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On the Beach | Study Guide

Nevil Shute

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On the Beach | Symbols


Radio Signals

In the post–World War III world, radio signals are the vital lines of communication between cities that are still alive. The progress of the deadly radioactive dust can be tracked as communication centers fall silent. In this way the signals represent life itself and, in their silence, serve as accurate markers for when and where life has been extinguished.

In relationship to this, radio signals also represent the false hope that life survives in North America despite the war and its devastating radioactive fallout. Random transmissions originating somewhere around Seattle, Washington, have been picked up in Australia. The messages are gibberish, but perhaps the sender does not know Morse code or how to operate the transmitting key. The submarine Scorpion is sent to investigate. This hope is dashed when Lieutenant Sunderstrom enters the radio communications building on Santa Maria Island. There he finds a transmitter still running, with a broken window frame tapping randomly on a transmission key.

Soon enough, all radio signals will cease. Their silenced transmissions will signal humankind's passing.


Living in a port city, residents of Melbourne enjoy beach life. It's a place for picnics, boat races, swimming, and fun in general. Walking along the shore or watching a sunset reminds people there is still beauty in the world.

On a more symbolic level, the beach becomes a dividing line between the known and the unknown worlds. As the submarine Scorpion cruises along the coasts of Australia and North America, the crew calls out through loudspeakers, summoning anyone alive to the waterfront. Elevated radiation levels prevent them leaving the protection of the ship. True conditions ashore remain a mystery, hidden away within the closed and silent buildings and houses. The crewmen can only assume, through inference, "that when the end had come the people had died tidily."

On a still deeper level, the beach represents the border between life and death. In the words of the novel's epigraph, it is "the last of the meeting places" where people are gathered before the world ends. Here they spend their last days of life in the sun—or in the case of the group of corpses seen by Sunderstrom, where their deaths occur. In the characters of Moira and Dwight, the beach is where love begins and ends and where they say goodbye. As she is dying Moira watches from shore as Dwight takes his ship out to sea to scuttle it and, in his words, "go home." Swallowing her cyanide pills, Moira hopes to follow him into death and that he will wait for her.


Peter and Mary share a passion for gardening. They spend hours laying out a kitchen garden, digging up saplings, planting flowers, and deciding where to put a flowering gum tree. Their plans cover the next 10 years, with no thought to the fact that within six months they'll not be there to enjoy anything. This reality stands outside the sphere of their happy diversion. The garden typifies the escape people seek in their final months of life. Individuals have personal illusions into which they can retreat for a short time and make believe life will go on as they once dreamed. Escapes vary—for example, a business course or car racing—but each offers a way to remain sane while waiting for the end.

As a symbol, Peter and Mary's garden represents the continuation of life. Long after they are gone, the trees, flowers, and vegetables they planted will grow and die to grow again in the ongoing cycle of life. Their garden may serve as a testimonial to the order of a world that has passed.

Pogo Stick

Dwight has been staying with Moira and her parents before going off on his final mission. There, amid a collection of cast-off items intended for a jumble, or charity sale, he spots an old pogo stick. He is delighted to learn that it once belonged to Moira and is charmed by the idea of her using it as a child. He tells her he enjoys "looking at other people's toys and trying to think what they must have looked like." He then decides that a pogo stick will be the perfect gift to bring home to his daughter, Helen.

As a child's toy, the pogo stick represents better times and the innocence of childhood, when life seemed more simple and the future boundless. Dwight's quest to purchase the toy for Helen is a quest to retrieve the past—and just as hopeless. There are no pogo sticks left to buy. The pogo stick also represents the future that will never be, the sentimental hopes of young people like Moira or Helen that cannot be fulfilled. Before the war Moira had refused to let her mother give her pogo stick or any other toy away. She tells Dwight, "I was going to keep them for my children to play with." Now the stick and all the rest are in the jumble pile because there aren't going to be any more children.

While Dwight is away on his last mission on Scorpion, Moira goes to great lengths to find a pogo stick for his daughter. Upon his return she gives him the toy to take with him when he "goes home." The pogo stick becomes a symbol of the tenderness that surfaces between people as they help one another cope with their common fate.

Questions for Symbols

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For the final writing assignment in this course, you will write a researched argumentative essay. As a first step, you will identify some possible topics of interest for research. By Saturday, October Questions: (Answer in short sentences) 1. What details give us a clue to the time in which the essay was written? Is the time necessary to the main p
essay on my hobby essay on corruption essay on over population
From the book Confessions written by Augustine, answer the following: What is Austine confessing, why, and to whom? What book by what author does Augustine read at age 18 that changes his life? What m
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