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On the Beach | Study Guide

Nevil Shute

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On the Beach | Chapter 8 | Summary



On the first day of August, only one thing is troubling Mary: Jennifer is cutting her first tooth. Aside from that, her narcissus flowers bloom on a beautiful day. The radio reports cases of radiation sickness in Adelaide and Sydney. But all news is bad, and Mary knows that the wise person pays it no heed.

To escape the turmoil of the fretful, crying baby, Peter tells Mary he must go off on naval business until late that afternoon. Now, like many others, he's driving a car again. He drives to Williamstown, where Scorpion is docked, and finds Commander Towers on the bridge deck. They discuss the news out of Adelaide and Sydney, and the captain notes that time is short—perhaps a matter of days. Then, together, they drive back to Melbourne to look up John at the garage that stores his Ferrari.

John is preparing the car for the upcoming Grand Prix, which he hopes will be scheduled for the 10th of the month. Cases of radiation sickness have shown up in Canberra, a town closer to Melbourne than Adelaide or Sydney. In fact, John points out, the radiation is already in Melbourne; "everything's getting touched with radioactive dust." In two weeks people with the lowest tolerance will begin exhibiting symptoms.

Dwight goes off for lunch with Moira, while Peter and John drive to the Pastoral Club. They join Sir Froude, who has been doing his best to make "a big hole in the port." John tells Peter that the old gentleman will likely live longer than most. Alcohol seems to increase a person's tolerance to radioactivity. The three men discuss the progress of the sickness, and Sir Froude is sorry to learn that all of Africa seems to be "out." He had fond memories of his time there, before World War I. He then is outraged to learn that the common and much-hated pests, rabbits, will have the last laugh and outlive people for a time.

Dwight and Moira's lunch is a quiet affair. The captain is preoccupied. Scorpion's sister ship, USS Swordfish, stationed in Montevideo, Uruguay, is now under his command. While he might order her captain to bring the ship to Melbourne, he knows the crew would rebel. Many have formed romantic attachments there and would refuse to leave. Dwight has ordered the captain to sink Swordfish in deep water before the end. It's what the US Navy would have wanted, and what Dwight intends to do with Scorpion.

Accepting this news in silence, Moira then asks Dwight if he would like to take her into the mountains for a weekend of trout fishing. However, Dwight is reluctant to hurt Moira in any way. He reminds her, "I've got a wife at home I love, and I've played straight with her the two years that I've been away." Moira explains she has no interest in a "smutty love affair." He's been good for her, and she's satisfied with that. They agree to book two rooms at the hotel and go a week from Saturday. Then, Moira says she's off to take a shorthand test. Before leaving she tells Dwight she'd like to come see him in America one day; she'd like to meet Sharon. Dwight replies that Sharon would like that; "I'd say she's kind of grateful to you now."

After Moira leaves, Dwight heads toward the motor district to find John, hoping there will be some work he can do. On the way he stops at a sporting goods shop to purchase supplies for the fishing trip. With apologies, the shopkeeper says his stock is sold out, which will make the accountants happy.

The city streets are showing signs now of the breakdown of order and routine. Stores are closed up, shop windows are dirty, and the merchandise inside is covered in dust. Street cleaners have stopped operating, and the pavement is littered with paper and rotting vegetables. The city is beginning to smell.

Dwight finds John at the garage, working on the Ferrari. Peter and another man are also there, helping to change the car's tires. Dwight gets happily to work while Peter heads back home to Mary.

The baby is peacefully sleeping, so the couple has a chance to talk. Mary asks Peter to buy a small lawnmower she could handle if he went away to sea again. Either she really does not understand what is happening or just won't admit it. Either way, Peter loves her and drives her into Melbourne the next day to pick up what she wants. At the hardware store, the assistant doesn't care whether Peter pays for the mower or not. Everything will be shutting down for good the next day. The deteriorating state of the city upsets Mary, and once they're home, she tells Peter she doesn't want to go back there again. Then with the question, "How far off is it, Peter?" she acknowledges that she knows their world is really ending.

