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Free Study Guide/Summary for On The Beach by Nevil Shute - Free Book Notes
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Lieutenant Commander Peter Holmes

Of the Royal Australian Navy: probably in his middle to late 20’s; a devoted husband and father, diligent and dutiful naval officer living in the small town of Falmouth, which is on the beach close to Melbourne, nearly the southernmost part of Australia. Peter is posted to the Australian naval installation at Melbourne. Because of his competence, and his willingness, even eagerness, to serve regular assignments in the Navy despite the uncertainness of the times and the general dissolution of the structure of Australian society as the end of life on earth approaches, Peter is assigned duty as a liaison officer between the Australian Navy and the United States Navy on the U. S. Navy submarine Scorpion, commanded by U. S. Navy officer Dwight Towers (see below). Peter views the circumstances of life after nuclear war, and the impending doom of himself, his wife, and his baby (with the rest of humanity that is now alive in the southern hemisphere post-war) with a matter-of-fact sense of detachment that enables him to do what is necessary in post nuclear war life, and before the end comes. Thus, he gladly accepts the first navy assignment because it will keep him busy at sea, doing what he was trained to do and loves to do, and his family needs the money. But he declines an assignment that may have him out at sea when the radiation sickness that is descending into the southern hemisphere is predicted to reach Melbourne.

Taking into account the scientists’ margin of error on when the contamination might reach Melbourne, he buys sample suicide/euthanasia vials for his wife and baby, and insists on teaching his wife how to use them, in case the sickness hits while he is at sea. This is to cover the eventuality of his wife dying before the infant, leaving the baby to thrash her way to death of radiation sickness without the comfort of a caretaker. Peter is pleased to buy his wife presents that he knows they will not live to enjoy in their garden, but when necessary, gently insists that they face and plan for their fate as a family.

Mary Holmes

Peter’s wife: twenty-something, a naval officer’s daughter born in England, a true “domestic goddess” whose life is happily devoted to her infant daughter, Jennifer, immaculate housekeeping in their small rented house, and gardening. Mary supports Peter’s career, rejoicing for him when he gets the liaison assignment because she knows how much it means to him to go to sea again. She is a sensitive hostess who arranges to entertain Peter’s new American commanding officer in such a way as to divert his mind from the loss of his wife and family in the northern hemisphere. Mary determinedly plans her garden and the rest of their life as if the war had never happened, refusing most of the time to entertain the idea that they are all going to die before the year’s up. She reacts with fierce anger and denial when Peter shows her the drugs he’s procured to help them die when they contract radiation sickness. Her last words to Peter after they’ve taken the drugs are, “I’ve had a lovely time since we got married. Thank you for everything, Peter.”

Commander Dwight Towers

United States Navy: thirty-three years old, captain of the U. S. nuclear submarine, Scorpion. Scorpion had been on patrol near Midway in the Pacific, and was approaching Manila, in the Philippines, when clouds of dust from the cobalt bomb explosions, plus a high radiation level, drove them south. The sub ended up in Brisbane, Australia. The senior officer among several American vessels that were in the southern hemisphere when the end came to the northern hemisphere had ordered what remained of the U. S. Navy fleet to put themselves under command of the Australian navy, which is how Dwight ended up in Melbourne with his sub. It is the only useful vessel remaining in the combined fleet, because nuclear fuel can be prepared for it, whereas the other vessels require petroleum-based fuel, and all crude oil comes from the northern hemisphere.

Dwight is a quiet, competent, simple man who follows U. S. Navy regulations by the book to the end. After some binge drinking in Melbourne bars right after the end of the war, Dwight settles into as normal a routine as possible in his new posting. After Peter and Mary Holmes introduce Dwight to Moira Davidson (see below), he maintains a warm but chaste dating relationship with Moira until the end. Though objectively he knows that his wife Sharon, his son Dwight Junior, and his daughter Helen, in his home of Mystic, Connecticut, are all dead, along with everyone else in the northern hemisphere, Dwight always speaks of them in the present tense, and plans for his return to them in Mystic by buying them all carefully chosen presents. At the end, when Dwight leaves Melbourne to take Scorpion into international waters and sink it, he says he is going home to Mystic and his family.

