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On the Beach | Study Guide

Nevil Shute

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On the Beach | Motifs



Throughout On the Beach, silence is a constant presence, shaping conversations, intruding on relationships, and blanketing the world at large. It is a prelude to the final silence when the world ends, as the epigraph notes, "not with a bang but a whimper."

There is the radio silence of the Northern Hemisphere following the war. That same hush creeps across the Southern Hemisphere as cities one by one fall victim to the radioactive dust. Everywhere, even in Melbourne, the trees and skies are disturbingly quiet, devoid of the sound and song of birds. In towns still alive, no rumble of cars or other gasoline-fueled machinery can be heard, as all petroleum products once came from the Northern Hemisphere. This latter silence is the only one broken in the final weeks, when people bring out their cars and use up their remaining gasoline.

The novel's epigraph includes the lines "In this last of meeting places/We grope together/And avoid speech." Among people, silence falls when there is "nothing useful to be said" about something war related. Angry silence is a temporary wall between Peter and Mary when, in Chapter 5, the killing of their daughter must be discussed. Sometimes there is comfort in shared silence, as when Moira and Dwight walk in silence on the beach at the end of Chapter 3. Finally, there is the silence that follows goodbyes when there is nothing more to say or do.

Survival of Human Decency

As On the Beach begins, its characters and the surviving population in general are prepared to accept the fate that is coming to them all. Whatever panic, anger, or related violence that erupted when that fate was first realized has passed. A resurgence of human decency has taken place. While ways of coping with certain doom vary from person to person, characters compassionately support each other's manner of coping. Peter joins in Mary's impractical long-term plans for their garden. Moira participates in Dwight's fragile illusion that his wife and children are alive and well in Mystic, Connecticut, just as he remembers them. Incidental characters go about life as usual, working, attending school, farming, having babies and raising their families, enjoying leisure time, and helping each other. Order and civility is maintained until the very end.

These are fundamentally good, ordinary people—what may be termed "salt of the earth"—facing extraordinary circumstances. Living and pursuing their interests in the face of certain doom, they are not heroes, but they are heroic in how they meet the challenges. There is something refreshing about their utter decency, which makes their fate all the more tragic. Through them, Shute shines a spotlight on what is good about humankind and should rightfully be preserved and protected while there is still time.

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