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On the Beach

Nevil Shute

Important Quotations Explained

Chapter Nine

Key Facts

"But no wind does blow down right into the Southern Hemisphere from the Northern Hemisphere. If it did we'd all be dead right now."

"I wish we were," she said bitterly. "It's like waiting to be hung."

"Maybe it is. Or maybe it's a period of grace."

This conversation between Dwight and Moira takes place after the party in Chapter One. Dwight's comment about having a "period of grace" foreshadows the change that will take place in Moira. In this scene, and in most of the beginning of the book, she is drinking and despairing over her fate. Through her friendship with Dwight and her growing love for him, Moira begins to use her time left to better herself by taking secretarial courses and stop drinking as much. The concept of a "period of grace" has religious overtones and implies an opportunity for a spiritual transformation. Although the novel never delves deeply into religion, Moira does begin to attend church, something she has not done for a very long time.

It wasn't the big countries that set off this thing. It was the little ones, the Irresponsibles.

John makes this comment in Chapter Three when he is discussing the cause of the war with Dwight and Peter. With this one statement, Shute quietly shows that a nuclear war is possible. Optimists argue that humans are too rational to destroy themselves; Shute agrees that collectively people are rational, but believes that nuclear weapons can fall into hands of irrational minority. In the war that precedes the events of the novel, a nuclear bomb falls on Tel Aviv without any a answer of who dropped it or why. When bombs begin to drop in other countries, the response to send retaliatory bombs seemed rational to the military reasoning of the time. Shute's argument is that it is not rational to have bombs in the first place. Some critics have found fault with Shute's blaming the war on small countries and taking the blame away from the larger countries. Regardless, Shute's warning about the dangers of nuclear proliferation is a striking one, and was even more so at the time of the novel's publication, in the midst of the tensions of the Cold War.

"No imagination whatsoever," remarked the scientist. "It's the same with all of you service people. That can't happen to me." He paused. "But it can. And it certainly will."

"I suppose I haven't got any imagination," said Peter thoughtfully. It's—it's the end of the world. I've never had to imagine anything like that before."

This dialogue between John and Peter occurs when they are coming back from the first mission in Chapter Three. John accuses Peter and rest of the military of using weapons of mass destruction without ever realizing that these weapons could one day be turned against them. He accuses the military of creating a dangerous situation but lacking the foresight and imagination to see where their actions can lead them. Just earlier, the two men have been speaking about how the Russia and British sold airplanes to countries who ultimately used those same airplanes against them.

Peter is obviously aware of the existence of weapons of mass destruction, but never once believed such weapons would actually be used. Peter is an ordinary soldier and an ordinary citizen; Shute wants us to relate to Peter so we will take the novel's warning seriously. Shute believes that if such dangerous weapons exist they will be used, either deliberately or accidentally. On the Beach is written in an almost educational tone, aimed at people like Peter who cannot imagine the end of the world. Shute takes care of the job for us, filling in our imagination with his own vision. This specific passage challenges us to see if we can still refuse to imagine the end of the world and refuse to think about what we can do to prevent such an event from happening.

Maybe we've been too silly to deserve a world like this.

Dwight Towers says these words to John Osborne as they are returning from their first cruise along the Australian coast in Chapter Three. Just before Dwight speaks, he has been thinking of the flowering trees he had seen through the periscope—trees that no other living human will ever see again. His words are the first in On the Beach to indicate the entire human race has a collective responsibility for the tragedy that has befallen the entire planet. Throughout the novel, the characters are primarily concerned with the mundanities and banalities of life, hoping to go about their routines and experience simple pleasures before dying as tidily as possible. This quotation, however, places a collective responsibility for the tragedy that has befallen the entire planet. Dwight includes himself and he says everyone has had a hand in what has occurred. Later, Peter Holmes echoes this sentiment when he tells Mary that responsible journalism to educate people about the danger of nuclear war might have prevented it. Passages such as these suffuse the novel with a sense of sorrowful resignation, sadness at the tragedy that has befallen the human race but also a sense of regret that humans have had their chance and thrown it away.

Nobody worried very much about the prospect of a car spinning off the course and killing a few spectators…

This description of the qualifying heats for the Australian Grand Prix appears in Chapter Seven, and illustrates the dangerous relationship between humans and the machines that pervades the novel. Even though technological gadgets are responsible bringing the world to the end, humans are still in love with these gadgets. At this racetrack, people are more concerned about proving the efficiency of their machines than the safety of the drivers or spectators, knowing that everyone will be dead from radiation sickness in a short while anyway. Like the people who created and used the atomic bomb, the racecar drivers are ready and willing to use technology, but are not willing to take responsibility for their potential dangers.

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