Moira Davidson

A twenty-four year old country girl who graduated from college with honors in history; friend of Peter and Mary. She is very fair and petite, with straight blonde hair, a beautiful figure, and an outspoken, outrageous manner. Moira has been drowning her disappointment that she will not be able to take the tour of Europe and America she had been planning following her graduation (that in fact she will never have made it outside of Australia when she dies), nor marry or have children, in excessive drinking and partying. She also has a brother, Donald, who was in the northern hemisphere when the war took place. She tells Dwight where Donald was without elaborating or showing emotion. The Holmeses invite Moira to their house for the first weekend Dwight comes to stay with them, so Moira can keep things lively (“never a dull moment”) and help entertain Commander Towers.

From that time on Moira Davidson and Dwight Towers date and get to know each other: in Melbourne, with Peter and Mary in Falmouth, and at the farm of Moira’s father, a cattleman. Although they enjoy each other’s company very much, they never approach or consider doing anything that would breach Dwight’s marriage vows. On two occasions, Dwight kisses Moira one time. The first occasion is when Moira offers to help Dwight find a pogo stick to take home to Mystic as a present for his daughter. On that occasion, Dwight feels that his wife Sharon would approve of his kissing Moira, and he tells Moira that the kiss is from both of them, to thank her for her kindness. Moira respects Dwight’s feeling that his family is still alive, and that he will remain true to his wife. Although she says she can’t imagine being happy with anyone else, and claims that under other circumstances she would try to take Dwight away from Sharon, Moira tells Mary that Moira is not going to start “a smutty little affair” in these last few months, and that she probably couldn’t get Dwight to cheat on his wife, anyway. After knowing Dwight awhile, Moira stops drinking excessively and enrolls in a secretarial course so she can get a job, knowing full well that she will not live to complete the course, let alone get a job. She has changed her attitude from, “What’s the point?” and now agrees with Dwight that it is better to be actively pursuing a goal when the end comes.

John Osborne

Late twenties; a civilian scientific officer with Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (C. S. I. R. O.) “Very tall and thin. Mousey sort of hair. Wears spectacles.” Coldly emphatic about the approach of the contaminated air, and the fact that everyone will die of radiation sickness. He is assigned to Scorpion to monitor radiation levels and collect scientific data as the submarine conducts reconnaissance in “safe” areas to assess conditions, gain information, and search for survivors. He deals with his fear of submerging in the submarine, and his regret at dying so young, by racing a red Ferrari, fueled by his own blend of ethanol, and winning the Australian Grand Prix. J. S. Osborne is related distantly to Moira, who describes him as “totally mad”.

Minor Characters

Lieutenant General Sir Douglas Froude

A cheerful, well-informed sixty-something; John Osborne’s great uncle; retired, but still with military bearing, white hair, and red face. He is dealing with impending doom by going to the Pastoral Club in Melbourne three times a week, trying his best to deplete the club’s stock of excellent port wine before the end, even taking home a bottle with him each time he leaves. At the end he is still unaffected by radiation sickness when almost everyone else is down. He can be expected to last somewhat longer than everyone else, since people whose systems are alcohol pickled are apparently more resistant to contamination.

Mr. Davidson

Moira’s father: a grazier, or cattleman. Hard-working, hospitable, gets along well with Dwight Towers. Like Mary Holmes, Mr. Davidson continues to plan several seasons ahead for improvements to his farm, and to work on them when he has time, knowing that he will not live to complete these projects. Knowing that his cattle will outlive him, he is concerned how best to arrange the storage of his hay and silage so the cattle can get to it to feed when he is gone. One of the last things he does is to have the gates of his paddock opened, so his cattle can range over the countryside to graze and find water.

Yeoman First Class Ralph Swain

A young radar operator on the Scorpion. During Scorpion’s primary reconnaissance mission to the area around Seattle, Washington, the sub passes Ralphie’s hometown, and he jumps overboard and swims to shore. He refuses Dwight’s order to return to the Scorpion and be decontaminated immediately, preferring to have his end come in his own town, where his parents, girl friend, and every other person and pet are already dead in their beds. When Scorpion passes the town of Edmonds on its way back south to Australia, Ralphie is out in his own boat fishing, and has caught a salmon.

Jennifer Holmes

Peter’s and Mary’s infant daughter. She is apparently around six to nine months old, since she is just beginning to crawl and to pull herself up and suck on things she gets hold of. She cuts her first tooth before the end. She is also described as sitting on her pot first thing in the morning. This would suggest to American readers in the twenty-first century that Jennifer is a toddler, but since she doesn’t say any words yet, and is consistently described as an infant, she is probably the younger age.

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Free Study Guide-On The Beach by Nevil Shute - Book Summary


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