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On the Beach | Study Guide

Nevil Shute

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On the Beach | Character Analysis


Peter Holmes

Lieutenant Commander Peter Holmes is a dedicated officer in the Royal Australian Navy. After months of inactivity, he is eager to return to duty as liaison officer aboard the USS Scorpion. He works alongside Dwight Towers, American commander of the submarine, as the ship cruises to investigate postwar conditions along the Australian and North American coasts. These missions are fraught with peril, not the least of which is radioactive fallout. Peter's main concern, however, is for the wife and child he leaves behind. Peter and Mary were married only six months before the short, dreadful war changed the future for all humankind. While the routine of work offers Peter a stabilizing sense of normalcy and purpose, love of family is at the center of his world. When not on duty, he focuses time and attention on Mary and their baby, Jennifer. He is a realist about the future and sometimes rails against Mary's stubborn refusal to face facts. Yet her domain—their home—is a welcome oasis. Here he can join her in harmless fantasy, spending hours happily planning a garden they will never see. Not surprisingly, he needs her "sentimental dream world." While he is the steady emotional rock against which Mary leans, she offers him refuge from the harsh realities of dwindling time and life. There is a decent, everyman quality about Peter's character that makes him easy to understand and relate to. Very fittingly, he dies at home with his loving family.

Mary Holmes

Mary and Peter Holmes were married six months before the war. Now they have a baby, Jennifer. As a wife and mother, Mary Holmes takes pride in caring for her family. She keeps a lovely home, showers attention on her baby girl, and spends hours with Peter, planning the perfect garden. At first glance Mary appears in full denial of the situation facing the postwar world. She seems detached from the fact that time is running out for everyone. She deals serenely with postwar inconveniences and concentrates on creating a safe haven for her family, built on the illusion that life will go on. As Peter tries to discuss the necessity of mercifully ending their daughter's life when the sickness comes, she hysterically rejects the idea. Nevertheless, Mary doesn't truly live in a dream world, as assumed. She is well aware of what has happened and that cities across Australia are dying as radioactivity creeps toward Melbourne. However, she refuses to fall into the abyss of thinking about it too deeply. Though things will end by September, she still has today. Her darkest fear is that she and her family will die at different times. When they fall sick together, she counts them "lucky." With a show of quiet strength, she asks Peter to "do what has to be done for Jennifer." Her last words are of gratitude for the time she has had with Peter.

Dwight Towers

American naval officer Dwight Towers once lived in Mystic, Connecticut, with his wife, Sharon, and two children, Helen and Dwight Junior. He's "a quiet, soft spoken man" of 33 "with a slight New England accent." During the short 37-day war, Commander Towers was at sea aboard the submarine Scorpion. When the full extent of the war's destruction became known, he headed the ship for Australia, docking at Melbourne. Dwight has a strong sense of duty and is very much a stickler for rules and regulations. He has led an ordered life and continues to hold himself to high standards personally and professionally. For him work is an antidote to despair or hedonism. Moira Davidson, drawn to his strength and admiring his values, ends her suicidal drinking to share her last days with him. However, true to form, Dwight's answering affection is held in check by love for his wife. Dwight is a devoted family man adrift in the dying world without a home, a country, or a future. All the familiar threads that secured him to the map of his life were cut by war. His unique method of coping is to imagine his family is alive, as he remembers them, and waiting for him to come home. It is the lifeline he clutches. He buys them gifts for the day of his return and remains firmly faithful to Sharon despite his attraction to Moira. When the radiation arrives, he dutifully sinks the Scorpion, going down with his ship at sea.

Moira Davidson

Moira Davidson is an attractive, sharp-witted, vivacious woman of 24 who struggles to accept that a war beyond her control has destroyed her dreams. Graduating university with honors just before the war, she had high hopes of traveling the world before settling down, getting married, and having children. Ready for life, she was longing for adventure but suddenly had nowhere to go and only a few empty months left to live. There is nothing to ground or comfort Moira in this postwar reality. So she escapes the pain and tedium of waiting with endless parties and excessive drinking, intent on death by alcohol instead of radiation poisoning. Then she meets Dwight Towers. Moira's attraction to the commander soon becomes affection. She teases Dwight for his discipline and adherence to rules while recognizing these qualities as admirable. He becomes a steadying hand that checks the suicidal decline of her life. When she confesses her pain and boredom to him, she accepts his soft-spoken advice. As the months pass, affection deepens to love, and Moira begins to change. She drinks less, attends church, returns to school, and tries to make the best of a bad situation. She now seeks to comfort others, particularly Dwight, participating in his fantasy that his family is alive and waits for him back home. Moira's love for Dwight helps her to transcend the dreadfulness of humanity's fate. Though she dies alone in a car by the ocean's shore, she hopes to join Dwight on his journey home.

John Osborne

Scientist John Osborne works for Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. He currently studies the measurable consequences of nuclear war and tracks the advance of the radioactive dust. His main job aboard the US submarine Scorpion is to monitor, record, and analyze air and sea radiation levels. John is in his late 20s, tall and thin, with mousy hair and an intelligent face. He's distantly related to Moira Davidson and is the great-nephew of Sir Douglas Froude. Moira describes him as "dippy" and warns Commander Towers to keep an eye on him during their missions—he is more high-strung than he appears. A happy bachelor, John tends to be a loner, though he lives with his aging mother and cares for her to the end. As a member of the scientific community, John reflects its matter-of-fact attitude toward the war and its fallout. He expresses no revulsion for the careless science that has brought about the disaster. With a scientist's detachment, he studies the rising radioactive levels, hoping to discover something—good or bad. John has spent most of his adult life in an office or laboratory and has avoided personal risks. However, faced with certain death, he chooses to break this pattern and indulge his dreams. He buys "what's probably the fastest car in the world"—a prizewinning Ferrari—to race in the Australian Grand Prix. He also joins the very posh Pastoral Club. In the end John dies alone, seated behind the wheel of his Ferrari.

Jennifer Holmes

Jennifer, the healthy and much-loved daughter of Peter and Mary Holmes, is central to a major rift between her parents. Rather than abandoning Jennifer to suffer the throes of radiation sickness, Peter knows they will have to euthanize their daughter when the time comes. When Peter attempts to explain the process to Mary, they have an argument, as she refuses to believe the situation will arise. Then they all fall ill simultaneously, and Mary asks Peter to humanely end Jennifer's life.

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