The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

On the Beach takes places in Melbourne, Australia, and its nearby seaside suburb of Falmouth, between December, 1962, and August, 1963. A thirty-seven-day nuclear war has destroyed the Northern Hemisphere. The survivors south of the equator understand very little about this “war without a history” except that the deadly radiation released into the atmosphere by the hydrogen bombs is inevitably drifting their way. The war’s origins are particularly murky, but it is known that a minor power (probably either Albania or Egypt) ignited the conflagration. In the most widely circulated version of events, Tel Aviv was bombed (no one is sure by whom), and the Americans and British, assuming that Egypt was the aggressor, flew over Cairo in protest. The Egyptians retaliated by bombing Washington, D.C., and London in planes with Soviet markings, leading the United States and England to answer the attack by bombing the Soviet Union. China got involved as well, and soon the entire Northern Hemisphere was destroyed, leaving the population of the Southern Hemisphere to await the radiation’s arrival.

As the novel opens, the radiation is about nine months away from Melbourne, which will be the last major metropolis to succumb to radiation poisoning. In Falmouth, Lieutenant Commander Peter Holmes of the Royal Australian Navy, his wife, Mary, and their baby daughter, Jennifer, do their best to survive in a postwar world in which cars, abandoned for lack of gasoline, are pulled by horses, bicycles tow wagons through the streets, and aspects of life once taken for granted are gone forever. Holmes receives a new assignment as liaison officer to one of the...

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On the Beach Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

On the Beach is an account of how the world might end. About a year before the book begins, everyone in the Northern Hemisphere died in a nuclear war that lasted thirty-seven days. It started when Albania managed to drop a nuclear bomb on Naples, Italy. Then Egypt bombed Israel. Eventually, the United States, the Soviet Union, and China unleashed their nuclear arsenals.

Australian scientists estimate that 4,700 warheads were detonated, but little else is known. Lethal levels of radiation are spreading into the Southern Hemisphere, all the principal characters know that they have less than a year to live. They plan to use drugs to commit suicide when they develop the symptoms of radiation disease, which are vomiting, diarrhea, and fever.

Surviving vessels of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific journeyed to Australia after the fighting stopped. A shortage of oil curtailed their operations after they reached Brisbane. Only the nuclear submarine Scorpion is still operational until Commander Dwight Towers scuttles it at the end of the novel.

There is little plot to On the Beach, although the Scorpion makes two journeys. Towers is in command, with Peter Holmes as his Australian liaison and John Osborne as his scientific adviser. The first journey is to other cities in Australia to confirm the deaths of their populations. The second is to North America to investigate mysterious radio signals originating in the...

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On the Beach Historical Context

United States President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev met in Vienna in June, 1961, to soften the hostility between their countries, leading adversaries during the Cold War. The meetings, however, were largely unsuccessful and the th Published by Gale Cengage

On the Beach is set on the island continent of Australia. As mentioned above, the setting of the story...

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On the Beach Literary Style

Science Fiction
Science fiction is a type of narrative that utilizes real or imagined scientific theories and...

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On the Beach Literary Techniques

Two of Shute's narrative strengths are dialogue and technical description. Indeed, one of the elements that makes Shute so readable is...

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On the Beach Ideas for Group Discussions

Ever since its publication, On the Beach has been one of the most discussed books in America, as well as in other countries. At first...

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On the Beach Social Concerns

The one overriding social issue of the novel is the end of society itself. Most interesting, though, throughout the novel is the way that...

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On the Beach Compare and Contrast

1954: The United States launches the first nuclear-powered submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus. In 1958 the...

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On the Beach Topics for Further Study

Study the anti-nuclear movements of the past several decades. Who were the leaders of these movements? Were they successful in their efforts?...

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On the Beach Literary Precedents

The theme of the end of the world was explored in Whitley Streiber and James W. Kunetka's Warday (1984). In Warday, however,...

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On the Beach Adaptations

On the Beach was made into a film in 1959. Perhaps too long (133 minutes), it is a powerful antiwar statement, directed a bit too...

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On the Beach Media Adaptations

On the Beach was adapted as a film by John Paxton in 1959. This critically acclaimed film version was directed by Stanley Kramer and...

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On the Beach What Do I Read Next?

For those interested in other novels by Nevil Shute, his most popular work is probably A Town Like Alice (1950). It chronicles Jean...

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On the Beach Bibliography and Further Reading

Bruce G. and Harold A. Blair and Frank N. VonHippel, "Taking Nuclear Weapons Off Hair-Trigger Alert,"...

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