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

PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS

At the beginning of On the Beach an officer in the Australian navy, LCDR Peter Holmes, is asked to be the liaison officer to the American submarine, U.S.S. Scorpion. There has been a war among several northern hemisphere nations, including the USSR, China, and the USA. Nuclear weapons of mass destruction had been deployed in the war, and everyone in the northern hemisphere is presumed dead. Radiation levels are fatally high north of the Equator, and radio contact has ceased with all northern hemisphere bases. American naval vessels which were south of the Equator, or able to submerge and get out of the hot zone, have converged in Australia, where the ranking officer put them under the command of the Australian navy. That is why Peter Holmes is being assigned liaison officer to the Scorpion. Scorpion is important to the task of assessing damage and looking for survivors, because it can travel submerged, and its crew can avoid breathing contaminated air. It is also important because it is nuclear powered, and fuel can be prepared for it in Australia. Before the war, all crude oil was imported by Australia from the northern hemisphere, but that source is no longer available. Reserves that existed at the time of the war have been saved for doctors and emergency use. The unavailability of petroleum-based fuel in Australia has rendered the ships and carriers that run on petrol (gasoline or diesel) useless.

The Australian naval command wants to send the Scorpion on missions to assess conditions wherever the radiation level is safe, and to search for survivors in the hot zone. LCDR Holmes meets the American submarine captain, Commander Dwight Towers.

Holmes is married, with an infant daughter. He invites his new commanding officer to his home in Falmouth, on the beach some distance outside Melbourne and Williamsport, where the naval command is located. Most of the Americans and English in Australia have lost their entire families and their homes in the war. This makes it awkward for the Australians to have social relationships with them. Peter Holmes and his wife Mary enlist the help of their friend Moira Davidson to see that Commander Towers has never a dull moment in which to mourn his family over the weekend. The weekend goes well, except that it is Moira, having had too much to drink (as is her custom) who breaks down over all the things she will miss. The equatorial winds have not kept the radiation fallout from the northern hemisphere out of the southern hemisphere. The fallout is slowly spreading south, and by the end of the year, if not sooner, it will have reached Melbourne, the southernmost large city on the planet. At that point the Australians there will get radiation sickness and die, like everyone else on the earth.


The Scorpion is being fitted out for some exploratory voyages, starting with cities in northern Australia that are already “out” (citizens seized by radiation sickness, and sporadic or no radio contact). Dwight Towers meets John Osborne, employed by the Australian government’s science organization, the C. S. I. R. O. His job will be to monitor radiation levels aboard Scorpion.

In Scorpion’s first trip to northern Australian cities that are out, the only living thing that they observe is a large black dog.

On its longer voyage along the American west coast, Scorpion discovers the following: No one is alive in any of the cities they approach. Erratic radio transmissions coming from the vicinity of Seattle have been happening when a blown out window teetering near the transmission key is moved by the wind and bumps the keys. It has nothing to do with human manipulation of the transmitter. On their way past Edmonds, Washington, a crew member who is from Edmonds jumps ship and goes fishing for the last day of his life in his home town. Osborne’s radiation data disproves the Jorgensen effect, a hopeful theory that hypothesized the cobalt radiation was dissipating faster than thought at first, suggesting that human habitation might be still be possible.

Once back from the second voyage, Scorpion’s crew members and the rest of Australia set about making the most of their last three months of life, before Melbourne goes out. Peter and Mary Holmes plan their garden ten years into the future. John Osborne begins to race his red Ferrari, eventually winning the Australian Grand Prix. Moira Davidson’s father, a cattleman, plans improvements to his farm and pasture that extend into coming years. Moira enrolls in a shorthand/typing course so she can get a good job. Dwight buys presents to take home to his dead wife and children in Mystic, Connecticut. Dwight and Moira go trout fishing.

The radiation sickness gets to Melbourne a little sooner than planned, and all of the characters die, most of them using the government provided suicide pills. Commander Dwight Towers sails his vessel into international waters, where he sinks it with himself and its crew inside.

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