On the Beach | Study Guide

Nevil Shute

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On the Beach | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 1

The first chapter is preceded by an epigraph consisting of lines taken from the last two stanzas of the poem "The Hollow Men" by T.S. Eliot. They describe a group of people gathered on a beach who "grope together/And avoid speech." The epigraph ends with the last four lines of the poem, which state "This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper."

Australian naval officer Peter Holmes has had little to do since the "short, bewildering war" that ended one year ago. As the novel opens, he awakens beside his wife, Mary, happily recalling he has a meeting today with the Navy Department in nearby Melbourne. It means a new appointment and his first work in five months. A few minutes later, baby Jennifer stirs, and it's time to get up and start the day.

Peter and Mary were married in 1961, just six months before nuclear war broke out in the Northern Hemisphere. The war raged for 37 days and then abruptly ended. While confined north of the equator, its effects are being felt worldwide. So far, a lack of oil and gasoline has been the worst inconvenience suffered in Melbourne. As a result, bicycles, horses, and makeshift horse-drawn vehicles now populate the roads instead of cars.

Starting out from their home in Falmouth, a suburb of Melbourne, Peter bikes to a local farm to fetch fresh milk and cream. Back home he changes into his uniform, bikes to the train station, and is in the city via electric train an hour later. Along the way he has time to contemplate the dwindling state of the Royal Navy and to hope his new commission involves going to sea.

Lieutenant Commander Holmes is in luck. He is assigned to be liaison officer aboard the US nuclear submarine USS Scorpion. The ship's commander is American naval officer Dwight Towers, "a quiet, soft-spoken man" from New England whom Peter has already met. When the short-lived war erupted, Commander Towers was at sea, on patrol with Scorpion. New orders from the US Navy directed him to head for Manila. However, once there, detectors on Scorpion's periscope picked up high levels of radioactivity in the atmosphere. The commander's attempts to report this failed; US communications centers had fallen silent.

Eventually, Commander Towers learned details of the war from the captain of an American cruiser anchored at Yap Island in Micronesia. Now termed the Russo-Chinese War, its flashpoint was Albania, which next sparked an Israeli-Arab war. This spread and intensified, becoming the Russo-NATO war, until the entire Northern Hemisphere was involved. Both the Chinese and the Russians had used cobalt bombs. Understanding the extent of the war's destruction to the north, Commander Towers had sailed Scorpion south for Australia, docking at Melbourne.

Scorpion's new mission is to cruise the Australian coast to the ports of Cairns and Darwin, then to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. The purpose is to assess conditions in those places. As liaison for the Royal Australian Navy, Lieutenant Commander Holmes will join the cruise. While grateful for the opportunity, Peter feels uneasy about leaving Mary and the baby, as "there's not so long to go." Radioactive dust steadily spreads south. Nevertheless, he accepts the job, knowing Mary would be furious if he didn't.

After an informal meeting with Commander Towers, Peter invites the captain to stay the weekend at his home. Dwight Towers knows that Northern Hemisphere people avoid socializing with their southern counterparts. Too much guilt and sorrow lies between them. Nevertheless, Dwight accepts the invitation.

Mary expresses concern over the idea when Peter tells her. She worries that coming into their home, seeing a healthy, intact family, will be too painful for Towers. She advises keeping Dwight as busy as possible, swimming, sailing, and partying. She then suggests they get Moira Davidson to help out. Moira is young, vivacious, a bit of a flirt, and very capable of keeping the captain busy and distracted. While Moira first hesitates over the prospect of entertaining someone who may start weeping in her arms, she agrees to the assignment.

A lively Saturday follows, complete with a boat race in which Moira deliberately capsizes the boat she and Dwight are sailing. She teasingly scolds Dwight for orchestrating the whole thing. At the party that night, she keeps him busy dancing and drinking and avoids any serious topics. Afterward in the garden, Moira continues drinking while asking Dwight about the mission and the approaching radioactive dust. He explains wind has carried the lethal dust south of the equator. Bitterly, Moira rails against the injustice of dying because of a war that didn't involve Australia. "It's not that I'm afraid of dying," she tells Dwight, and laments about "all the things I'm going to ... miss." Quite intoxicated by now, she is overwhelmed with the unfairness of the situation and begins to cry uncontrollably. Uncertain how to comfort her, Dwight tells Mary that Moira "might want somebody to put her to bed."

