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On the Beach | Study Guide

Nevil Shute

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Course Hero. "On the Beach Study Guide." Course Hero. 18 Jan. 2018. Web. 7 June 2023. <>.

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Course Hero. "On the Beach Study Guide." January 18, 2018. Accessed June 7, 2023.


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On the Beach | Plot Summary

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World War III

As On the Beach opens, World War III is a fact that defines every life left on the planet. The time is December 27, 1962, a year after a "short, bewildering war" that lasted 37 days and doomed humanity to extinction. Confined to the Northern Hemisphere, it began in November 1961, when tiny Albania, in a surprise attack, launched a nuclear bomb at Naples, Italy. War spread quickly as nation after nation was drawn in, either willingly or because of a horrible—and unnamed—misunderstanding. Among the first casualties were the leaders who might have stopped the war's escalation. Predictably, their underlings followed procedure, and the war swiftly became one of retaliation. The dirtiest known nuclear weapons were employed: cobalt bombs, guaranteed to produce the most lethal radioactive fallout.

By the war's conclusion in December, the Northern Hemisphere had fallen silent beneath a cloud of radioactive dust. Over the following year, winds carried the lethal dust into the Southern Hemisphere—an area uninvolved and previously untouched by the war. One by one, countries fell silent as their people died off. Now those still alive in the farthest reaches of the hemisphere are waiting for the dust to arrive.


In Melbourne, the southernmost large city on the Australian continent, naval officer Lieutenant Commander Peter Holmes is pleased to be returning to work. There has been little to do since the end of the war. Now two days after Christmas, he has been assigned as liaison officer to American naval officer Dwight Towers, commander of the nuclear submarine USS Scorpion. The ship was stranded in Australian waters after the war—in which it never served—and Commander Towers then placed it under Australian command.

The admiral of the Royal Navy has mapped out two missions for the Scorpion and her crew. They first will cruise north along the Australian coast to check for life at the ports of Cairns, Darwin, and Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea). Research scientist John Osborne will travel with the crew for the purpose of measuring atmospheric and marine radiation levels.

Peter Holmes's only worry is in leaving his young wife, Mary, and their baby daughter, Jennifer. Daily life has become more difficult since the war. Even so, she assures him she can cope. Like most everyone these days, Mary tries to makes the best of a dark time, finding comfort in order, routine, and the illusion of normalcy.

While preparations for the mission are underway, straitlaced Commander Towers becomes friends with Moira Davidson, an unconventional young woman he meets through Peter and Mary Holmes. She is the epitome of youth standing upon the brink of a future that, through no fault of her own, is being cruelly cut short. She drinks and parties too much, but this doesn't dilute her charm. She brightens Towers's days and relieves his loneliness for his wife and two children, who died back in Mystic, Connecticut.

Two Missions

The cruise up the coast takes place in January 1963 and proves disappointing. There are no signs of life at the three ports, and atmospheric radiation levels are high. The spread of radioactive dust appears to be on course and on schedule, with the dust reaching Melbourne no later than September. However, one thin hope still remains.

Intermittent radio signals have been picked up from somewhere around Seattle, Washington. The messages are gibberish, but someone may have survived who can't use the transmitting key properly. A second mission will send Scorpion up the West Coast of North America to investigate the signal's source. One man will be allowed to go ashore in a protective suit. The journey's secondary purpose is to test a theory that atmospheric radioactivity may decrease as rain and snow "wash" radioactive elements from the air. If true, radioactivity levels might steadily decrease as the dust moves south over Australia.

Once again, Lieutenant Commander Holmes's first concern is for his family. If he fails to return or the radiation sickness arrives early, he won't be there to help his family when they need him most. It will be up to Mary to spare Jennifer the pain of dying of radiation sickness (which can cause vomiting, diarrhea, headache, increased heart rate, and cellular damage) by administering a government-sanctioned lethal injection. In a heart-wrenching scene, Holmes tries to prepare Mary for that possibility, but all she hears is that he expects her to kill her child.

This second mission is launched at the end of March. Twenty-seven days later, the mystery of the radio transmissions is solved. On Santa Maria Island, across the bay from Seattle, a radio installation is still running on hydroelectric power. The signals originate from there. One of the Scorpion's crew is sent ashore to investigate. In an office building, he finds a broken window frame teetering just above a transmitting key. The radio equipment is still functioning, and the slightest breeze rocks the broken frame just enough to tap like a finger on the key.

Fifty-three days later, the Scorpion returns home after also completing tests of the atmospheric radiation as far north as the Gulf of Alaska. No reduction in levels is detected, and Australia's final hope for a reprieve from death is gone.

The Inevitable

Now all that remains is to wait for the inevitable. Individuals cope in their own way. Peter and Mary Holmes make long-term plans for their garden, planting flowers, digging up trees, and finding the perfect garden bench. Dwight Towers sticks to routine, oversees maintenance of the Scorpion, and brings aboard gifts for his dead wife and children. The scientist, John Osborne, sets his sights on winning the Australian Grand Prix in his classic Ferrari. Moira pursues secretarial courses and, in love with Dwight, takes comfort in their platonic relationship. As she observes to Mary, "We're all going a bit mad in our own way." In general people try to make each day count.

In the final weeks of August, the sickness arrives. People die quickly or linger, according to their strength and resistance. The streets empty, and stores close. Peter, Mary, and baby Jennifer fall ill at the same time. Before the sickness leaves them helpless, the young parents give Jennifer the lethal injection she needs. Then they themselves take cyanide pills. John Osborne chooses to die seated behind the wheel of his prizewinning Ferrari. Following protocol to the last, Dwight Towers takes the Scorpion out to sea and scuttles her, going down with his ship. In his words he is "going home." From the shore, Moira Davidson, nearing death, watches the submarine depart. As she washes down her pills with a mouthful of brandy, she hopes Dwight, if he is on his way already, will wait for her.

On the Beach Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 World War III engulfs the Northern Hemisphere in November 1961.

Rising Action

2 Nuclear fallout blankets the region and exterminates life.

3 Wind currents carry radioactive dust south of the equator.

4 People of Melbourne, Australia, wait for the lethal dust.

5 By January 1963, northern Australian cities are lifeless.

6 Radio signals from Seattle, Washington, raise hopes for survivors.

7 USS Scorpion is sent to find source of radio signals.

8 The signals prove to be a fluke, and the zone is uninhabitable.


9 The last hope for mankind's postwar survival is eliminated.

Falling Action

10 By August 1963, the Southern Hemisphere is mostly lifeless.

11 By mid-August, radiation is killing the people of Melbourne.


12 In late August, all key players in the drama are dead.

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