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On the Beach | Chapter 9 | Summary

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Summary

On Tuesday morning, for the first time, radio reports acknowledge that radiation sickness has reached Melbourne. Even so, Peter must go into town to keep an appointment with the admiral. Mary dislikes the idea and warns him to "be careful ... about all this infection."

Peter knows that this meeting will conclude his service life, just as radiation will end his physical life in a few days. Dwight attends the meeting, too, and with some discomfort, he informs the admiral that he is taking Scorpion out of his command. He intends to sink her outside territorial waters. He and the American crew will remain aboard. Privately shocked, Peter nevertheless understands this is probably better than "death by sickness and diarrhea, homeless in a strange land."

During the meeting, the admiral excuses himself, and then returns gray faced and clearly ill. He tells Commander Towers it's been a pleasure to work with him; now all that is left is to say goodbye. Soon after, Dwight and Peter also part ways for good. Dwight admits he's not feeling too well and will be glad to go home to Mystic, Connecticut.

At his family home in Malvern, John Osborne is tending to his mother, who has been ill since Sunday. Her main concern is that Ming, her Pekinese, will linger on after everyone is gone. John gives her a kiss and leaves for his office, where he finds a goodbye note from his secretary. A report on his desk shows that 50 percent of Melbourne has the sickness. Some cases have also been reported in Tasmania and New Zealand. There's nothing to be done, and John returns home to find that his mother has taken a cyanide pill. She has left him a loving note on the bedside table. Shortly after, John puts Ming down with an injection and places the dog in a basket beside his mother's bed. He then leaves his home for the last time.

At the home of Mary and Peter, baby Jennifer is sick. It's dawn on a gray, wintry day. Mary is also unwell but trying to hide it from Peter so as not to worry him. Similarly, Peter tries to hide a sudden bout of vomiting from Mary. But it's soon clear to both of them that "this is it." Standing at the French windows, Mary gazes out into their much-loved garden and sadly notes that they never got the garden seat they wanted. However, a short time later, Peter finds Mary in the kitchen busy with breakfast and singing. She has realized that her worst fear is over. The three of them have gotten ill on the same day, and no one will be left to die alone.

On Friday, Peter drives to Melbourne to find John at the Pastoral Club, where he is staying. Though Mary and the baby are getting worse, Peter suddenly is feeling "fit as a flea now, and bloody hungry." John explains it's not permanent; some people can recover for a bit but will get the sickness again. "Nobody survives this thing," he says. "It makes a clean sweep." Peter thanks him and wishes him good luck before leaving.

John is aware that he is "just about through." After checking in on his uncle, Sir Froude—who is still feeling fine—John walks to the garage where his Ferrari is stored. On the way he passes a chemist shop and picks up a little red carton of cyanide tablets.

At the garage, the Ferrari is waiting in tip-top condition, but John knows he's too sick to drive. Instead, between spasms of illness, he gives the car a final tune-up. By evening the job is done. Too weak to get back to the club, John settles in behind the wheel of the car, thinking, "Why trouble to go further?" He then takes the tablets.

Peter has returned home with a surprise for Mary. He found the garden seat she wanted. By now she is in a bad way, and the baby is clearly dying. Carefully Peter hides his temporary recovery as best he can. As he and Mary sit before the fire drinking hot brandy and water, she asks if anyone could have stopped the war. In Peter's opinion the answer is no, not in the world they lived in. People were too intent on harming their neighbors and too ignorant about the consequences of using the bomb. Newspapers might have helped to educate them but preferred printing sensational stories and gossip. And no government was wise enough to interfere.

Soon it becomes clear to Mary that the time has come to end things. Unable to conceive of life without her, Peter says, "I'll come, too." He closes up the house before giving baby Jennifer the injection and settling down in bed with Mary. She thanks him for the life they've shared, and with a kiss, he says he's had a grand time, too. Then they take the tablets.

That same evening, Dwight calls Moira to say goodbye. She asks to come see him off, if she is able, when he takes Scorpion out to sink her in the morning. He agrees, and Moira meets him a last time at the ship. She asks to come with him, but "Uncle Sam wouldn't like it," so he must say no. She then makes sure he has his presents with him and that he will tell Sharon about her.

