On the Beach | Study Guide

Nevil Shute

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On the Beach | Chapter 3 | Summary



After nine days spent scouting the northern coasts of Australia and nearby islands, Scorpion is back in safe waters and returning to port. Commander Towers remarks that this report will be "a little difficult to write." At every opportunity along the way, the submarine had surfaced, and loudspeakers had been used to hail anyone still able to respond. With the exception of a dog on the wharf of Green Island, there was no sign of life—not even a sea bird. The sun-washed streets of the towns were utterly empty. The Scorpion's crew learns nothing, except by inference that people had "died tidily," hidden away indoors, when the end came. John Osborne notes an eye-opening fact: no one will ever see these places again.

As the submarine makes its way home, Commander Towers, liaison officer Peter, and John discuss the war, sharing what they have gleaned from various reports. Peter wonders if anyone is writing a history about these times, even if it will only be read in the next few months. John asserts such a history would be too full of gaps; there are things they just don't know. What they do know is that at least 4,700 bombs were dropped. Most used in the Russo-Chinese phase of the war were cobalt bombs, designed to inflict the most radiation damage.

Dwight surmises that the conflict between those neighboring nations may have been twofold. Russia needed a seaport that didn't freeze in winter, and China needed more land to accommodate its overcrowded population. Shanghai, China, offered the warm-water port Russia needed. Russia's vast regions of empty terrain would solve China's land needs. Each nation feared the other. Both may have believed their goals could be achieved with calculated annihilation of the enemy and occupation of the desired territory once the radiation subsided.

While this scenario is based only on Dwight's educated guess, it has its roots in incidents whose facts are known. The entire war was sparked when Albania bombed Naples, Italy. Then someone bombed Tel Aviv in Israel. Assuming Egypt was behind it, Americans and British flew planes over Cairo as a warning. The next day, Egypt sent out its Russian-made bombers to hit Washington and London.

After that there were few American or British statesmen left to make reasoned decisions that might have curtailed war. One of the Egyptian pilots landed his bomber in Puerto Rico on the way home, and the plane was identified as Russian. The Egyptian origins of the attack were realized too late. The remaining officials in the United States had already bombed major cities and nuclear installations in Russia.

With "every little pipsqueak country" able to stockpile nuclear weapons, the war swiftly spun out of control. Smaller armed nations took advantage of the situation, hoping to defeat larger countries with surprise attacks. Additionally, the war between Russia and the Western Powers escalated further when China entered the fray. Most means of communication quickly failed. Although Australia's prime minister reached out to China as a voice of reason, it was too late for diplomacy to stop the chaos. The war did not end "till all the bombs were gone and all the aircraft were unserviceable." John sums up the bottom-line fault for conflict, asserting it lay with the little countries that set it off—"the Irresponsibles."

Peter confesses that, even after all he has seen, he cannot believe the world is going to end. John corrects him, explaining that the world, indeed, will go on—humans just won't be part of it any longer. Dwight thinks about the silent towns they have seen, recalling the flowering trees and palms standing in the sunlight. He remarks, "Maybe we've been too silly to deserve a world like this."

Once back in port, Peter calls Mary to let her know he's safe but in quarantine—one sick crewman has exposed everyone to measles. With baby Jennifer in mind, Mary finds measles more disturbing than the fact that no life was detected in Australia's northern towns. The next afternoon, Peter joins John at the Pastoral Club, an exclusive, upscale establishment. John has fulfilled a lifelong dream by becoming a member, figuring "it was now or never." They share drinks and details of Scorpion's mission with John's great-uncle, Sir Douglas Froude. The elderly gentleman is dedicating his last days to drinking up as much of the club's first-class vintage port as he can before the end.

In the meantime, Moira has gone with Dwight for drinks at the Piers Hotel in Melbourne. Their lighthearted conversation turns more serious as she asks about the cruise. Dwight tells her that the radiation is moving steadily south; there is no escaping it.

