On the Beach | Study Guide

Nevil Shute

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Course Hero. "On the Beach Study Guide." January 18, 2018. Accessed September 22, 2023. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/On-the-Beach/.


Course Hero, "On the Beach Study Guide," January 18, 2018, accessed September 22, 2023, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/On-the-Beach/.

On the Beach | Quotes


The ... bewildering war had followed ... of which no history ... ever would be written.

Narrator, Chapter 1

In this statement the narrator introduces the war that will destroy humankind. The event is described within the context of Lieutenant Commander Peter Holmes's marriage in May 1961, and his return to duty in November. The "bewildering war" is a swift, devastating nuclear conflict among nations of the Northern Hemisphere. No one can say for certain how it was started or why. The reason "no history ... ever would be written" will be explored as the story progresses. These words foreshadow the revelation that life on Earth is doomed.


Why should we ... die because ... countries ... thousand[s of] miles away ... wanted to have a war?

Moira Davidson, Chapter 1

Moira is speaking to Dwight Towers, commander of the US submarine Scorpion. He has just explained how radioactive fallout from nuclear war in the Northern Hemisphere will drift down to poison countries south of the equator. Her statement sums up the harsh reality of the war. The innocent will suffer for the foolish arrogance of others who thought nuclear conflict was a viable option for settling their differences.


Do you mean to say, we bombed Russia by mistake?

Peter Holmes, Chapter 3

Aboard the Scorpion Peter Holmes, Dwight Towers, and John Osborne discuss what is known about the origins of the war. Towers explains that the planes that bombed Washington, D.C., at the outset of the war were Russian-made but flown by Egyptian pilots out of Cairo. However, this realization came too late. The United States had bombed Leningrad and other Russian target areas in retaliation for the perceived Russian strike. Peter Holmes's incredulous question underscores the terrible ease and speed with which the war escalated. A snap decision based on human error had launched the nuclear bombs that doomed humankind to annihilation.


The trouble is, the damn things got too cheap.

John Osborne, Chapter 3

This statement by John Osborne explains how relatively small countries could afford to stockpile nuclear weapons. It also introduces a plausible scenario for how something as devastatingly foolish as a nuclear war could become possible as "every little pipsqueak country" began buying these weapons.


It wasn't ... big countries that set off this thing. It was ... little ones, the Irresponsibles.

John Osborne, Chapter 3

As Dwight Towers, Peter Holmes, and John Osborne discuss the war and its origins, John labels the lesser nations that set if off as "Irresponsibles." As presented in the novel, World War III was not started by a superpower like Russia or the United States. It was started by the small, far weaker nation of Albania with a surprise bombing of Naples, Italy, for unspecified reasons. Because cheap production had made nuclear weapons easy to stockpile, insignificant nations like Albania were armed and emboldened to start a fight. They believed they could control the outcome and defeat the major countries with stealth and surprise. Unlike the superpowers, these "Irresponsibles" had no concept of the real-world consequences of their actions. So as a result of a single irresponsible act that set off a chain reaction, all humankind is fated to die.


Maybe we've been too silly to deserve a world like this.

Dwight Towers, Chapter 3

Dwight Towers is recalling the silent cities of Cairns and Port Moresby as seen through the Scorpion's periscope. He recalls the "cascaras and flame trees, the palms standing in the sunlight." They are gifts of nature and represent the simple, lovely aspects of the world and life that people take for granted. For Dwight they take on fresh significance, knowing that they will remain and flourish while humans will no longer be there to appreciate their beauty. His statement emphasizes an important point of the novel: that life is precious, and humans, in their foolishness, are putting it at risk.


None of us really believe it's ever going to happen—not to us.

Moira Davidson, Chapter 4

Dwight Towers and Moira have been sharing time with Peter and Mary Holmes, who discuss at length their long-term gardening plans. In a private moment with Dwight, Moira questions the rationality of planning a garden no one will want or need in six months. She concludes that no one believes the end will come; they are living in denial. "Everybody's crazy on that point, one way or another," she says.

Her statement sums up the struggle most people have with the concept of their own mortality. They cannot accept the fact that one day they will die and are helpless to change that outcome. Similarly, the survivors of World War III cannot envision the end of humankind, even as they wait for the nuclear fallout to arrive. Moira's observation is later echoed by her father in Chapter 4. Bill Davidson describes how most people have remained at home as the nuclear cloud approaches. They are reluctant to leave and unable to believe this thing is really going to happen to them.


What sort of books are they preserving? All about how to make the cobalt bomb?

Moira Davidson, Chapter 4

Moira's question is tinged with bitterness and irony. She poses it to Peter Holmes, who is describing how scientists are preserving a history of World War III by etching it on glass bricks. Too late, they have realized that humankind has value and is worth safeguarding. Now all they can do is preserve a record of its demise.

