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On the Beach

Nevil Shute

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Plot Overview

Nevil Shute Norway was born on January 17, 1899, in London. He first glimpsed warfare in Dublin during the Easter uprising of 1916, in which he acted as a stretcher-bearer. His older brother was killed during World War I. Nevil enlisted and spent the last three months of the war in England, and went on to study at Oxford University and become one of the most successful aeronautical engineers in Britain in the 1930s. His aviation company developed techniques that would help make air warfare extremely effective.

While Shute's company grew to over 1,000 employees, he started writing novels, mostly romantic potboilers. He protected his reputation as an engineer by using the pen name "Nevil Shute" rather than his real last name, Norway. In 1939, Shute's company was bought out, so he spent World War II working on a special weapons project in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. Ultimately, Shute worked full-time as a novelist. Between 1926 and 1960, he wrote twenty-four novels and an autobiography. He moved to Australia in 1949, where he lived until his death in 1960.

It seems strange and unlikely that an aeronautical engineer who helped build and perfect military equipment would write a best-selling novel. Shute once said, "When I was a student I was taught that engineering was 'the art of directing the great sources of Power in Nature to the use and convenience of man.'" When did Shute begin to think that "the Power of Nature" could also be used to destroy the world? According to critic Julian Smith, the idea for On the Beach (1957) grew as a response to wishful thinking—then current in Australia—that radiation from a nuclear war in the Northern Hemisphere would be kept above the equator by the trade winds. Shute first intended to write a kind of modern Swiss Family Robinson about the prospect for continuation of human civilization in Australia after a nuclear war in the north.

Shute, ever the scientist, researched the matter thoroughly and found out that winds would indeed carry radiation down to Australia. Although Shute left no written records documenting his internal thought process, it is clear from the tone of On the Beach that Shute wanted to alert people around the world to the danger of nuclear war, no matter where they lived. He deliberately made his characters ordinary so that people could relate to them. He wanted people to ask, "What would I do in the event of a nuclear holocaust?" and, even more important, "What can I do to keep a nuclear war from ever happening?"

On the Beach was written in the midst of the Cold War, when tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were high and the threat of a nuclear very real. The novel became a bestseller and received praise from a wide audience, including pacifists, theologians, philosophers, political scientists, and environmentalists. Two years after its publication, On the Beach was adapted into a major motion picture directed by Stanley Kramer, starring Gregory Peck as Dwight Towers and Ava Gardner as Moira Davidson. The film was well received in Moscow, where it was the first full-length American film to have a premiere in the Soviet Union.

Shute used his military and engineering knowledge to make the characters and the details of On the Beach more realistic. Of all the characters, Shute himself is most akin to the scientist, John Osborne. Like Osborne, Shute also had a love for technology, though he knew technology could also be the ruin of humanity.

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