Analysis

This chapter introduces most of the major characters as well as the situation they and all of humanity face. The setting is Melbourne, the southernmost major city in Australia, during the last few days of 1962. The epigraph preceding the chapter sets the narrative's quiet, desperate tone—signaling that what is to come will involve neither high drama nor violent conflict. All of that is over. The story's participants have been left to silently huddle together on the beach, "the last of meeting places."

T.S. Eliot's poem "The Hollow Men" (1925) reflects post–World War I pessimism. In the poem the hollow men are trapped in a twilight world, awaiting some final and dreadful fate. They are dying but not yet dead. They "avoid speech" because there is nothing left to say. The hollow men have gathered by "the tumid river," which suggests the River Styx from Greek mythology, beyond which lies the Underworld. The gathered men are waiting to cross the river and end their journey. Similarly, characters in the novel live out their final days in a kind of terrible limbo that looks like everyday life. The dramatic irony is that this isn't life as usual but a period of waiting and slow death.

The epigraph's second stanza goes straight to the heart of the novel: The world is ending, but not with a passionate display of defiance. Instead the population's last gasp resembles the weak cry of a dying animal.

In contrast with the epigraph, the opening scene in Chapter 1 paints a picture of uncomplicated domesticity. On a fine morning two days after Christmas, a husband, wife, and child casually begin their day. The only hint of trouble is that Peter Holmes has not worked for five months and has "almost given up hope of ever working again." But happily that will be corrected today. There are a few troubling glimpses of a "short, bewildering war" and its consequences, such as the inconvenient shortage of gasoline and a significant decline in the number of ships in the Royal Australian Navy's fleet. Yet in general life seems to move along much as usual. Only as Lieutenant Commander Holmes reviews what he knows about Commander Dwight Towers is the far-reaching, lethal nature of the war revealed.

There is power in Shute's depiction of the simplicity and wholesomeness of life. Whatever civil unrest or other breakdowns in society initially followed the third and final world war have righted themselves. A fundamental decency has survived and resurfaced. The final victims of World War III are ordinary, recognizable, and likeable people thrown into an unimaginably awful situation. Yet they go to work, do their jobs well, adjust to difficulties, enjoy their families and leisure time, and help each other out when possible. Knowing they are all in the same boat, they're doing the best they can.

Through his characters, Shute describes various aspects of existence in the new world, reshaped and redefined by the war. For example, Shute uses Peter Holmes to underscore the shortness of time. As a naval officer, he is an individual who values his work, especially now. His duties provide a sense of purpose while the world waits to end. However, as a young husband and father, Peter views his assignment through the lens of dwindling time. He must weigh his desire to work against his concern for his family. The character of Moira Davidson represents the unfulfilled dreams of youth. Repeatedly she states how unfair it is that her life is being cut short by a war on the other side of the world. She is young, with all her dreams of travel, marriage, and a family before her. Shute uses the character of Commander Dwight Towers to spotlight the swiftness of the war and the utter destruction of the Northern Hemisphere. The commander is a person without a country, a home, or a family. His world is gone. Yet he looks upon the time left as "period of grace," meaning a time to prepare for what is to come. This foreshadows a physical, spiritual, and emotional journey that will be different for everyone as the story unfolds.

Few details are given of who bombed whom and why are known, which adds to the horror of the situation. The architects of World War III are nameless and faceless. There are no heroes. Humankind is going to die, but it cannot trace how this came to pass. This history will never be written.

The Russians and Chinese both deployed cobalt nuclear bombs—weapons designed to produce long-lasting radiation. The bombs' purpose is to wipe out the enemy and leave affected regions uninhabitable for years to come. While the initial explosion would not end all life, any survivors would not withstand the radioactive fallout.

This type of bomb was not a reality in Nevil Shute's day. However, the alarming potential of such a weapon had been proposed in 1950 by Hungarian American physicist Leo Szilard, a student of the renowned German American physicist Albert Einstein. In addition, experts in the scientific community had predicted that cobalt bombs would be capable of wiping out life on Earth should they be developed. Shute's work for the British War Office during World War II made him acutely aware of the desire of nations to develop superior strategic weapons. Their pursuit of more lethal bombs was becoming normalized and acceptable. He feared people were becoming too comfortable with the idea of nuclear weapons and the public was forgetting the destructive capacity of such weapons. Shute's creative choice of the cobalt bomb to end the world in On the Beach was an effort to reawaken public awareness. His crucial message: nuclear war means annihilation.
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