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On the Beach | Study Guide

Nevil Shute

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On the Beach | Chapter 2 | Summary



Early the next morning, Peter visits the farmer, Mr. Paul, to see that Mary gets milk and cream regularly while he is at sea. Back at the house, Peter, Mary, and Dwight breakfast together before Dwight goes off to the little church down the hill.

In these familiar surroundings, so like the church back home in Mystic, Connecticut, Dwight's thoughts turn to his family. He imagines them as still alive and in nine months he'll be going home to them. Having missed his children's birthdays, he makes plans to bring back a fishing pole for Dwight Junior. Six-year-old Helen's gift is undecided. He'll think of something between now and September. He knows he can count on his wife, Sharon, to help the children understand why daddy's been away.

Moira is up and about by the time Dwight returns to the Holmes' house. As they chat he gently chides her about drinking all the time and suggests that it must get tedious. When she responds that "life gets tedious," he notes that, luckily, he has plenty to do. With mild interest, Moira asks if she can come to see his submarine—it would be something to look forward to. He makes arrangements to call her, politely addressing her as "Miss Davidson," to which she replies with a smile, "Moira's the name, Dwight."

Moira leaves him at the station and heads home to her parents' farm. Predictably, her mother asks for a full report on the weekend. Back on board Scorpion, Commander Towers learns a young Australian research scientist, John Osborne, has been added to his crew. John's scientific duties will include observing and recording atmospheric and marine levels of radioactivity. He also will be monitoring any rising levels within the submarine's hull.

On the following Tuesday, Scorpion goes for a test run at sea, returning Friday. As promised, Dwight calls Moira after the submarine docks and invites her to visit the ship on Saturday. She's surprised to learn that her distant relation, John Osborne, is now part of the crew. "He's dippy," she warns Dwight mischievously, adding, "He'll wreck your ship for you."

On Saturday Moira uses Dwight's cabin to change into overalls more suitable for exploring the ship's "cramped maze of greasy machinery." Here there are photographs of his wife and children. Studying the pictures, Moira decides they look like nice people—a painful thought she pushes aside knowing they are dead.

In a quiet moment after her tour of Scorpion, she learns from Dwight that the sub will cruise north to Cairns, Darwin, and Port Moresby to determine whether anyone is left alive. Since it's unsafe to go ashore, crew members will use a loud hailer, or loudspeaker, to broadcast their message. Talk turns to the radioactive areas above the equator. "Can you visualize it?" she asks. "All those cities, all those fields and farms, with nobody, and nothing left alive." Neither Dwight nor she can, and he prefers to remember the regions as they were. "I guess nobody will ever know what the northern hemisphere looks like now," he adds, "excepting God." Conversation veers back to the upcoming mission. Still on a serious note, Moira warns Dwight to keep an eye on John Osborne. Whereas the rest of the crew may be well suited for submarine life, John hasn't the same steady temperament.

Back in Dwight's cabin, changing into her own clothes, the desire to escape all these "morbid bloody realities" washes over Moira. She desperately needs her "world of romance, of make-believe and double brandies." She talks Dwight into dinner and dancing in Melbourne, where crowded restaurants and cafes are "doing a roaring trade." Over drinks she remarks that Dwight is lucky to have a full-time job. She herself only works around the farm on occasion. Though she graduated university with honors, she hasn't any particular skills, such as typing, that could help her get work. Dwight suggests that taking a business course would give her something to aim for and be better than drinking double brandies to pass the time. In response she irritably orders another drink.

At the end of the evening, Dwight wishes Moira good night and gets her onto the last train home. For a moment, as she walks away, she seems to look a little like his wife, Sharon. He muses that this is possibly why he likes her.

On Sunday after church, Dwight meets with Peter Holmes, the vice admiral, and the prime minister for a final briefing before the cruise. The prime minister stresses the crew is not to take unnecessary risks yet keep an eye out for signs of life, whether human or animal. However, to avoid contamination, he forbids them to take anybody on board the ship. And they must not go near Townsville, where people are still alive. The townspeople can't be helped, and it would be cruel to show the ship and give them false hopes.


