On the Beach | Study Guide

Nevil Shute

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On the Beach | Themes



Moira Davidson tells Mary Holmes, "None of us ... have time to do all ... we planned. ... [We'll continue] as long as we can." She has gone from a suicidal lifestyle of excess drinking to the realization that life is precious and worth living in spite of approaching doom. Nuclear war has redefined life for every character in the novel and for humankind in general. All have been robbed of the future they once took for granted. From this bleak fate emerges the theme that life has value and should be lived as well as possible. It is a force that drives the unfolding story.

Each character represents some stage of life, from birth to old age. Jennifer Holmes is a baby too young to grasp what is happening. Moira is a young woman just beginning to live out her dreams. John Osborne is a young man building a promising career. Peter and Mary Holmes are new parents whose bright future once seemed assured. Before the war Dwight Towers had a solid marriage and a growing family. Moira's parents have raised their children, built up a successful farm, and would have lived out their later years in security. Elderly Sir Douglas Froude, John Osborne's great-uncle, is the stand-in for all those who might have spent their final days comfortably basking in fond memories. As things stand he is determined to at least leave life in style by drinking up the Pastoral Club's stores of finest port.

Like Sir Froude, each character pursues living life as well as possible in his or her distinctive way. The characters offer a realistic sampling of how people generally might spend their last days. In the face of death they strive for normalcy and routine. They work, raise their families, make unrealistic plans for the future, pursue enjoyment, and most importantly show compassion for one another. Collectively, they illustrate what is best about humankind and show that life is a treasure worth preserving. This message stands at the core of Nevil Shute's cautionary tale.

Finally, there are hints about the continuation of life after death. During the final months, church attendance surges as people, perhaps instinctively, seek spiritual comfort. On his final day Dwight Towers fully expects to "go home" to his beloved wife and children, long dead in Connecticut. As she takes her cyanide pills, Moira Davidson hopes Dwight will wait for her to join him on that journey. In this way Shute offers a ray of hope that all is not ultimately lost; death is not the end of life.

Death and Waiting

Following World War III, the demise of humankind is inevitable. For survivors of the bombs' detonation, the question remains how to wait for the lethal radioactive dust to arrive. How do people, individually and collectively, wait for certain death? What does their manner of waiting reveal about their character? These questions become a theme threading throughout Shute's novel.

The Australian people, as exemplified by the residents of Melbourne, choose to hold on to the threads of decency and civility that bind society together. They work and raise families; organize picnics, car rallies, and boat races; and attend movies and art shows. Through routine and habit, they maintain a comforting, stabilizing veneer of life as usual. Early on public drunkenness is the only obvious sign of social or emotional decay. In the final few weeks, a handful of race car drivers court death in a suicidal Grand Prix. People live life as decently as they can while, in private, they plan how to die. There are few refugees. With the inevitability of death, most people choose to stay where they are and to die quietly, with dignity, in their homes.

The manner in which individual characters choose to wait reveals much about their values and outlook on life. On one level they know that they will be dead by September. Yet most avoid dwelling on this dismal thought. Their avoidance is not denial but recognition that there is nothing more to be said—an idea that resurfaces periodically in the novel. Yet they indulge in some kind of self-delusion or pleasure that offers refuge from harsh reality and allows them to enjoy the days that remain. For example, Peter and Mary Holmes find comfort in the rituals of family life and planning for a future that will never be. In his work, scientist John Osborne daily faces the realities of the situation. He finds pleasure in fulfilling two lifelong ambitions: buying and racing a first-class Ferrari, and joining the exclusive Pastoral Club.

Finally, aware of their own private struggles, characters show compassion for the comforting self-delusions of others. Peter protects Mary by participating in her unrealistic 10-year plans for a garden no one will ever see. Moira Davidson tenderly helps Dwight safeguard the dream that his wife and children are alive and safe, waiting for him to come home. Such actions reflect the fundamental kindness and decency that have survived the ugliness of the war and the unfairness of the survivors' plight.

