The Plot

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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Form and Content

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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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

Australia
On the Beach is set on the island continent of Australia. As mentioned above, the setting of the story is important as its location spares it from the destruction that takes place in the rest of the world.

Australia is the only continent occupied by a single nation. As two-thirds of the continent is desert or semi-desert, over 86% of the population lives in cities. It is the most urbanized country in the world.

When Dwight Towers visits the Davidson family's farm, he comments on the beauty of the surrounding countryside. Mrs. Davidson's reply reveals Australia's historical origins:

"Yes, it's nice up here," said Mrs. Davidson. "But it can't compare with England. England's beautiful."

The American asked, "Were you born in England?"

"Me? No. I was born in Australia. My grandfather came out to Sydney in the early days, but he wasn't a convict. Then he took up land in the Riverina. Some of the family are there still."

The history of Australia is an interesting one. After the great navigator James Cook (1728-1779) charted the waters off the eastern coast of the continent in 1770, the English began to use New South Wales (as Australia was known at the time) as a penal colony.

The first governor-designate of New South Wales, Arthur Philip, established a settlement in Sydney Harbour on January, 26, 1788 (now celebrated as Australia Day). He had with him eleven ships, 443 seamen, 586 male and 192 female convicts, and 211 marines, as well as officials, wives, and children. Over the next several decades, there were 825 passages by convict ships transporting more than 150,000 criminals to Australia.

However, Edward Gibbon Wakefield (1796-1862), a British official who led the efforts to colonize the continent, realized that a stable, civil society could not depend entirely on the transportation of convicts. The proceeds of land sales were used to subsidize the migration of free settlers. By 1839 there were twice as many free settlers as there were convicts. Abolitionist sentiment in England, along with the resentment of the free settlers, ultimately led to the end of the use of exile as punishment for crimes.

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Literary Style

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

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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Bibliography and Further Reading

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

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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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