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

CHAPTER 6

Summary

The voyage of Scorpion to assess the damage along the west coast of the United States, determine how the radio signals are coming from Seattle, and venture north in an effort to test the Jorgensen effect, is described in this chapter. For the first time, it is possible to see some actual evidence of the nuclear holocaust when the crew surveys San Francisco from five miles out of the harbor. The Golden Gate Bridge is down, and the houses around Golden Gate Park look uninhabitable, having suffered much from fire and blast. In most of the west coast cities Scorpion approaches, the cities look normal, except for the absence of human beings. The officers and crew are puzzled as they approach Seattle to see incandescent and neon lights blazing in some places. They theorize that this is due to powerful generators still functioning, rather than human presence.

Slightly north of Seattle, Scorpion passes close to the small town of Edmonds because it is the home town of a crew member, Yeoman Ralph Swain. Through the periscope the town looks absolutely normal, except for a few broken windows. Ralph wonders why the lights are on in the drug store in the daytime; it’s not like the owner to waste electricity. He fidgets irritably, exclaiming that nothing looks different; it’s all the same as it was. While other crew members busy themselves with the periscope and radiation readings, Ralph goes out the hatch and dives into the harbor, swimming for the wharf. Commander Towers gives him one chance (as an order) to return immediately and be decontaminated, but Ralph refuses. He’s warned that they will not take him back later, because he will be a danger to the other crew members. He accepts that, and continues swimming for the town. Peter Holmes offers to put on a suit and go after Ralph, but Dwight declines. If Ralphie has eaten or has drunk something contaminated by the time they catch him, he will endanger the crew. Besides that, the time spent searching for Ralph will add to the time the rest of the crew has to wait before they get to the safe zone where they can breathe fresh air.

When Scorpion arrives at Santa Maria, the site of the radio transmitter close to Seattle, Lt. Sunderstrom, the radio operator, dons a protective suit and goes ashore to investigate. He avoids looking at the decomposing bodies in the transmitter room, the offices, and the lounges. In the transmitter room a window has blown out intact, and occasionally the wind blows it so that one corner touches the transmission key. This explains the itinerant radio signals that have been intercepted in Australia. Lt. Sunderstrom sends a message explaining, then says the transmitter is signing off permanently, and shuts it down. In a lounge he finds several copies of a general interest magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, that came out after the war began, and he avidly reads them until Captain Towers sounds the signal for him to return to the sub. Lt. Sunderstrom decides to take the magazine with him, thinking it can be decontaminated and the other crew members will enjoy it. On his way out of the building, his eye is caught by the blowing of a woman’s skirt, and he spots a party in progress, men and women sitting on a balcony with drinks in their hands. It takes a minute for him to realize that they are all dead.


As the sub passes back through the channel close to Edmonds, the crew finds Ralphie fishing in his motorboat. He has caught a salmon. His parents, his girlfriend, all the animals, and all the people in Edmonds are dead. Ralph apologizes to the captain for jumping ship, explaining that he’d just rather die in his home town than in Australia. He asks how long he will last, and the captain says a day or two, at these radiation levels. The captain has no suicide pills, but offers Ralphie a pistol. Ralphie declines, saying he’ll use his own gun when the time comes.

Meantime on the Australian homefront, Moira visits Mary and the two women have a comforting talk. Mary asks Moira about the possibility of marrying Dwight, even this late. Moira says that’s not possible; he’s already married. She tells Mary how Dwight thinks of his family as alive, and even if Moira tried to take him away from Sharon, it might not be possible. Under other circumstances, Moira might have done anything she could to get Dwight, but with only three months to go, she doesn’t want to do her (Sharon) dirt. “I may be a loose woman, but I don’t know that I’m all that loose.” Mary relates her brush with the craziness of it all when Peter told her she might have to murder Jennifer, and Mary breaks down. Moira promises she will come to help Mary with Jennifer if it gets to that before the men return, but reassures Mary that they will return. “Dwight’s that kind of man.”

The voyage has disproved the Jorgensen effect. True to their sense of duty as naval officers, the crew has taken pictures of San Francisco and catalogued all the ships docked in Pearl Harbor. Dwight has also, with great difficulty, reported the incident with Yeoman Ralph Swain. The rest of the crew is in decent shape physically, although pasty-faced and anemic when they finally reach the safe zone and go to the deck of the sub on the surface for fresh air. Some of them are suffering psychological deterioration. John Osborne talks incessantly of his Ferrari. When Dwight gets to his home port, there is a cable waiting for him from the ranking U.S. Navy officer, who is stuck at Brisbane without fuel for his boat, awaiting the end with his crew. The cable says that Dwight is now the ranking officer of the U.S. Navy, which makes him an admiral if he wants to be one. When Admiral Towers tries to answer, he finds that communication with Brisbane is no longer possible.

Notes

Even as the characters in the book are confronted with more graphic evidence than anyone has yet seen up to this point - the destroyed city of San Fransisco, the bodies at the radio transmitter, the window explaining the transmissions from Santa Maria without human involvement - the unreality of their situation persists in the way they think of their lives. The unchanged look of Edmonds, the “party” in progress at the radio transmitter, Dwight’s fidelity to his marriage vows, Mary’s daffodil bulbs, all reinforce the illusion of normalcy and the feeling that life will go on.

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