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ON THE BEACH BY NEVIL SHUTE - BOOK REVIEW / ONLINE NOTES
On the first day of August, Mary Holmes’s narcissus bloom. It’s a bright, sunny day, but Mary’s great concern is not the radio announcement of radiation sickness reaching Adelaide and Sydney, but the fact that Jennifer is hot and irritable, apparently from teething. Peter is longing to get away from the baby’s crying, and says they may call the doctor when he gets back from some errands on Scorpion.
When Peter gets to the ship, there’s not much going on, but he can get some juice (gasoline) for his car. Dwight Towers is without much to do, and says the operation is running down. Peter repeats a variation of the phrase spoken several times in the first chapter of the book: “There’s not so long to run now...” Commander Towers’s driver is apparently running down too, so Dwight hitches a ride into Melbourne with Peter, and they go to see John Osborne, who’s working on his Ferrari. John is trying to convince the powers that be that the Grand Prix should be run a week sooner than presently scheduled, because the radiation is coming a little sooner than expected. He doesn’t think a race with all the drivers vomiting and having diarrhea will be worth running. The winner will be the one with the most resistance to radiation, and that’s not the point! Dwight goes off for a lunch date with Moira, and Peter and John go to the Pastoral Club for lunch, where they join Sir Douglas Froude. Sir Douglas is driving again, and is now coming to the club every day to drink up the port. The men talk about what areas of the southern hemisphere are out, including all of Africa, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Auckland, New Zealand. They speculate when the rest of the world will go after them, and John Osborne says that some animals will outlast them. Sir Douglas is enraged to learn that the rabbit is the most resistant of all, and will be overrunning Australia for at least a year after the humans are gone.
In a restaurant Moira asks Dwight why he seems preoccupied. He has radioed the Swordfish to ask if it were practical for the sub to report to him in Melbourne, and the captain said no, because of “shore associations” (wives and girlfriends in their port of Montevideo). Dwight ordered the captain to stay there, and at the end to go beyond the twelve mile limit and sink the sub in deep water. He doesn’t think the Navy Department would want a sub full of classified equipment and information left in another country, even if there’s no one to find it. Moira asks if that’s what Dwight will do with Scorpion, and he says he probably will. He’d like to take the sub home to the United States, but it probably wouldn’t be practical, also because of shore associations.
Moira tells Dwight that trout season will be early this year, and asks if he wants to go fishing on opening day. That is the day of the Grand Prix, but neither of them wants to go and watch John Osborne get killed, or anyone else, for that matter. Dwight tells Moira that he wouldn’t want to go if she would get hurt, meaning that he still intends to remain faithful to his marriage vows. She assures him that she will not be hurt; they will stay in separate rooms. Moira leaves to take her first shorthand/typing test. She says she’d like to come see Dwight in America one day, and that she wants to meet Sharon, if Sharon would want to meet her. Is there a shorthand/typing school in Mystic where Moira could finish her course? For his part, Dwight wants to help Mr. Davidson dig post holes for his new fence at Harkaway, since Dwight has almost nothing to do in port until the end comes.
Moira agrees to call Dwight that night about helping her dad with the fence. In the meantime Dwight occupies himself by going to help John Osborne work on the Ferrari. Peter Holmes is there, too, passing time away from his crying baby until the hour he’s promised Mary he’ll be home. He’s taking Mary some dill water for the baby, and a rake for the garden. When Peter gets back to Falmouth, Jennifer is miraculously asleep and quiet. Mary asks if they can get a motorized lawn mower, now that there’s petrol, and a garden seat for their yard. Peter decides to humor her with the lawn mower, then see what the bank looks like for the seat. The next day they drive into Melbourne to buy the mower. Mary is appalled at the dirty state of the city. “I suppose the street cleaners have stopped working,” Peter says.
“But why should they do that? Why aren’t they working? Is there a strike or something? It’s as if the end of the world had come already.”
“It’s pretty close, you know.”