Dwight spends a few days at the Davidson farm, and then returns to the dockyard at Williamstown to restore discipline, which is beginning to erode. He reminds the men that as long as they are members of the US Navy, they will follow rules and regulations. The alternative is an immediate dishonorable discharge. On the following Friday, he visits John Osborne to wish him luck in the Grand Prix and to explain he'll be away with Moira, fishing.

Dwight and Moira spend an idyllic weekend in the mountains. In addition to catching fish, they talk about Connecticut and Sharon and what Dwight will tell her about Moira when he "goes home." Over the radio, they learn that John has won the Grand Prix. As they head home, Dwight reveals something John told him on Friday: several cases of radiation sickness have already shown up in Melbourne. Dwight concludes that likely "there'd be a good many more by now."


In this chapter, people are marking time until the end, still trying to make the best of things. Human decency survives, and imminent death has given life immeasurable value. Simultaneously, it has robbed everyday living of the structure, dreams, and ideals that gave it meaning. These components of life require a future to be worthwhile. Up until now, people had hope for a reprieve from death. That hope gave their daily lives direction and purpose. A future still seemed possible, so customary things like going to school, working, starting a family, contributing to society, and following the rules made sense. But now, humanity's last survivors stand on the brink of annihilation. With no escape, they cling to whatever gave their days meaning. However, it is meaning based on values of the past, and it is like clinging to a ghost or an echo.

As the chapter opens, Mary is willfully ignoring reports of radiation sickness in nearby Adelaide and Sydney. This is a reality that she does not want to deal with yet. She is preserving her safe dream world as carefully as Dwight is upholding rules and work schedules. She needs to stop reality from intruding and spoiling the life she loves. Still, she knows what is out there, beyond the walls of her fantasy. She has been confronted with it in theory by her husband and has talked about it with Moira. Then during her trip with Peter to Melbourne, she sees and smells firsthand the signs of the perishing world. Back home, surrounded by her neat, clean home and pretty garden, her illusion of safety and security is restored. Even so she summons the courage to ask Peter, "How far off is it?"

In the character of Dwight, Shute demonstrates the ongoing value of discipline and structure, even as the world ends. The commander knows that once these start to crumble, everything can fall apart—including himself. For this reason he insists that Scorpion's crew stick firmly to rules and regulations, to act honorably as representatives of the US Navy. He also refuses to bend the rules for himself, professionally or personally. When Moira suggests he could use the staff car for their fishing trip, he says no; it's against regulations. "I'd like to do things right, up till the end," he explains. Along these same lines, he will not be unfaithful to his wife. Nevertheless, he finds ways of telling Moira that she has meant a great deal to him and that he is grateful. In speaking of his wife, Sharon, he uses his thoughts about her to tell Moira how he feels. This is especially clear on the fishing trip, when he shares with Moira what he will tell Sharon about her when he goes home.

John knows better than anybody else how close everyone is to the end. He understands that even now the lethal radiation is all around them. This prompts him to push for an earlier date for the Grand Prix. More than anything, he wants to win the race fair and square, not because he's more fit than other drivers. Yet this is a prize whose value depends on the past record of winners and losers. Its lasting worth depends on there being a future. Sadly, there soon will be no one to remember the past, and John will have no way to enjoy the glory of winning the race.

Shute uses the concerns of people during these last days to further illustrate the decency and humanity that has survived. Moira's dad worries about his cattle—what will happen to them after he is gone. John's mother worries about her pet Pekinese. Sir Froude expresses sincere regret that all of Africa seems to be "out." In a lighter vein, a shopkeeper rejoices in having sold his entire stock of fishing casts and flies. He brags to Dwight that this is "how the accountants would like to see it."

On the other hand, Sir Froude is thoroughly outraged to learn that rabbits will survive humans for quite some time. There is situational irony in the fact that humans pride themselves on controlling their environment and reshaping the world through science and technology. Many humans believe themselves to be the superior species because of their intellect and ability to alter the world. Yet in the event of nuclear war, some animals will outlive humankind, for a time at least. The prospect of rabbits in Australia outliving humans is a wry bit of situational irony. In the 1800s British settlers introduced domesticated and feral rabbits into Australia as food and as game for hunting. Reproducing in great numbers, the rabbits have had a tremendously destructive impact on agriculture and the environment. Australians have long wrestled with attempts to bring the rabbit population under control.

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