On the Beach | Study Guide

Nevil Shute

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On the Beach | Chapter 5 | Summary

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Summary

Mary is delighted with Peter's choice of playpen for Jennifer. Her only concern is that the baby will use the bars to stand up too soon and grow up "bandy-legged," or bowlegged. Just before bedtime, Peter brings up the subject of radiation sickness. Mary has no wish to think about it until they absolutely must, in September. Yet at Peter's insistence, she settles down to listen.

He describes the awful course of the illness and the hopelessness of recovery. Then he shows her the dummy pills and explains what they are for. Fearfully, Mary says she could never take one and leave Jennifer on her own. He then shows her the hypodermic. Slowly she grasps its dreadful implication and asks, "Are you trying to tell me what I've got to do to kill Jennifer?" A dreadful scene follows. Peter is forced to strip away Mary's comforting illusions and make her face the awful reality coming to them all. A wall of anger, tears, and silence rises between them. Miserably Peter condemns "these bloody women, sheltered from realities ... in a ... dream world of their own!" They leave their men to face things alone. However, a short while later, Mary, still weeping, apologizes for having been such a fool.

Scorpion is scheduled to sail at the end of March. While waiting, John tests out his Ferrari at a private racetrack, honing his driving skills and competing in a few short races. The danger inherent in driving the powerful machine is good for his nerves. Being naturally high-strung, he had been dreading the upcoming cruise in which the submarine would be submerged for weeks at a time. His brushes with death in the Ferrari have put that in perspective. Now the cruise seems little more than "a somewhat boring chore to be lived through."

As the time for the cruise approaches, a final conference is held to finalize the details. Scorpion will head straight for Seattle, and then continue up as far Latitude 60, the Gulf of Alaska. Off the coast of Seattle, the crew is to investigate the source of periodic radio signals. Of the 169 transmissions received since the end of the war, only two have contained words in clear English. The words are WATERS and CONNECT. The transmissions are likely coming from a radio installation on Santa Maria Island, off the coast of Seattle. When the source is pinpointed, one man in a protective suit will be allowed ashore to determine who or what is sending the signals.

Following the meeting, Dwight meets Moira for lunch. She surprises him with the news that she's gone back to school to take secretarial courses. In keeping with this changed outlook, she has only a single brandy. After lunch they visit an art exhibition at the National Gallery. Several paintings depicting the war have strong religious overtones. The prizewinner features a bombed-out American city. Dwight angrily rejects it as being inaccurate and therefore untrue, saying, "It couldn't have looked like that."

After the exhibition, Moira leaves Dwight at loose ends in the city. He uses the time to shop for gifts for his family. A fishing rod for 10-year-old Dwight Junior proves easy to find, but the pogo stick for little Helen poses a problem. There are none to be found. He even tries asking about the item in the posh jewelry store where he buys a lovely bracelet for Sharon.

Two days later, Moira is in town and meets Mrs. Hector Fraser, a family friend. Knowing Moira is seeing Dwight, the lady passes on the gossip about his crazy quest for a pogo stick. Moira privately reflects on how everyone is "going a bit mad these days." Her father fixates on keeping up the farm schedule while Peter and Mary obsess over their garden. John races his Ferrari, and his great-uncle Sir Douglas Froude drinks up his club's port. Dwight and his pogo stick are another version of the eccentricities they all are exhibiting these days.

Moira sets her sights on helping Dwight find this gift for Helen. A few days later she tells him of her plan, and he is deeply moved by her kindness and thanks her with a kiss. "Sharon wouldn't mind," he says, adding, "It's from us both."

Analysis

In this chapter Shute draws readers more deeply into humanity's nightmare and the quiet desperation with which people cling to their sanity.

As the year 1963 progresses, Shute brings the horror of the situation more sharply into focus. At the beginning of the chapter, Peter must force Mary to look at raw reality while showing her how to kill their child. She, on the other hand, wants only to keep her eye on an imaginary future. This is reflected in her sobbing rejection of the truth, along with her worries that Jennifer will become bowlegged if she stands up too soon.

In another instance, at the National Gallery art show, Dwight angrily rejects paintings dealing with the religious aspects of war. He especially hates a piece depicting the destruction of an American city. This is the first image Shute offers of the war's smashed landscapes, and Dwight's loathing for it testifies to its essential truth. "It couldn't have looked like that," he tells Moira, though it probably did. Dwight cannot think of an American city resembling the painting since it threatens his illusion that home is as he left it. As he says earlier to Moira, he prefers to think about things still as they were. It's how he keeps his sanity. Moving on through the gallery, Dwight seeks out the Renoirs whose simple, uncomplicated beauty restores his inner peace.

Readers observe Dwight reinforcing his steadfast self-delusion as he spends the afternoon buying gifts for his family. Strengthening his defiance, he will not let reality wipe out everything he loves. Like most others these last days, he fights the madness of the times with his own personal madness—in a sense fighting fire with fire.

As time grows short, there is tedium in the waiting. The torturous ticking of the Doomsday Clock isn't seen or heard but nonetheless forms a backdrop to the characters' lives. Tension builds beneath the calm veneer of day-to-day living. Characters display their delusions in various ways. Peter and Mary fixate on the garden they can't see to completion. Moira goes back to school to gain a skill she'll never use. John continues his research and races his sports car. Sir Froude contentedly consumes the club's port. Scorpion's crew prepares to embark on a mission that is likely pointless. The assignment's true goal, however, is to keep the men busy and create the illusion that time is not being wasted. Everyone remains consciously focused on living the best they can.

Characters continue to find solace in comforting one another. With the exception of the beginning scene in this chapter, Peter is careful to preserve Mary's impression that all is well. Her dream world, in turn, provides Peter with a much-needed refuge from reality. Similarly, Moira turns from self-interest to help Dwight in his quest for a pogo stick for Helen. No longer consumed by selfish bitterness, she seeks to comfort rather than be comforted.

The time is coming, however, when reality will not be denied. This is foreshadowed when Peter must confront Mary with end-of-life plans for their child. The moment is dreadful. It becomes clear that Mary cannot emotionally survive too much reality. On the other hand, Peter plainly needs Mary to help him face things as well. Her refusal leaves him to confront the approaching calamity alone. His anger is understandable when he mentally lashes out at "bloody women, sheltered from realities, living in a sentimental dream world." Like everyone else, he is under tremendous pressure "born of the times they live in."

Finally, the two intelligible words picked up from the Seattle radio transmissions echo the novel's epigraph. The words are WATER and CONTACT. In the epigraph, people gather on the shore of a tumid, or swollen, river which, as mentioned before, suggests the River Styx from Greek mythology. So this is where the land of the living makes contact with the Underworld. It is also the last place where people will have contact with one another before passing to the other side. These two radio transmissions of unknown origin seem to foretell the outcome of Scorpion's final voyage north.

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