Later that afternoon, they go sailing and end up at an evening picnic on the beach, organized by Peter and Mary. The "warm, rosy glow of the sunset" is a reminder that there is still beauty in the world. Dwight talks to Moira about his hometown and family. Not having witnessed their destruction, he cannot picture them gone. Moira recognizes this blessing provides a buffer from reality that allows Dwight some measure of peace. He tells her he will be going home in September to where his family is waiting. Employing compassion, Moira doesn't contradict him.


This chapter provides the first glimpse of the lifeless, silent cities that have fallen victim to radiation poisoning. Shute also provides more details about the basic chronology of World War III, while confirming the relentless advance of the resulting fallout.

In the war's aftermath, the lethal dust from the cobalt bombs is silently spreading, unstoppable and unseen, seeping into everything and everyone it touches. The governments and countries that went to war are long gone, but the destruction they unleashed has endured to destroy life from within. The dreadfulness of a weapon that annihilates people while leaving cities intact is underscored by the sight of Cairns's tree-lined, undamaged, and deserted streets. The town's people have crept away to die. This end-of-life choice quietly echoes the novel's epigraph: This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.

Peter, Dwight, and John try to piece together the details of the war. The best they can do is to construct a bare-bones timeline of events. Only one shadowy figure emerges in connection to the war: Chinese Air Force Major Chan Sze Lin. No one is really sure who he was. Equally puzzling is why the first bombs were dropped. The vagueness of these details and the anonymity of the war's architects make the conflict's outcome all the more dreadful. While the war's underlying causes remain unknown, that will make no difference. Nothing remains to fight for, and nobody is going to win.

As their discussion continues, the men speculate on where to lay the blame for the war and humanity's demise. Through his characters, Nevil Shute explores who the culprits might be in a real-world version of this scenario.

Shute worried that people in the mid-1950s were getting too comfortable with the idea of nuclear weapons. Science was pursuing further development of weaponized nuclear technology, heedless of the consequences. The Cold War was in full swing, and the two superpowers, Soviet Russia and the United States, were stockpiling bombs. However, in much of the world, the public was attempting to put the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki behind them. People seemed increasingly certain that a nuclear disaster could not happen to them. Peter embodies this general lack of imagination. Even after witnessing the lifeless towns, it's impossible for him to imagine this is the end of the world. Though he served during the short war, he was never directly engaged in conflict, and the dead coastal cities show no convincing signs of damage. Shute's grim narrative shows readers like Peter the unimaginable. His goal is to awaken them from the sense of security and apathy that could allow a real World War III to occur.

Dwight is in a better position to grasp the reality of the situation, and he holds everyone responsible. Shute lets readers see the world through Dwight's eyes as he notes the everyday beauty most people take for granted. The lifeless coastal towns strike him as pleasant places to live. "Maybe we've been too silly to deserve a world like this," he observes. In other words, people became blind to the world around them and—forgetting what was important—failed to protect it. Now it's too late.

John points a finger at another culprit in this disaster: the Irresponsibles. These are the small, weak countries that looked upon nuclear weapons as a powerful equalizer in war. Ignorant or uncaring of the consequences, they bombed their neighbors, counting on the elements of speed and surprise to win the day. As John points out, the atomic bombs were too cheap and easy to acquire by "pipsqueak nations" that had no grasp of the weapons' enormous destructive power. Through John's observations, Shute highlights dangers posed by the proliferation of nuclear weapons. While Shute was not a pacifist and did not advocate disarmament, he was troubled by the 1950s stockpiling of nuclear weapons and the efforts of more countries to obtain them.

Dwight offers one last insight into the culprits behind the war: the military mindset that could not ignore protocol. Some of the first casualties of the war were the top decision makers on all sides—the high-ranking officials and diplomats who might have negotiated for peace. With them dead, response to the bomb attacks fell to junior officers carefully trained to obey orders, procedures, and codes of conduct. In this case, their training dictated that the enemy be destroyed, and the war swiftly spun out of control.

The bombing didn't stop until all the bombs were gone. Dwight himself confesses that he would not have known what to do "with an enemy knocking hell out of the United States and killing all our people." He suspects he would not have acted differently than these junior officers. As a loyal member of the military himself, Shute is not casting these men in the role of villain. He is raising awareness of the danger they represent in a World War III scenario.

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