On the Beach | Study Guide

Nevil Shute

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On the Beach | Chapter 7 | Summary

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Summary

Maybe two or three months remain before radiation sickness hits Melbourne. Peter agrees to stay on as liaison officer while Scorpion is in dry dock for an overhaul, provided he can commute from Falmouth. Though Commander Towers feels duty bound to oversee the work on Scorpion, he is exhausted from the cruise and has "a dose of flu." Moira convinces him to stay at her parents' farm to rest and recover. There he's seen by Dr. Fletcher, who assures him he'll be fine in a few days. The doctor then hurries to the hospital to remove a tumor on a woman's stomach, to "give her a few more years of useful life." Under the circumstances, this amazes Dwight, but Moira says the doctor is just being conscientious, as he's always been. He's a bit like her father, who is making plans to build another dam on the farm next summer, around Christmastime. He hates seeing rainwater running to waste.

Moira then brings Dwight a mysterious wrapped parcel and places it in the corner, to be opened in the morning. But Dwight insists he must see what it is tonight. To his delight, it is a new red pogo stick with the words HELEN TOWERS painted on the handle. Moira tracked down the company that used to manufacture them and got them to make one more for her. Dwight doesn't know how to thank her for her kindness, but he drifts off to sleep, "one hand upon the Pogo stick beside him."

The next day John brings Dwight a report on the mission for his approval. No longer fearful of wasting precious fuel, the scientist roars up to the farm in his Ferrari. He has discovered an unused supply of the required ether alcohol on an aircraft carrier. While it's against regulations to tap into government supplies, John claims it's justified because he's using the race car to conduct naval business.

John tells Dwight he intends to enter the Ferrari in as many races as he can. Dwight bluntly asks John if a car crash is how he intends to go out. The scientist's equally terse reply is a crash would be better than dying "in a sick muck" or by taking the pills. Yet he will hate to wreck the beautiful car. He then encourages Dwight to take some leave and have a bit of fun himself before the end. The idea of trout fishing appeals to the captain, but the season doesn't open until September, which will be too late. He's not about to break the rules, especially in a foreign country.

John mentions Dwight's dilemma to Moira. Two weeks later, Alan Sykes, director of the State Fisheries and Game Department, complains to Sir Froude that his relative, Moira, is causing trouble. She wants him to open the trout season early. Sir Froude agrees this would be a bad idea, perhaps ruining the fishing for years. However, Mr. Sykes allows other members of the club to convince him to shift the opening date up to August 10th just this once. That's all Dwight needs to hear. He begins planning how to test out the new rod he has bought for his son.

As July rolls around, tension seems to ease in what is left of Australia. The end is near and inevitable; there's nothing to hope for. Furthermore, there's no reason to maintain strict routines. Essential services supplying food and electricity continue, but small luxuries begin to disappear. People still have wild parties, but the population in general is more sober. And cars, once locked up to conserve fuel, begin to reappear on the roads. As the month progresses, fewer people show up for work, and the need for money declines. People throw themselves into activities they enjoy. For Peter and Mary, this means hours of gardening. For John it means qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix.

The qualifying heat is a suicidal, all-or-nothing affair. The track is wet from constant rain, and the drivers are amateurs. The general feeling is that "if you buy it, you've got nothing to lose." John intends to "drive like hell and go out doing what he want[s] to," if that's his fate. Dwight and Moira are there to watch the brutal races. When Dwight offers her a drink, Moira insists on watching the heat sober.

John is scheduled to participate in the last race. Of the 11 drivers who start out to qualify, eight fail to complete the course, and three drivers are killed. Luckily, John comes out alive and in second place, qualifying him for the Grand Prix.

Analysis

Humanity's last hope of survival was dashed in Chapter 6. Chapter 7 documents the connecting threads of social order beginning to unravel. People still maintain an admirable common decency, but they find it more and more difficult to hold onto routine. Rules and regulations that once made sense become impediments to enjoying these final days. And some even show defiance, as in John Osborne's mad race to qualify for the Grand Prix.

Thus far in the novel, Shute has shown readers the power of routine and habit to hold society together through tough times. After World War III, without rules and regulations, civilization would have collapsed into anarchy and barbarism. As readers have seen, order and routine have kept things running smoothly and efficiently. Now, however, the tightly woven fabric of civil life and social order is coming undone. With extinction so near, strict social order no longer seems necessary.

Lieutenant Commander Peter Holmes for the first time sets the welfare of his family above his job. To spend time with Mary and Jennifer, he tells the admiral that he will remain as liaison officer only if he can commute from home. In general, people feel less and less inclined to go to work. Money loses its worth in shops, and weekly wages become "of little value or importance." People "cast off the restraints" that kept them tied to jobs and duty. They now focus on enjoying the last of their days. While basic services, like electricity and water, are still being provided, some of the luxuries like meat are becoming scarce. Cars are appearing on roads again because conserving gasoline for emergencies is no longer a concern.

On the other hand, some people still cling to order and routine. Though it cannot possibly matter in this dying world, it's all they've got left. Normalcy provides a comforting remnant of the recent past that some people grasp like a life preserver, holding on to the last moment before they drown.

For example, Commander Towers refuses to let anyone else manage Scorpion in dry dock, dutifully adhering to regulations put in place by a vanished military agency. He also refuses to break the rules and go fishing out of season—especially in a foreign country. Director of the State Fisheries and Game Department Alan Sykes is greatly troubled by suggestions that he open the fishing season early. He worries that "the perplexities of the time had now invaded his routine." Even when he gives in, the request must go through the proper channels. The conscientious Dr. Fletcher, who treats Dwight Tower for flu, continues to perform surgeries to extend people's lives. It's his own special form of madness necessary to safeguard his sanity.

Looking at the adherence to rules and regulations in another way, they have a downside. Strict obedience to directives has contributed to humanity's downfall. Men unable to decide how to respond to an unexpected and escalating nuclear war fell back on rules and regulations, which led to disaster.

The Australian Grand Prix's qualifying race provides Shute with a vehicle, literally and figuratively, for illustrating an instinct for defiance in the face of defeat. Early in 1956, the year Shute was writing On the Beach, he purchased a very fast Jaguar XK140 roadster and raced it competitively. He justified the indulgence in the name of research for the novel. Shute's knowledge of the dangers and thrills of race car driving helps him create the believable and deadly 300-car Grand Prix qualifying heat. John Osborne races his Ferrari—heedless of death in mad pursuit of a prize that no longer has meaning. Yet once it did have meaning, and this is why, in defiance, John pursues it. He refuses to let current reality rob him of a dream. Like Yeoman Swain who jumps ship in order to choose when and where to die, John shakes his fist at death. He vows to "drive like hell" to qualify for the Grand Prix. John feels that if he loses to death, so be it, but he will go out doing what he wants to do.

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