(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

If A Town Like Alice is an old-fashioned love story, On the Beach is a dark tale of the atomic age. A nuclear war has eliminated all life in the Northern Hemisphere, leaving only Australia to await the spread of radioactive contamination that will end human life on Earth. Shute depicts people faced with inevitable doom, but his characters do not despair. They spend their last months of life as normally as they can, planning their gardens, going to work, watching car racing, and even going back to school. Nowhere does Shute better exemplify his belief in the decency, morality, and conscientiousness of the ordinary middle-class person. There are several different nationalities, professions, and social classes portrayed, yet even while facing their greatest fears, the characters are brave up until the end.

Dwight Towers is the last American naval commander left in the world. He has been appointed commander in chief of a combined American-Australian navy, and following the nuclear holocaust he abides by the rules of a navy that no longer exists. He is also faithful to his wife, even though she has died halfway across the world from him. He never gives more than a kiss to Moira Davidson, the more than willing daughter of a wealthy farmer, because he tells her that he would like to think of his family alive until September, the month the atomic cloud is expected to reach Australia.

Throughout, Shute peoples this novel with characters facing their destruction boldly and staying busy until the end. Admittedly there are a few more loud parties and...

(The entire section is 646 words.)