This chapter delves more deeply into the everyday lives of the main characters, revealing how they cope with the catastrophic situation they face. Shute weaves a delicate thread of spirituality into the story. The chapter also introduces research scientist John Osborne.

The radioactive fallout from World War III is spreading steadily south, exterminating life. Yet before towns, cities, or entire countries go dark, the fallout shapes a new reality for those still alive. Following the war, a countdown began that made the remaining time precious, but the waiting can also be painful and tedious. As Moira puts it in Chapter 1, "it's like waiting to be hung." In this new reality, dreams must be set aside and future plans abandoned. The here and now becomes the focus as people struggle to adjust and learn how to live well in the time that is left. In the characters of Dwight, Moira, and John, Shute explorers the various ways they might try to cope.

Dwight finds comfort in any trace of the familiar that reminds him of home. He has lost his family, his hometown, and his country—the most meaningful elements framing his world and his reality. All he has left is his work, with its regulations and routine that he dutifully upholds. But this is only a practical distraction: a way to inject meaning into the days while he waits to "go home" in September. Work is necessary, but it cannot save him. He needs the fragile illusion that his family is alive and well in Mystic, Connecticut. Intellectually, he understands this cannot be true, but he has fashioned this dream as a means of holding onto sanity. In this postwar reality, he is drawn to anything that props it up. For example, the familiarity of the church setting allows Dwight to settle back and visualize his family alive and waiting for him. Similarly, he is drawn to Moira, who is "just a little like his wife." In Dwight, Shute depicts a harmless, gentle means of coping that allows the individual to function sanely in a shattered reality.

In contrast, Moira's method of coping is far less wholesome. In fact, she is well on her way to becoming an alcoholic. She has embraced the hedonism apparent in the bars and streets of Melbourne on a Saturday night. Though drinking offers her no comfort, it does provide a mind-numbing escape. She wants no part of this new reality; this is "no place for her." When she is drunk, she can defiantly create a more fitting "world of romance, of make-belief and double brandies." However, it's a self-destructive pastime that is proving less and less effective for keeping her bitterness and despair at bay. Moira balks at "work ... for the sake of working." However, she has no comeback when Dwight suggests it is "better than drinking ... for the sake of drinking." She can't deny the pointlessness of spending her final days in a drunken stupor. It is significant that she foregoes drinking during her visit to Scorpion in respect for Dwight's rule about no alcohol on the ship. This foreshadows an important change in her outlook on life.

Research scientist John Osborne has embraced yet another way of coping with the dire situation: objective acceptance. He chides Moira for her inability to "face up to things" and eagerly describes the merits of studying the radioactive elements as they journey south. "It's all knowledge," he tells her, and later adds, "It's fun just finding out." He's a realist. Even so, there is defiance in his refusal to look away from what is coming. This rigid objectivity, coupled with his work, provides its own special kind of mental and emotional shield.

John's attitude reflects the objective scientific mindset that created the massively destructive bombs used in the war. It is an attitude that Shute knows well, having worked during World War II to develop experimental weapons for the Royal Navy. As a member of the scientific community, John shares its guilt in this matter but remains oblivious of the fact and unapologetic. Instead, he is eager to learn what he can about the behavior and effects of radioactive fallout. He does not stop to question the morality or ethics of his work, never wondering if something should be done because it can be done.

A subtle yet meaningful element of spirituality is introduced during Dwight's visit to the church. Not only does he sit quietly visualizing his family during the service, but he believes he will see them in September when he goes home. He muses that this could be sooner, should something happen to Scorpion during her mission. Later in conversation with Moira, he supposes that only God knows what the Northern Hemisphere looks like now. Dwight's belief in God remains understated throughout the novel. However, life after death is his only hope for being reunited with his beloved family. While other characters build fantasies based on the idea that life as they know it will continue, Dwight dreams of and welcomes a different possibility.

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