On the Beach | Study Guide

Nevil Shute

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On the Beach | Chapter 4 | Summary

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Summary

Dwight and Moira stay overnight at Peter and Mary's home. The next morning, Dwight prepares to go to church, and Moira asks to come along. It's been a while since her last visit, but she thinks it might do her some good. While they're gone, Peter and Mary spend their time designing a vegetable and flower garden. Their plans are wildly unrealistic, needing several years to accomplish, but they happily lose themselves in the harmless fantasy.

Dwight and Moira return for lunch, after which Peter and the captain discuss Scorpion's next mission. It's still a mystery, but refinements are being made to the submarine's radio equipment. Dwight suspects the ship will be sent to investigate odd radio signals coming from around Seattle, Washington. The messages are gibberish, but it may be that someone still alive is unable to use the transmitter properly.

Later in the day, Moira and the two men go for a swim. As they dry off on the beach, talk turns to Scorpion's sister ship, USS Swordfish, stationed at Montevideo, Uruguay. It's unknown if that area is still safe from the radiation. Peter then mentions that scientists now are working on a history of what has happened. They're etching it on glass bricks that will be stored in a concrete cellar on Australia's highest mountain. They are also sealing pages from books between sheets of thick glass. Cynically, Moira asks, "What sort of books are they preserving ... how to make the cobalt bomb?"

After another swim, Dwight pulls on a pair of socks, revealing a hole in the toe. Moira teases him and notices he's missing a button off his shirt, too. Playfully, she suggests the admiral would find his disgraceful condition shocking and would decide Scorpion needs another captain. Then she invites him to bundle up everything that needs mending, bring it to her parents' farm, and stay a few nights. He can relax and help her father around the farm.

Moira's parents are pleased about Dwight's upcoming visit. Momentarily forgetting how things are, her mother voices the hope that something good can come of this relationship. She would like to see her daughter "settled down, and happily married with some children."

The following Tuesday, Dwight rides out to the farm with Moira. Along the way he spots beech, maple, and oak trees, just like ones back home. Briefly Moira fears the sight will depress him, but he assures her it does not. As they enter farm country, he tells her, "I don't know that I ever saw a place that was more beautiful." This pleases Moira, who has never seen anything else and so has no point of reference to judge how lovely her homeland is.

Moira's parents make Dwight feel very welcome. The first evening before supper, they all talk over the situation the world is facing. Bill Davidson and his wife exhibit a calm, rather fatalistic attitude. "No good agonizing about it," says the farmer. Bill mentions how surprisingly few refugees there have been—no people running from the radioactive dust, to buy a few more weeks of life. He surmises that "nobody really thinks it's going to happen, not to them, until they start to feel ill." He himself would not think of leaving his farm.

After two restful days, Dwight must get back to his ship. Before leaving the farm, he chances upon a little storeroom filled with cast-off items. As he studies the jumbled mess, Moira points out old toys that were hers. He enjoys imagining what she must have looked like at the time she was playing with them. He especially gets a kick from her old pogo stick and decides one like it will make the ideal gift for his daughter, Helen.

Back in Melbourne, Commander Towers receives orders for Scorpion's next assignment. The ship will cruise to Seattle, Washington, to investigate the mysterious radio transmissions originating from that area. It will then proceed farther north to test radiation levels in the air and water, as well as a theory called the Jorgensen Effect. This theory proposes atmospheric radiation may decrease in intensity over time—which would be good news for anyone still alive.

Following a briefing with the admiral, Peter Holmes relays the mission details to John Osborne. The scientist is highly skeptical of the Jorgensen Effect and calls it "wishful thinking." He then invites Peter to come view his latest acquisition: a "venomously fast" red Ferrari. Ownership of this car fulfills another of his lifelong dreams.

Properly impressed, Peter goes off to purchase a playpen for his "eldest unmarried daughter," Jennifer. Afterward he stops in at a chemist shop, or pharmacy. Worried he could be away or lost at sea when radiation sickness comes to Melbourne, Peter feels he must help Mary prepare for that possibility. The pharmacist explains what the sickness will be like, beginning with nausea, then vomiting and diarrhea. As the symptoms worsen, victims die from loss of body fluids and "from sheer exhaustion." For those who wish to avoid the suffering, he has been authorized to distribute cyanide capsules at no charge when the time comes. For babies and pets, a hypodermic injection will be available. The chemist provides Peter with dummy capsules and a dummy hypodermic to show Mary. She can return to the shop for the real ones when the sickness arrives.

Analysis

This chapter focuses primarily on the struggle between the rational acceptance of humanity's fate and denial that it will actually happen. A byproduct of that struggle is the compassion with which people help each other sustain their soothing self-delusions.

At the end of the chapter, Peter's visit to the pharmacy shows he is aware death by radiation poisoning is real and on its way. Yet not so long ago, he was happily joining Mary in "planning their garden for the next ten years." Throughout the chapter, characters seesaw between these two states of mind.

Moira's mother's self-delusion shows in her wish for a future in which her daughter is "happily married with some children." In the same conversation, she rationally observes that the war has made Dwight a widower and will end everything soon. Bill Davidson's fatalistic acceptance is reflected in his comment, "No good agonizing about it." Yet in daily life, he continues working the farm from dawn to dusk as if nothing has changed.

Shute also documents the government's unbalanced views of the situation. In tracking the radioactive dust, officials have gathered ample proof of its lethal nature. Yet a garbled transmission from Seattle prompts an unrealistic hope that humanity's fate is not sealed. The admiral sends Scorpion to investigate the transmission and to test out an 11th-hour theory of declining radiation. In the meantime, scientists engage in another seemingly practical yet starry-eyed plan; they record details of humanity's demise for imagined future beings who might care to know the fate of Earth's previous occupants.

Shute points out that in the shadow of approaching death, kindness and decency have surfaced in most people. They help each other out in the daily routine of living. Perhaps more importantly, they help one another safeguard the illusions that help them to endure. Peter does nothing to undermine Mary's daily dreams that life will go on as usual and joins her when he can in planning their future. These distractions and self-delusions permit escape from reality's nightmare. They have a comforting, stabilizing effect that allows people to retain their sanity in the topsy-turvy world. When Moira mentions the folly of Peter and Mary's garden plans to Dwight, he cautions her against shattering their illusions. She, in turn, handles with care Dwight's dream of being reunited with his family.

John Osborne stands out as the eccentric among the characters. He entertains no self-delusions and continues to face facts straight on. In the time remaining, he intends to fulfill a few lifelong dreams and has already joined the upscale Pastoral Club. He tops that with the purchase of a world-class Ferrari, which he tells Peter he intends to race. This foreshadows John's unique way of confronting and even courting death.

Finally, in this chapter, Moira takes her first steps along the path of maturity and wisdom. Her association with Dwight has given her a new direction. Her growing affection and respect for him will guide her transformation. Her caregiving is illustrated when she attends church with him on the premise that it might do her some good. She steps outside of her own misery again to tend to him through the domestic task of mending his socks. Her affection is unselfish and mature. She knows he will be faithful to his wife. In this transformation, Moira is unique among the characters. This perhaps is not surprising. Moira is young, and life had not yet fully shaped her into an adult when war changed everything.

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