On the Beach | Study Guide

Nevil Shute

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On the Beach | Chapter 6 | Summary

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Summary

Fifteen days into her cruise, Scorpion is 30 degrees south of the equator. She submerges and, ten days later, approaches the area of Seattle, Washington. Along the way, the crew has inspected coastal cities like San Francisco via periscope, detecting no signs of life and finding radioactivity levels uniformly lethal.

The random radio signals Scorpion has been sent to investigate may be coming from an installation on Santa Maria Island, near Seattle. As the ship continues north, Commander Towers allows the crew to use the periscope. Their glimpses of the coastline are topics to discuss and alleviate their boredom. On the 28th day of the cruise, Scorpion reaches the pretty coastal town of Edmonds, not far from Seattle. From the sea it appears untouched, but Geiger counter readings say no life could exist. It is Yeoman First Class Ralph Swain's hometown, and he spends some time gazing at it through the periscope. Then, unseen, he leaves through the ship's escape hatch and swims for the jetty. His rude response when ordered to return triggers a faint, understanding smile from the captain.

Forced to leave Yeoman Swain behind, Scorpion continues on to Santa Maria Island. Once there, radio officer Lieutenant Sunderstrom dons a protective suit and takes a dinghy to shore. He has two hours to find the reason for the radio transmissions. Commander Towers makes it clear that the lieutenant is to bring back no souvenirs—nothing that might contaminate the ship and crew.

Sunderstrom encounters no signs of life around the island's gray-painted buildings. Yet the electricity is still running. He is careful to turn off any switches he tests. He catches sight of a decomposed body in a latrine. Inside the Coding Office, he finds doors securely locked, except those leading to the toilets. Next door the power house is running, though Sunderstrom judges it will not last much longer. In the next office building, he locates the live transmitter in a room where a broken window frame teeters just above a transmitting key. Rocked by an errant breeze, the frame taps the key like a finger. This is what Scorpion "had come ten thousand miles to see."

Sunderstrom sets aside the window frame carefully, as "it could be repaired and put back in its place quite easily." He then sits down and sends a message to be picked up back home: "Santa Maria sending. U.S.S. Scorpion reporting. No life here. Closing down." Before returning to the ship, he goes back to the power house to shut it down. Near the jetty he notices the Officers' Mess and is surprised to see a group of people sitting in the shade of the deep verandah. Closer inspection reveals that the table is occupied by several corpses. Their group has been gathered there for more than a year.

The next leg of Scorpion's cruise takes her past Edmonds. Yeoman Swain is out fishing in the bay. In a brief exchange with Commander Towers, he says that nothing has survived in town; people, animals, and birds are all dead. He knows he'll die soon, too. Even so, he says he'd "rather have it this way, in my own home town."

Back in Australia, Mary phones Moira with the news that a transmission has been received from the ship; everyone is well. A few days later Moira comes for a visit, during which Mary talks about getting away from the rain and wind of the Australian winter. Moira points out there's really nowhere left to go, and talk turns to the fact that this thing is really happening.

Mary still struggles to take it in, but observes that, if it's true, her gardening plans are silly. Moira comforts her, saying they're not silly at all and "you'll sort of feel you've done something." She adds that no one will have time to do everything they planned, but "we can keep on doing it as long as we can." She then confides that knowing Dwight has changed her outlook. She has no hopes of romance or marriage and family, but he's made her last few months meaningful. In turn Mary shares with Moira the appalling fact that she may have to kill her daughter when the time comes. She is sure she cannot do it alone and begs Moira to help her if it comes to that.

Returning to Melbourne, Commander Towers reports that Scorpion traveled as far as the Gulf of Alaska without detecting any decline in radiation levels. This disproves the Jorgensen Effect theory and eliminates humanity's last hope of a reprieve from extermination. The captain learns that he is now the commanding officer of US Naval forces in all areas. This implies the person formerly in that position is dead. That officer had been stationed in Brisbane, only 250 miles north of Melbourne.

Analysis

In this chapter, the devastating nature of the war is revealed in short vignettes, and it is made all the more horrifying by the brevity of these glimpses. Not only do they allow readers to subjectively fill in details with their own imaginations, but the vignettes employed use form for function by reflecting the brevity of time. They mimic the clock time remaining for the characters before the end of the world.