It begins to rain as Scorpion heads out to sea. Wracked with periodic spasms, Moira races her car to a lookout point where she has a full view of the sea. She can feel her strength leaving her. In the distance the low, gray shape of the submarine glides away and disappears. Moira murmurs the Lord's Prayer and asks Dwight to wait for her to join him. Then putting two cyanide tablets in her mouth, she washes them down with brandy.

Analysis

In this closing chapter, the novel's epigraph is fully realized. People stand on the beach waiting to cross the river into death. Since there is nothing more to do and nothing more to say, the characters meet up to say goodbye. The world ends, as the T.S. Eliot poem predicts, "not with a bang but a whimper."

Mary struggles to preserve her dream world to the last. Her final defense is thinking of the radiation sickness as an infection, like cholera: something that may be avoided if they are careful. When the sickness comes and can no longer be denied, she finds a new way to preserve her illusion by redefining its intent. It becomes a protective sphere within which her family is gathered. They will have each other to the end and no one will die alone. "Aren't we lucky?" she says to Peter. Before dying she reminds Peter "to turn off the electricity at the main" so the house won't accidentally burn down. This is a last flicker of hope that what has meant so much to her will continue to matter.

Like Mary, Dwight holds on to the things that have given structure and meaning to his life. In his case these are discipline, protocol, and regulations. For him there is a right and a wrong way of doing things, and he will not choose the wrong way, no matter the circumstances. He is even concerned that in taking Scorpion to scuttle her, he should arrange payment to the Australian navy for provisions and towage. Later Moira's request to accompany him on Scorpion is gently denied because "Uncle Sam wouldn't like it."

John meets death behind the wheel of his Ferrari—just as he had wished, without wrecking the beautiful machine. He dons his crash helmet and hangs his goggles around his neck before taking the cyanide pills. Winning the Grand Prix was "the climax of his life." This is merely the quiet denouement, the "whimper" of the novel's epigraph.

Moira's death is the last step in her evolution from impetuous youth to maturity. To the last she honors Dwight's will to remain faithful to Sharon. Collaborating in his dream of home in an afterlife, she tells him she hopes, as a friend, to see him again and to meet his family in Mystic, Connecticut.

Throughout the novel, Shute never gives readers reason to believe that a miraculous reprieve for humankind is waiting in the wings. The novel's epigraph has already promised how the world will end. Yet the ending is unwelcome and sad. Shute has revealed the essence of each character, showing them to be decent, moral people victimized by a faceless evil. It's a deliberate choice by the author. He portrays the best in human nature and then shows how it is lost when senseless war indiscriminately killed both the best and worst of humankind.

Even so, like Yeoman Swain's desertion of Scorpion to choose death in his hometown, each character selects the time and place to die. It is a final act of quiet defiance. To offset the desolation of these final scenes, Shute offers a ray of hope in Dwight's belief that death will reunite him with his family.

Some readers may find the choice of suicide by the main characters to be shocking or offensive. Shute takes great pains to create believable, sympathetic characters that represent the best of human nature. He then gives them a means of ending life with dignity and minimal suffering. In this way he keeps readers focused on the courage and decency with which people live through dark times.

Shute also provides readers with food for thought on how such a horrendous end-of-the-world scenario could be avoided. Through Peter, he points to education as the key. Before World War III erupted, the news media might have truthfully educated the public on the growing dangers of nuclear weapons. The public, on the other hand, could have acted more wisely and demanded information and truth rather than sensational headlines and gossip. As Peter tells Mary, had this happened, people might have been educated "out of their silliness."

A final note is necessary on the platonic relationship between Dwight and Moira: Shute intended these characters in particular to remain virtuous. Under the circumstances in the novel, it would have been easy for two people to seek comfort in a physical relationship. But what develops between Dwight and Moira is something much purer, finer, and more honorable. Their relationship transcends the physical. Its passion remains restrained, and Moira selflessly makes it easy for Dwight to stay faithful to Sharon. Even at the end she refuses his last kiss for fear she will lose control. She then sends him away with the hope that they will meet in Connecticut one day, rendering their goodbye more achingly poignant.

However, in the 1959 film adaptation of the novel, the two characters consummate their relationship, albeit discreetly. Shute was outraged. Dwight is still technically married, and the act turns him into an adulterer, no longer "playing it straight" with his wife. While the moviegoing audience may have found the moment tearfully romantic, in Shute's opinion, Dwight's behavior now violated everything honorable he stood for.

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