Nevil Shute originally published his novel On the Beach in 1957. Vintage International republished his book this past February. On the Beach depicts an emotional and psychological story about the demise of civilization after a thermonuclear war. The main theme of On the Beach attempts to answer the question: How will people and society react, given the knowledge mankind will cease to exist in six to nine months?
Interestingly enough, Shute describes a nuclear war that could take place today. World War III started with Albanian state-sponsored terrorists detonating a nuclear device in Naples. Then someone bombed Tel Aviv. The Egyptians dropped some on the U.S. with planes they purchased from the Russians. The U.S. didn’t realize Egyptians carried out the attack so the U.S. retaliated against the Russians. In the meantime, the Russians and the Chinese attacked each other. In the end about 4,000 nuclear bombs exploded in the Northern Hemisphere, but no nuclear bombs landed on the Southern Hemisphere.
Melbourne, Australia serves as the location for this post-apocalyptic story. Its inhabitants would be the last ones killed by the nuclear fall-out from World War III. The few remaining U.S. naval ships have made their way to ports in the Southern Hemisphere. Commander Dwight Towers and his nuclear submarine, the U.S.S. Scorpion have docked in Melbourne for refitting.
Commander Towers serves as the main protagonist of our story. In his pre-war life, he had a wife and two children. They are now dead, but in Dwight’s mind they still live. However in the waning days of civilization, he establishes a platonic relationship with a young Australian woman Moira Davidson. Dwight personifies the stereotypical, steadfast, formal, rule-following Navy man that does everything by-the-book. He would never cheat on his wife even after her death. Moira would like him to cheat on his wife, but she respects his decision. Moira’s character matures through her relationship with Dwight. They aid each other in accepting their fate.
Additional supporting protagonists include Australians Peter and Mary Holmes and their newborn infant Jennifer, as well as John S. Osborne, a scientist. All of the characters portray individuals trying to cope with the knowledge of their imminent death. However none of them can or will grasp the reality of their situation. They don’t quite believe it will happen. The foreboding doom drives everyone in the story a little bit insane.
Shute has several scenes that emphasize the hopelessness of the characters. He may even cause a tear or two. No one will ever read a history book written about the war, so why write one? No one will ever walk the streets again, or live in the houses. Why plant a garden that you will never harvest? Why take a class that you will never have the opportunity to use? Why go to work? Will you embrace religion, sex, or alcohol to get you through the remaining months?
In one scene, Peter Holmes will soon be going to explore the U.S. west coast for several months aboard the submarine. He fears the end may come for his wife and child while he is at sea. He must discuss their government provided suicide options with Mary before he leaves. ""Let me get this straight," she said, and now there was an edge to her voice. "Are you trying to tell me what I've got to do to kill Jennifer?""
Another scene involves the traditional British men’s club, the Pastoral Club. The old gentlemen sit around drinking port, and they lament the lack of time left to drink through the exquisite beverages stored in the wine cellar. Even though the doctor warned them drinking could be hazardous to their health, they see it as their duty to prevent the port from going to waste.
Even though Shute wrote On the Beach over 50 years ago, he covers topics of current interest. Faced with dying alone and in pain, would you take a cyanide pill, and commit suicide? Would you kill your children? You may die before they do, and who would take care of them as they are dying? Your pets will outlive you, who will take care of them? Who will feed them? How long will they survive before the radiation kills them?
Shute forces us to look at the possibility and horror of nuclear war. He makes the reader feel the barrenness of a post-apocalyptic Earth. He does this through description of desolate scenes. The U.S.S. Scorpion visits many post-war cities including Seattle, San Francisco, Cairns, and Port Darwin.
Two days later they reached Port Darwin and lay in the harbour
beneath the town. Here they could see nothing but the wharf,
the roof of the Government House, and a bit of the Darwin Hotel.
Fishing boats lay at anchor and they cruised around these, hailing
and examining them through the periscope. They learned nothing,
save for the inference that when the end had come the people had
died tidily. "It's what animals do," John Osborne said. "Creep away into holes to die. They're probably are all in bed." … The report was certainly going to be a difficult one to write.
When Shute wrote On the Beach, the world was more naïve, innocent, and pastoral by today’s standards. People were less prone to violence, and believed in their government. The people in this book accept their outcome peacefully. They do not riot or promote anarchy. They follow their government's instructions. Society today would probably not react in a similar manner.
Today, the public knows more about radioactive disasters and fall-out than during Shute's time. Today, people realize not everyone will die in a nice orderly fashion, but they will die very messy. They would have sores, and their hair would fall out. The radiation distribution would not occur evenly. Today, most readers will have been born after the advent of nuclear power and nuclear weapons. They have knowledge of actual nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
People today have become familiar with nuclear energy as a concept, but maybe too familiar. They no longer respect its downside. They no longer fear a nuclear war. Like the characters in On the Beach, they can’t grasp the reality of the outcome of nuclear war.
Nevil Shute died at the age of sixty in 1960 before the advent of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), and the Cuban Missile Crisis. He predicted small countries would own nuclear devices, and that these smaller countries would actually be the first to use nuclear devices initiating a larger war that would kill off mankind.