Scenes on Santa Maria Island serve as a grim reminder of the days coming to Melbourne. Nevertheless, the indomitable quality of the human spirit is in full display in the character of Yeoman Swain. Lieutenant Sunderstrom exemplifies the curious inability of humans to fully accept the idea of their nonexistence.

As Scorpion cruises up the coast of North America, characters and readers at last get a sampling of the physical damage directly caused by the bombs. San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge has collapsed, and the houses around Golden Gate Park are ravaged by "fire and blast." Further north, on Canada's Vancouver Island, crew members observe the seven-mile-long burn and blast area from a nuclear explosion. In both locations, radiation levels render the terrain uninhabitable, and no vegetation grows within the island's seven-mile scar. Nevil Shute's minimalist description of the damage is more disturbing than a graphic account. His pictures are silent and lifeless; the chaos that rendered them is long past. With humankind's passing, this is how things are and how they will stay. Characters and readers alike know such desolate scenes are repeated again and again, across all continents in the Northern Hemisphere.

Similarly, the almost matter-of-fact way in which Shute describes conditions on Santa Maria Island is more harrowing than a graphic description could be. There is a surreal sense of the Earth continuing on without humans and other animals. As John Osborne said in Chapter 3, "It's not the end of the world at all ... It's only the end of us." His opinion is the planet "will get along all right without us." Conditions on the island testify to the truth of John's prediction. Buildings still stand, electric lights still work, and machinery still hums along, long after the humans who built and used them are gone. While the scene is not as silent as those of the bomb-blasted areas, the only sounds are from lifeless things. Machinery grinds on and a broken window frame taps randomly on a radio transmission key. These inanimate things have sent out a false message of hope—luring men 10,000 miles from home and wasting the little time remaining.

Shute uses Lieutenant Sunderstrom's exploration of the island to give readers a first look at victims of radiation poisoning. On the previous mission, the crew of Scorpion had seen no bodies in Australia's dead towns. They could only surmise that people died "tidily" in their homes. Facts about the progress of the illness have been dryly explained. Now Shute shows readers the reality. The image of a person dying alone in a latrine is sobering. There was no one left to care or to bury him. The fact that within the office buildings all doors are locked except those for the toilets also is telling. Sunderstrom refrains from looking inside, and that is probably wise. The shocking party scene on the verandah of the officer's mess provides another perspective on what the end was like for some. These scenes foreshadow events to come in Melbourne when each character must choose how best to die.

In Chapter 4, Bill Davidson expresses some surprise that more people have not run from the radioactive dust. There are relatively few refugees in Melbourne, and some folks who come for a time end up returning home. In response, Dwight theorizes that most people would rather die in familiar surroundings. When Yeoman Swain jumps ship at his hometown of Edmonds, he confirms Dwight's theory. His last act of defiance is to meet death head-on, on his own terms, in a time and place he has chosen. Swain also provides another look at the manner in which people die. He finds his parents have died peacefully in bed. On the other hand, he describes going to find his girl as "a mistake." No details are necessary; readers can fill them in. Once again Shute uses understatement to drive home the horror of what has happened and what is in store for the characters.

As Sunderstrom is exploring the island, he takes care to switch off electric lights and machines. He admires the workmanship that could keep the radio transmitter running so long unattended and would have liked to send the manufacturer a complimentary letter. He also notes how the broken casement window could be repaired, and so he takes care not to damage it further. Finally, in the midst of this somber, radioactive environment, Sunderstrom settles down to read some installments of a serialized magazine story. In general his behavior defies the grim reality of the situation. It is another indication of a safety wall around sanity that will not permit people to realize the concept of their future nonexistence.

Back home, Mary is struggling to hold on to her illusions while accepting that the radiation is really coming to Melbourne. Like the radiation itself, the idea of it is poisonous to her. Suddenly the joy goes out of her gardening plans; they seem pointless. Moira, in her growing empathy and wisdom, comforts Mary. She restores her friend's belief in the rightness of moving ahead with plans and to work toward goals as long as possible. Mary gratefully tells her, "I couldn't bear ... to just ... do nothing. You might as well die now." These women epitomize the strength, courage, and compassion with which people are facing a senseless, yet inevitable, ending.

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