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Free Study Guide/Summary for On The Beach by Nevil Shute - Free Book Notes
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“Of the three presents which Peter Holmes took back to his wife that night, the playpen was the most appreciated.” When he broaches the subject of the radiation sickness, Mary doesn’t want to hear about it until closer to the time. One of her neighbors, apparently after hearing about the Jorgensen theory, says that the radiation is slowing down, and is not going to get to Melbourne. When Peter contradicts this, and insists that Mary listen, she seems genuinely surprised (“You mean that we’re all going to get it?”) and listens reluctantly. Peter tells Mary about the “cholera”, and shows her the pills in the red box, which she will be able to exchange for the real thing when the time comes. When he begins to explain how to administer baby Jennifer’s dose, Mary goes ballistic. She says Peter’s crazy, that he’s never loved the baby, who’s a nuisance to him, “And now it’s reached the stage that you’re trying to tell me how to murder her...If you say one more word I’ll murder you!” Then she accuses him of trying to get rid of them so he can run off with another woman.

At this point Peter explains more explicitly: “Jennifer may live longer than you will...You can chuck these in the dust bin...You can battle on as long as you can stand, until you die. But Jennifer may not be dead. She may live on for days, crying and vomiting all over herself in her cot and lying in her muck, with you dead on the floor beside her and nobody to help her. Finally, of course, she’ll die. Do you want her to die like that?” Mary runs to the bedroom sobbing, and at 2:00 o’clock in the morning she apologizes and they comfort each other. Peter and Mary are soon back in their garden cutting down trees to make room for the vegetables they will never be able to plant.

Meanwhile John Osborne has started taking his Ferrari out and opening it up on a private race track. “He was not very well accustomed to taking personal risks, to endangering his life, and his life had been the poorer for it. When he had been drafted into the submarine for scientific duties he had been pleasurably excited by the break in his routine, but in secret he had been terrified each time they submerged. He had managed to control himself and carry out his duties without much of his nervous tension showing during their week of underwater cruising in the north, but he had been acutely nervous of the prospect of nearly a month of it in the cruise that was coming...The Ferrari altered that. Each time he drove it, it excited him.”

Commander Towers, LCDR Holmes, John Osborne, and Lieutenant Sunderstrom, a radio and electrical officer, meet with Sir David Hartman, First Naval Member, the Third Naval Member and one of his officers, and one of the Prime Minister’s secretaries for a final briefing on the Scorpion’s upcoming voyage. The Australian officials are so anxious that Scorpion return with findings on the Jorgensen effect that they have altered the course, eliminating inspection of the Panama Canal, San Diego, and San Francisco, because of the threat of mines. The officials ask Dwight Towers to brief them on mines in other harbors on their itinerary. He says Seattle, Puget Sound, and Pearl Harbor are open to him, and that around the Gulf of Alaska mines should not be much of a problem. The problem there is ice, and though the sub is not an ice breaker, Dwight can probably navigate safely around the ice floes.

The attention of the meeting then turns to radio signals occasionally emanating from Seattle. They occur randomly, more frequently in the winter. Except for the words “waters” and “connect”, only gibberish has been transmitted in about 106 hours of transmission. The admiral says he doesn’t think the words can be significant; the point is that electrical power is available still to make the transmissions, which may mean human involvement, and they want to find out if that ‘s so. Lt. Sunderstrom is familiar with a radio installation near Seattle, with antennae tall enough to transmit globally. He thinks it’s part of a communications system covering the Pacific area. Dwight Towers thinks they should be able to get close enough to the facility to put a man onshore in a protective suit at the facility, and Lt. Sunderstrom volunteers to be that man.

When Moira meets Dwight for lunch after the conference, she is only ordering single brandies, instead of doubles. She carries a brief case which contains a shorthand tablet and textbook, because she has enrolled in a shorthand class. Like other students who are packing the college classes, Moira finds staying at home just too boring while waiting for the end. “I’ll be able to get a good job next year,” she says.

After lunch Dwight and Moira go to the National Gallery to see an exhibit of religious paintings. Dwight reacts with uncharacteristic hostility to the prize winning painting, which depicts a sorrowing Christ on the background of a great city being destroyed. Moira asks him what he doesn’t like about it. He responds, “Everything. To me it’s just phony. No pilot in his senses would be flying as low as that with thermonuclear bombs going off all around. He’d get burned up...the subject’s phony... If that’s meant to be the RCA building, he’s put the Brooklyn Bridge on the New Jersey side, and the Empire State in the middle of Central Park...It couldn’t have looked like that...Too dramatic.” Moira had thought that Dwight, who regularly attends church, would like the religious aspect of these paintings, but “I like them where they’re full of color and don’t try to teach you anything. There’s a painter called Renoir, isn’t there?” They go to the French art in the gallery, where Dwight stands for some time in front of a painting of a river with a tree shaded street beside it, with white shops and houses, very colorful. “That’s the kind of picture I like,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of time for that.”

After putting Moira on her train home, Dwight spends some time shopping in Melbourne. He buys a fishing pole and reel for Dwight Junior and a Cartier emerald and diamond bracelet for his wife, Sharon. He’s been to several toy stores looking for a pogo stick for his daughter Helen, but there’s not one to be found, so he asks the salesman in the jewelry store, Simmonds’, where he could buy a pogo stick. Two days later, a woman who knows Moira is seeing Dwight asks Moira if the American submarine commander is crazy. “Perhaps all Americans are crazy.” The neighbor gossips that Dwight was seen buying the bracelet, and asks if it’s for Moira. Then she says that Dwight was asking the jewelry store staff where he could buy a pogo stick. Moira pricks up her ears at this. At home she cleans up her old pogo stick, but decides that a rusted section would make it a disappointing present. That night Dwight seems preoccupied as they take in a movie, and Moira asks if it’s the pogo stick. She tells him she is going to procure a pogo stick for him to give Helen, even if she has to have it made, and that she will have it for him when she sees him after the Scorpion’s voyage. Overwhelmed with emotion, Dwight kisses Moira, saying, “Sharon wouldn’t mind me doing this. It’s from us both.”


As in this chapter, the main characters come closer to the reality of the end and the strain of acceptance begins to tell on them, especially on Dwight. It is interesting here that when Dwight is confronted with the painting that reminds him of his family’s death, he loses his usually even-tempered demeanor. On the other hand, Moira, who was heedlessly drinking and falling apart when they met, has taken a page from his book and found something productive to do with her time.

True to the mood of the book, the characters who lose it as they confront some grim realities recover themselves quickly, and return to their usual pursuits of life as if it will go on indefinitely. After one outburst of rage and grief over the suicide drugs, Mary and Peter are back happily working on the ten year plan for their garden. When Dwight sees another painting that also reminds him of his home, but as he remembers it, next to a river with white houses and shade trees, he is pacified, and directly goes to buy presents to take home to his family.

In counterpoint to the other characters, John Osborne has always measured his time until the end, but in his concessions to his early death, he finds a way to overcome a fear that might conceivably have been a part of his life without the end of the world. The danger of racing his Ferrari would have existed in any case, and paradoxically, the excitement of the race car enables him to deal with the “safer” necessity of remaining submerged in Scorpion, an assignment that might have come his way from the
C.S.I.R.O. even without a nuclear war.

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