Technology and Self-Destruction

From the invention of the wheel to the harnessing of nuclear power, humans have been dreaming up devices to conquer and reshape the world. However, at times those inventions have been restructured and misused to humanity's detriment. In On the Beach Shute explores the heedless pursuit and misuse of technology, which leads to humankind's self-destruction.

Throughout the novel, people rely on simple technology. Telephones, household radios, electric lights, and so on continue to function, providing services and connections that hold society together until the end. More complex technology, such as a nuclear submarine and international communication stations, provide the means of reaching out to the world at large. Scientists like John Osborne use high-tech equipment to predict the course of the radioactive dust, detect rising radiation levels, and seek means to sidestep disaster. In these cases the beneficial nature of technology is evident. This contrasts sharply with the harmful and ultimately fatal aspects exemplified by nuclear fallout.

In Chapter 3 John Osborne states a chilling fact about nuclear weapons and the origins of World War III. "The trouble is, [they] ... got too cheap," says John, continuing, "Every little pipsqueak country ... could have a stockpile." Dwight Towers observes that another trouble was the long-range airplanes given to Egypt. In 1957 when On the Beach was published and late 1961, when Shute's World War III begins, nuclear weapons and long-range airplanes were new technological achievements. As if mirroring the real world, many leaders in Beach fail to grasp the lethal capabilities of nuclear bombs yet hunger to obtain them. Their subsequent acquisition and careless use of these weapons lead to humankind's extermination. They foolishly believe it is possible to use the bombs against an enemy without further consequences. In so doing they unleash a war they can neither control nor contain.

Shute does not lay blame for the war at the feet of any one country. He provides few details as to who bombed whom, or why. The important point is that it happened because technological advances outstripped humankind's ability to understand and use them wisely, or to reject their use altogether. In this way Shute cautions readers to weigh the value of new technology against its potential for mischief. He believes humans must understand that harnessed power in the wrong hands may become a tool for self-destruction.

Knowledge versus Wisdom

Related to the theme of technology and self-destruction is the theme of knowledge versus wisdom. Knowledge is the practical or theoretical understanding of a subject. It involves the accumulation of facts and information. In contrast, wisdom is the ability to use knowledge in concert with experience and reason to make choices that are productive and beneficial.

In On the Beach science had used accumulated knowledge to harness nuclear energy, with no thought to the morality or ethics of its use. Wisdom dictated how to employ nuclear energy to power a submarine, while a lack of wisdom turned its use to nuclear weapons. Following World War III all any surviving scientists can do is study the effects of nuclear fallout. "It's all knowledge," science officer John Osborne objectively observes, adding, "One has to try and find out what has happened." In the end a world devoid of humankind will testify to the far-reaching effects of scientific knowledge employed without wisdom.

Among characters in the novel, this theme is often expressed in contrasting terms silly and wise. Dwight Towers, recalling the lifeless but undamaged natural beauty of Cairns and Port Moresby, recognizes that the world will go on quite well without humankind. He observes that "maybe we've been too silly to deserve a world like this." In other words, through lack of wisdom humans have condemned themselves to lose their place in a world that is clearly precious. He later muses that soon the world will be "made clean again for wiser occupants."

In another instance Peter Holmes decries the silliness that kept newspapers from educating people about the dangers inherent in nuclear weapons. He explains people preferred "newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines about ... indecent assault." He further states, "Something might have been done with newspapers, if we'd been wise enough."

With tongue-in-cheek, Shute directs the term wise men at scientists—the knowledgeable community that collectively created the mess in which the world finds itself. For example, Peter mentions scientists are recording the history of what has happened by etching it in glass. He then remarks, "I suppose it's something to do ... Keeps the wise men out of mischief." Unfortunately it is keeping them out of mischief too late.

Within the context of the novel, Shute passes no judgment on the origins and first use of an atomic bomb in war. He makes no attempt to turn back the clock on what knowledge has made possible. Instead his cautionary tale stresses that wisdom must be applied to any future production, acquisition, and use of nuclear weapons.

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