight if she can go to church with him. When Peter tells Mary Moira’s gone to church, Mary is amazed. Peter suggests that Moira and Dwight might get married, and Mary says, “There’s something funny about it. I hope it’s going to be all right.”

“It’s no concern of ours, anyway,” Peter answers. “Lots of things are going a bit weird these days.” He and Mary proceed to plan their garden for the next ten years, and when the other two return from church, Moira whispers to Dwight,

“Someone’s crazy...Is it me or them?’

“Why do you say that?”

“They won’t be here in six months’ time. I won’t be here. You won’t be here. They won’t want any vegetables next year.” Dwight tells her not to spoil it for them, and they all have lunch.

Peter and Dwight talk about their upcoming cruise, and Dwight speculates that discussion of new equipment to be fitted onto Scorpion has to do with a puzzling radio signal that has been coming from Seattle, where there is a large transmitter. The signal, detected off and on since the war, comes sporadically, and occasionally, but rarely, spells out an actual word in Morse code. This mystifies Dwight, who doesn’t think the transmitter would have continued working so long after Seattle went out. He thinks anyone who could turn it back on would probably be able to broadcast coherent messages, even slowly, with the Morse code book in front of him.

On the beach that afternoon, Dwight, Moira, and Peter talk about Swordfish’s location, which has changed from Rio de Janeiro to Montevideo as the fallout moves south. They mention several places in connection with the radiation, and wonder whether it travels faster along a coastline than inland. “Peter laughed. ‘They’ll know by the time it gets here. Then they can etch it on the glass.’” Peter has heard from John Osborne that the C.S.I.R.O. is etching the story of what is happening to the world on glass bricks, which will be put on top of the highest mountain in Australia, Mt. Kosciusko, along with other accounts documenting the civilization of the earth.


Still on the beach, Moira notices what a strong swimmer Dwight is, and he tells her about growing up in Westport, Connecticut, how he met his wife Sharon, married and set up housekeeping with her. As Dwight prepares to leave for the train station, Moira notices that his socks have holes in them. She says that new ones are getting harder to find, and that he must bring her his socks and all his mending. She invites him to bring himself and his mending to visit for a couple of days at her parents’ farm in Harkaway. He can help her father prepare his pastures for next year. “All right, you needn’t say it. Its good farming to harrow the paddocks, and Daddy’s a good farmer.”

Moira’s parents hear the news that she’s bringing Dwight home with a “ ‘...hope something comes of it. I would like to see her settled down, and happily married with some children.’

‘She’ll have to be quick about it, if you’re going to see that,’ remarked her father.

‘Oh dear, I keep forgetting. But you know what I mean.’”

When Moira meets Dwight with the horse drawn cart to ascend the hills to the farm, he is delighted to see shade trees like the ones that line the streets of towns in North America and England. Until then he had seen only gum trees and wattle. He assures her that her part of Australia is as beautiful as any place in North America, though her mother, Mrs. Davidson, says it can’t compare with England. She is Australian, but has visited England.

Dwight and Mr. Davidson talk about the Scorpion’s voyage, and the progress of the radiation fallout. Mr. Davidson asks Dwight what he’ll do, whether he’ll move his submarine, when the fallout gets to Melbourne. Dwight hasn’t decided. Perhaps his senior officer, whose ship can’t move from Brisbane, will send him orders. Most of Dwight’s crew are young men who have found girlfriends, some wives, in Melbourne, and there doesn’t seem to be much point in ordering them away. Mr. Davidson is surprised that there have been as few refugees from parts north as is the case. Dwight thinks that the Prime Minister has done a good job of telling the citizens how things are, and that it’s not much comfort to come south, only to be overtaken by the radiation again. Mr. Davidson disagrees, arguing instead that people don’t believe that it will really happen, and by the time they’ve gotten sick it’s easier to just stay home. Dwight believes that it might be possible to recover from radiation sickness, if you can get out of the hot area and into a hospital, like lots of people from northern Australia who are in Melbourne hospitals. But then, what’s the use? They’ll only get sick again in September. Mr. Davidson will stay in his home, hoping to be on his verandah with a drink in his hand when the end comes, or else in his own bed.