Yet Moira's question suggests she distrusts their wisdom and feels their arrogance over technological achievements may still blind them to the consequences. Their pride in the ability to harness the power of a cobalt bomb may overshadow the wisdom to withhold that information. If this is so, they could well include a detailed blueprint for creating the bomb that ended all human life.


Are you trying to tell me what I've got to do to kill Jennifer?

Mary Holmes, Chapter 5

Peter Holmes will soon be leaving on an extended mission aboard the Scorpion to cruise up the West Coast of the United States. Knowing he might not make it back, he tries to prepare his wife, Mary, for the time when the radiation sickness reaches Melbourne. To do so, he must break through her wall of denial.

Like most people in Melbourne, Mary holds onto her sanity by living day to day in a carefully preserved personal world where nothing has changed. Though aware of the harsh reality that awaits them, Peter allows her these illusions and finds comfort in joining in when he can. But in this heart-wrenching moment, he must convince her to do the unthinkable when the radiation comes—to kill their baby girl. This incident starkly portrays the horror of mankind's situation and strips away any comforting illusions that things will be all right.


None of us ... have time to do all ... we planned. ... [We'll continue] as long as we can.

Moira Davidson, Chapter 6

Moira is spending time with Mary as they wait for Peter and Dwight's return from Scorpion's last mission. Moira has adopted a more mature method of coping with the impending doom. She no longer drinks incessantly but has gone back to school to pursue a career goal. Her statement illustrates people's general struggle to hold onto sanity by continuing life as usual and in the best way they know how. People maintain daily rituals, plan for the future, and try to avoid things that remind them of impending doom. Moira's statement also underscores the hopelessness of their situation and the courage they exhibit as radiation descends on one of the world's last habitable cities.


You've got it, we've all got it. ... Everything's getting touched with radioactive dust.

John Osborne, Chapter 8

It's August 1963, and the countdown to the final day of life on Earth has begun. Contamination by radioactive dust has already reached Melbourne. Soon the weakest among the population will be exhibiting symptoms of radiation sickness.

John Osborne is clarifying the situation for Dwight Towers, and this statement presents perhaps its most fearful aspect. The enemy that will extinguish their lives is a creeping poison that surrounds them but cannot be seen. It is an enemy without a face—one they can neither touch nor fight. But they will soon feel its presence in the sickness it inflicts.


The human race was to be wiped out and the world made clean again.

Narrator, Chapter 8

Dwight Towers is heading out to the Davidson farm to meet Moira. Passing through Melbourne's suburbs, Dwight muses to himself that in 20 years, the radiation will have dissipated and the houses will be habitable again. However, the former occupants will be gone and the world at large swept clean of people.

Dwight seems to feel this outcome is logical and just, or at least inevitable, given the state of mankind at the time. These thoughts align with an earlier statement in Chapter 3 in which he observes, "Maybe we've been too silly to deserve a world like this." Whether silly or unwise, humans have orchestrated their own demise, and through the character of Dwight, Shute pronounces judgment on their folly.


Now we've got it all together, on the same day. Aren't we lucky?

Mary Holmes, Chapter 9

The effects of the radiation dust are being felt in Melbourne. Peter and Mary Holmes have begun feeling ill. Their daughter, Jennifer, is already sick. Any pretense that life will go on as usual is dead. Mary now accepts the situation with surprising poise, revealing that she has been quite aware of how things stood all along. Her hidden fear has been that the three of them would sicken at different times and someone would be left behind to face things alone. Seeing that they all have fallen ill together has relieved her worst worry. She is ready to face death as she has lived life these last months—with grace and courage.


If ... national honor requires [nations] to drop ... bombs ... there's not much ... you or I can do.

Peter Holmes, Chapter 9

Peter and Mary Holmes are very ill and will die soon. Like Moira Davidson, Mary questions why this has happened to them when their country had no part in the war. She asks if anyone could have stopped it. Peter's reply reflects the helplessness of all civilians who are victims of war. His statement also contains a warning about mindless national pride that short-circuits wisdom and sparks unstoppable violence.


Something might have been done with newspapers, if we'd been wise enough.

Peter Holmes, Chapter 9

Peter grapples with the idea that the only hope for deterring World War III would have been educating people on the dangers of nuclear weapons. Yet governments and the news media were too unwise to do so. Instead they allowed "silly" people to live in ignorance with their newspapers full of "pictures of beach girls and headlines about ... indecent assault."

Author Nevil Shute feared that by the 1950s, people had forgotten the horror of the World War II bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He thought they had grown comfortable with the idea of nuclear weapons. Shute recognized the need for education, believing that an informed populace would be the best defense against the proliferation and use of nuclear bombs.

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