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ON THE BEACH BY NEVIL SHUTE - PLOT SUMMARY / SYNOPSIS
Peter Holmes, driving into Melbourne to meet with the First Naval Member and Dwight Towers, thinks it’s no longer a matter of days; it’s down to hours now. He and his family are not sick yet, nor is Dwight, who is waiting for him in uniform. But the secretary is not at work, and Sir David Hartman, the First Naval Member, is gray and drawn, and has to excuse himself during their interview. The purpose of the meeting, called by Dwight, is for the chief executive officer of the U.S. Navy to inform the official that Towers is taking his submarine out of Australian command. He will take the sub outside of territorial waters, probably before the weekend. The Australian commander extends every courtesy, and asks if Dwight will return to Australian waters. The American says no, he is taking his ship into the Bass strait, where he will sink her. He declines an offer of a tug boat to bring back his crew; the ones who are going with him prefer to die aboard their ship as members of the U. S. Navy. Peter has been instructed to keep his services available to the American captain, but Dwight relieves him of all responsibility and orders Peter home to his family.
John Osborne’s mother has come down with radiation sickness the day after he won the Grand Prix. He’s gotten a doctor there to see her once, but the doctor is sick himself, perhaps already dead. Neither the doctor nor the maid will be back again, so John is caring for his mother. He has to go to his office, so he makes her comfortable and kisses her before he leaves. When he gets home she is dead, the room and bedclothes very tidily arranged, one of the red boxes that contains the suicide pill by her bed. John hadn’t known his mother had the drug, which is being issued free of charge by the government. John gives the Pekinese some food laced with sleeping pills. When it falls asleep, he gives it a lethal injection and carries its basket to the side of his mother’s bed. Then he packs a bag and moves to the Pastoral Club.
Peter, Mary, and Jennifer Holmes all have radiation sickness. Mary tries to suggest that it’s the meat pies they had for supper, but Peter points out that the baby didn’t have meat pie. Peter sees her looking out into her beloved garden, and she says she’s sorry that they never got that garden seat; it would have looked so well just in that spot. He offers to go buy one if he feels better. Later Peter is surprised to hear Mary singing a cheerful song, but finds she’s crying as she sings. He takes her in his arms, and she says she was singing because she’s happy that all three of them got sick together. Peter goes looking for John Osborne, and finds him sick in bed at the Pastoral Club. Peter asks John if it’s possible to recover from radiation sickness. Peter has started to feel better after his first bout, and has a voracious appetite. John says Peter will relapse in about ten days, and not recover again. He assures Peter that he absolutely will not get better permanently. When John says his mother is dead, Peter thinks of Mary, says goodbye, and heads home with the garden seat he’s bought for her. Mary is packing their clothes in mothballs, between spasms of diarrhea.
John Osborne gets up, because there are things he wants to do to his Ferrari, and tomorrow he won’t be able. Sir Douglas Froude is still drinking his port downstairs, apparently unscathed so far by the radiation. John thinks it’s too bad there will be no one left to observe how long the presence of alcohol in the body helps it resist the effects of fallout. He stops at a drug store on his way to the garage where he keeps his Ferrari, and picks up one of the red boxes that are lying in a heap in the middle of the floor. Soon he is lovingly doing all he can to maintain his Ferrari in good condition after he’s gone. When he’s finished, he stays by the car because he’s afraid that he’ll have another spasm of diarrhea before he can get back to the club. He gets into the driver’s seat, admires the dashboard instruments, and puts on his racing helmet and goggles. “This car had won for him the race that was the climax of his life. Why trouble to go further?” He takes his drug from the red box without a problem.
Peter eats a hearty meal on his way home from buying the garden seat. The beery couple who run the cafe seem in very good shape. He takes several sandwiches with him, as he is still ravenous, but doesn’t want Mary to know he feels better. When he gets home, Mary and Jennifer are both in terrible shape, and the house is cold and damp. He builds a fire and places the garden seat where Mary can see it through the window. Peter has considered several possibilities for his extra time, but decides he doesn’t want to stay after Mary and Jennifer are gone. Mary tells him she wants to go tonight. She asks him to give the shot to the baby, which he does. Then they get into bed together, with one candle, their mixed drinks, and their suicide drugs. They hug and kiss, thank each other for a lovely life, and take their pills.
Dwight calls Moira to tell her that he’s casting off at 8 o’clock the next morning to take Scorpion just out into international waters and sink her. Moira says she’ll be there. When she tells her parents her plans, they encourage her to go, asking her to open the stockyard gate so the cattle can get to the hay, and to say goodbye to Dwight for them. They are almost dead now, and will be worse in the morning. The next morning Moira, who is also sick, puts on the red outfit she wore the first time she met Dwight, kisses her mother, and sets off for Williamstown. Dwight looks very ill, but he’s pleased that she came to say goodbye. He refuses to let Moira come with him on the submarine, as he has declined requests from four men this morning. “I’ve run this vessel in the Navy way right through, and I’m running her that way up till the end.” He notices she’s wearing the outfit she was wearing when they met, and she asks him to tell Sharon about her, since they’ve nothing to hide. He kisses her, tells her where he’ll sink the sub in about two hours, and she says, “Maybe I’ll see you in Connecticut one day.”
Some other women have come to the dock, and as the Scorpion casts off, Moira murmurs that now there’s nothing to go on living for. “Well, you won’t have to, ducks,” says one of the women. Moira gets into her car and heads for the direction Dwight had said he was going. On the way, she passes Barwon Heads, and the little house her mother used to rent for family vacations every summer. Just as Moira gets to the lighthouse at the entrance to Port Phillip Bay she spots the gray hull of the submarine. She can see Dwight on the deck of the sub, though too far away to make out details, and she waves to him, knowing he can’t see her. She’s very sick, and the wind is cold, so she gets back into her car and watches the sub until it disappears on the horizon. She says the Lord’s Prayer, then uncorks her bottle of brandy. “Dwight, if you’re on your way already, wait for me.” Then she takes her pill.
It is striking in this chapter that the characters go through their last days and hours on earth in the same understated, matter of fact way that has characterized their behavior throughout the book. Even desperately ill, all of them take care of their loved ones, including animals, and their business as best they can. Perhaps the prevailing emotion could be said to be gratitude, gratitude for loved ones and for all their lives have been. You could argue that people so ill, after so long a doomsday watch, are too exhausted to be bitter, or to fight their end. But these people have shown very little bitterness since the book began. The exception is Moira, who was bitter and handling the prospect of her premature death very destructively at the beginning. Yet she is the one (with the possible exception of Dwight) who makes a formal religious observance before she dies.
The persistent flirtation with the idea that life continues after death, with our recognizable loved ones and places, is reiterated here by both Dwight and Moira, who have hinted at the notion again and again throughout the book. Their talk of going to Connecticut, seeing and meeting Dwight’s family, maintains the ring of conviction to the end. Perhaps this element of hopefulness, along with the graciousness of most of the people in Australia as the story progresses, is what makes this tale of the end of the world both bearable and enduring.Table of Contents | Message Board | Downloadable/Printable Version