On the last morning of Dwight’s stay, Moira finds him surveying the family “junk room”, full of childhood toys of Moira and her brother Donald, two and a half years older than she, who is in England. “(Dwight) nodded; there was nothing useful to be said about that.” They talk particularly about a pogo stick; Moira was around seven when she played with it.

Back in Melbourne the next day, Peter Holmes accompanies Commander Towers to see the Australian admiral, for detailed briefing on a draft operation order for the Scorpion. They’ve talked about the order by phone the night before. The order is for a long voyage north through the Pacific, ending in Alaska. It will involve probably 27 days submerged in the hot zone, not as long as Swordfish’s record of 32 days, but plenty of time to go without fresh air. Dwight tells the First Naval Member of his concern about mines in some of the harbors on Scorpion’s itinerary. There are no current charts, and after nuclear explosions there could be dangerous unanticipated debris in the harbors, as well as the mines, which may or may not have been placed to defend those harbors after the war began. The First Member is most interested that they get as far north as possible, to Kodiak, Alaska, to test the Jorgensen effect. This theory proposes that the radiation fallout is dissipating faster than anticipated, especially near the poles, making some life on earth, or possibly on its oceans, possible. The First Member stresses that they must not take any unnecessary risks, since radio contact will not be possible at all times. He wants the submarine itself back in Melbourne, to confirm or refute the Jorgensen effect. The sub will carry some protective suits and decontamination spray, plus an inflatable raft, to facilitate exploration onshore.

After the meeting with the admiral, Commander Towers calls on the First Naval Member, while Peter Holmes goes to see John Osborne. Osborne pooh-poohs the Jorgensen effect, saying that it may exist, but that it’s not significant. He takes Peter to a garage and shows him a red Ferrari racing car, which Osborne bought from the widow of the race car driver who’d had the car shipped to Australia, but was stuck in England when the war came. The Ferrari runs on a special ether-ethanol mixture John has hoarded in his mother’s garden, and he hopes to try it out on the road in a few days. He has spent all his leave time since returning from the first voyage preparing and polishing the car.

Peter buys a playpen for his daughter while he’s in Melbourne, then goes to a chemist for another “gift” to take home to Mary. He is concerned that if the scientists have miscalculated the time the radiation will get to Melbourne, and it arrives while he’s still at sea, or the sub has an accident and he doesn’t return, Mary will be alone to deal with the baby when the sickness hits. At a chemist’s shop, Peter gets mock-ups from the druggist in red boxes. The pills inside one box are replaced with aspirin. When the time comes, Mary can replace the aspirin with the suicide pills, but at least Peter knows she will have the instructions in the red box, and can get the fatal pills. The other red box contains a syringe and a liquid formula of the drug for the baby.

Notes

This chapter abounds in irony, as the characters continue in their matter-of-fact way to think about the end, almost simultaneously planning their lives as if there were no end, and practicing resignation in planning what to do when the end comes. They are both amused by each other’s plans for a life longer than they will have, and protective of their illusions.

Only John Osborne seems relentlessly aware of his impending end, with few to no plans for the future beyond a few days. He has always been keen on racing, so now is the time to buy the Ferrari. He had always wanted to join the Pastoral Club someday, and as he said in Chapter 3, the time had arrived. When Peter asks him about the margin of error on radiation sickness getting to Melbourne, John points out that Peter may not make it back at any time because of the hazards of mines, collisions, or contamination they will face aboard Scorpion.

The project of recording the history of their soon to be ending civilization on glass bricks to be placed on Mt. Kosciusko is faintly reminiscent of the museum (the British Museum?) of cultures preceding those of the Eloi and the Morlocks in The Time Machine, by H. G. Wells. This is the only resemblance that this quiet, matter-of-fact story of the end of the world bears to science fiction.

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