At Harkaway, Dwight is relieved to be working with Mr. Davidson, but Mr. Davidson is fretting. He has learned that his cattle will outlive him, and can’t figure out a good way to arrange his barn so they will be able to get their rations of feed for as long as they need them.
Back at his command in Williamstown, Dwight ponders
how to handle the deterioration of Navy discipline in his crew. He’s been giving
leave to half the crew at a time, but there have been increasing episodes of late
returns from leave, plus a crew member reportedly killed in a street brawl in
Geelong (west of Melbourne) that can’t be confirmed. Eleven men who’ve returned
drunk from leave are waiting for his jurisdiction when he gets there. He puts
them in the brig to sober up while he considers what to do. Restricting leave
when there’s no work to do seems like the wrong thing, with only two weeks left.
Finally he has the culprits lined up on deck and addresses them: “You men can’t
have it both ways. We’ve none of us got long to go now, you or me. As of today,
you’re members of the ship’s company of U. S. S. Scorpion,
and that’s the last ship of the U.
Enroute to pick up Moira for their fishing trip, Dwight stops to tell John that they’ll miss the race, and wishes John luck. Lots of people will not be at the race, because it may be their last weekend in full health. Peter Holmes will be working in his garden with Mary.
John says he ought not go to the race himself. He doesn’t have a garden, but he does have an old mother who has just found out that her Pekinese will outlive her by several months, and she’s worried sick about what will become of the dog when she’s gone.
When they arrive at Harkaway, Dwight instructs his Navy driver to take his Navy car back to the dockyard. “I don’t suppose he’ll go there. Still, we go through the motions.”
Moira and Dwight find the country inn at the fishing resort bulging with people in high spirits, excitedly debating the kinds of casts (flies) to use, and eagerly planning their fishing forays. The landlady is fairly glowing; they haven’t been this busy since before the war. After a delightful supper and drinks, Moira confiscates Dwight’s pullover before they retire. It’s missing a button, and she can’t send him back to Sharon like that. Happy noise and singing still come from the bar. Dwight comments, “They’re having themselves a real good time. I still can’t realize it’s never going to happen again, not after this weekend.”
“It may do, somehow,” Moira answers. “On another plane, or something.” After they’ve said goodnight, Moira stands hugging Dwight’s pullover, then sleeps with it on the pillow next to her. The next day, Dwight and Moira, along with all the other enthusiastic fishermen, have a wonderful time and catch some good fish. Even Moira, always inept at fishing until then, bursts with pride at her fish, caught with the help of a lure given her by a more experienced fisherman. They remember the Grand Prix just in time to turn on the radio and hear that John Osborne won it. Moira asks Dwight if they can go back the next day, since they’ve had such a lovely day, and there’s so little time. Dwight tells her that he didn’t want to spoil the trip, but he’d heard from John that there were several cases of radiation sickness in Melbourne before they left. There are probably quite a few more by now.
As in the first chapter of the book, before the reader knows for sure what’s happening, the characters in this chapter keep repeating a variation of the phrase that implied what was going on at the beginning of the book, and confirms what’s going on near the end. The phrase is, “It’s not so long to run now,” which Peter says to Dwight as they talk about how little there is to do in their jobs. Dwight twice uses a variation of it: “Kind of running down,” and, referring to his Navy driver, who hasn’t shown up for work, “I suppose he’s running down, too.”
In all their various ways, the characters are struggling to make their end as honorable and as happy as possible. Some of them, like John and Moira, reach what could be called closure, as Dwight did in the last chapter when Moira gave him the present for his daughter, and he said he had everything he needed now. Moira is thrilled for John when he wins the Grand Prix, because he’d wanted it so much, and “It must kind of round things off for him.” Dwight replies, “I’d say things are rounding off for all of us right now.” Moira says she’s glad she came, and that she’s been very happy all day. She says, “I feel like John must feel - as if I’ve won a victory over something. But I don’t know what.”
“Don’t try and analyze it,” Dwight answers. “Just take it, and be thankful.”Table of Contents | Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version