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Free Study Guide/Summary for On The Beach by Nevil Shute - Free Book Notes
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The style of On the Beach is matter-of-fact and straightforward. There is little symbolism. Perhaps the interaction of the characters with water (swimming at the beach, fishing on the river) could be seen as symbolic of their (and all mankind’s) relationship with death. As in the quote from T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland on the title page, and from which the book takes its title, the characters stand on the beach of the tumid river of death (Styx, the river you cross over into Hades, the place of the dead, in Greek mythology). They try to digest their sure knowledge of when death will come, and that it will be soon, in effect swimming in the river Styx, but not crossing over. They fish in the river, perhaps hoping for a reprieve. (The fish is a symbol of life and nourishment.)

At a stretch, you could view the Grand Prix race, won by John Osborne in his red Ferrari, as a metaphor for finishing the race of life, and winning the big prize (“grand prix” is French for “big prize”) at the end. What is the big prize? Death with peace and dignity? The hope of life beyond this one? Satisfaction at having lived as well as possible? Loving and having been loved? There is a recurring situation in On the Beach that might be regarded as a motif. It is when the characters are observing or enjoying a beautiful place, weather, and sometimes, companionship. As they marvel at it all, they can’t believe that the world as they know it will come to an end. This crystallizes the persistent dichotomy in the book between the grim eventuality of death, and the idea that life, associations, and places will go on. Here is an example. In the first voyage of the Scorpion to north Australia, the sub passes city after city that looks perfectly normal, except for the absence of human beings.

“They turned the ship around, and went out a little way till they could see the Strand Hotel and part of the shopping centre again. They stayed there for a time, still calling and still getting no response. . . Apart from the radioactive information gathered by John Osborne, they had learned nothing, unless it was the purely negative information that Cairns looked exactly as it always had before. The sun shone in the streets, the flame trees brightened the far hills, the deep verandahs shaded the shopwindows of the town. A pleasant little place to live in the tropics, though nobody lived there except, apparently, one dog.” (Chapter 3, p.


• The book was published in 1957, in the height of the Cold War, amidst anxiety about the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

• The book depicts the world after a nuclear war which has completely annihilated human life in the northern hemisphere.

• Radiation fallout from the war is gradually making its way into the southern hemisphere, and will eventually take all human and animal life.

• The book is set in Melbourne, Australia, because it is the southernmost major city in the world.

• Some American naval personnel, as well as some other natives of the northern hemisphere who were below the Equator during the war, now live in Australia.

• American naval submarines are being used to collect information on the war in the hot zone, because the subs can travel submerged, and not breathe contaminated air.

• There is no petrol (gasoline) in Australia except for strategic reserves, because all oil was imported to Australia from the northern hemisphere before the war. This makes the American nuclear submarines the only useful vessels in the Australian navy (under whose command the American Navy has put itself). Nuclear fuel can be manufactured in Australia.

• The American subs confirm that there is no human life remaining in the northern hemisphere, nor in the southern hemisphere where radioactive fallout has descended.

• The subs also disprove the Jorgensen effect, a theory that the radiation is dissipating faster than anticipated, leaving open the possibility that human life can be possible in some places on the earth.

• Rather than a nightmarish, hyperbolic depiction of the world’s end, the picture painted is one of matter-of-fact, understated progress from the fast, bewildering war in the northern hemisphere to the deaths of the inhabitants of Melbourne.

• At the end of the book, radiation sickness does reach Melbourne, and all the characters die, with everyone else in Australia.

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


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