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On the Beach

Nevil Shute

Chapter Four

Chapter Three

Chapter Five

Summary

The next morning, Dwight and Moira go to church. Moira admits she rarely goes to church, but if she did, she might not drink so much. Peter and Mary stay home and talk about starting a vegetable garden. They plan to plant gum trees, even though the trees will not blossom for another five years. They even plan their garden for the next ten years, seemingly in complete denial of their fate.

After lunch, Peter and Dwight talk about their next mission. They have been instructed to investigate the mysterious radio signals coming from Seattle. Even though the messages are almost completely incoherent, their existence means a transmitter is still running and that there is a possibility that someone is alive there. When Peter, Mary, Moira, and Dwight gather together again, Peter tells them that someone is writing a history of the war and etching it on glass panels that will be sealed and placed on the highest peak in Australia. People are also preserving pages from books in glass panels. Moira asks, "What types of books are they preserving? All about how to make the cobalt bomb?"

Dwight tells Moira about his idyllic childhood and how he met his wife. Moira invites Dwight to her family's farm and urges him to bring all the clothes he has that need mending. Moira says that Dwight can help her father with work on the farm if he wants. Her father is preparing the pasture for the following year. After Moira tells her parents about Dwight's upcoming visit, they talk about how she has not had a male visitor since the war. Her mother, Mrs. Davidson, speaks about her wish for a marriage and children to come out of Moira's relationship with Dwight. Mr. Davidson reminds his wife that it is too late for such things.

On the ride from the train station to the farm, Dwight gets excited about the maple and oak trees he sees along the road. It is the first time he has seen Northern Hemisphere trees in Australia, and they remind him of home in Connecticut. Moira says she imagines the scenery is better in America and England, but Dwight assures her that the countryside around her home is beautiful by any standard.

Dwight meets Moira's mother and father. They talk about how the radiation is moving steadily south. Mr. Davidson remarks that he is surprised so few refugees have come from the north. The hotels in Melbourne are filled to capacity, but there are not as many people rushing down from the irradiated northern areas as he expected. Dwight says that people probably prefer to stay in the comfort and familiarity of their own homes for their last days, but Mr. Davidson believes that people stay because no one believes it will happen to them until they actually start to become sick.

On the last day of Dwight's stay on the Davidson farm, Moira shows him a storeroom filled with her old toys from childhood. She has kept her toys because she was hoping one day to pass them on to her children—but now she knows she will never have children.

When Dwight returns to Melbourne, he gets a draft operation order for the submarine's mission. They will take a two-month cruise to the west coast of the United States, stopping in Panama, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Alaska, returning to Melbourne via Pearl Harbor. They will be gone from April to June. The mission of the cruise is to attempt to determine the validity of the Jorgensen effect, a controversial theory espoused by some scientists that the rain and snow in the Northern Hemisphere have washed the radiation out of the air and slowed the approach of radiation to Australia.

After the mission briefing, John shows Peter a Ferrari racecar he has just purchased. He has always dreamed about racing cars, but he could never justify the hobby financially. Now that he has so little time left, he has decided he wants to fulfill his dream, regardless of the cost.

Peter then goes to the local pharmacist to ask him about the symptoms and onset of radiation sickness. Peter wants to know how he can help Mary prepare for suicide in the event that the radiation reaches Melbourne while he is still away at sea. The pharmacist says that radiation sickness is characterized by nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, which grows progressively worse over the course of bout a week until the victim dies of dehydration and exhaustion. Because death from radiation is unpleasant and prolonged, the pharmacist has a supply of cyanide pills and syringes to give out to the population should they want to end their lives with more dignity. The pharmacist gives Peter two dummy pills for Mary and a syringe for Jennifer. When the time comes, Mary can come back and get the real cyanide.

Analysis

Earlier, in Chapter Three, the characters debate the reasons for recording the history of the war. Here in Chapter Four, they discuss what human knowledge should be recorded in the event that life ever returns to the planet. Moira highlights the dangers of knowledge when she flippantly asks if historians will record an explanation of how to make a cobalt bomb. While science is often beneficial to human society, technology has also led to its ruin. At this point, the radiation is the only meaningful, lasting legacy of scientific knowledge. Shute compares the danger of human creation to the magnificence of nature. Right after Moira's comment, Dwight remarks that they should not waste the beautiful, warm water in the ocean. The beauty of the beach makes it even more awful to consider that humans created bombs when they were given a plentiful world in which to live.

Based on the advice of scientists and radiation readings, the citizens of Melbourne know when the radiation will reach their city and, therefore, know when they will die. This knowledge causes pain and internal conflict for the people. Even those who have not accepted the news put mental effort into the denial process, struggling between accepting and disbelieving their inevitable fate. Peter and Mary spend time planning their garden for the next ten years, but then, just a few days later, Peter talks to the pharmacist about cyanide for his wife and daughter. Peter battles between being strong enough to face the reality and optimistic enough to hold onto hope. Moira's father undergoes a similar struggle. He reminds Mrs. Davidson that Moira will not have time to start a family, but at the same time, he continues to fertilize his pasture and prepare his farm for the next year. Even the military and government have not given up hope yet. They are sending the submarine all the way to Alaska to investigate the Jorgensen theory, desperately hoping it to be true. The military is also hoping that the radio signals coming from Seattle indicate someone is still alive in the Northern Hemisphere. Although the signals are incoherent and the chances of finding someone alive are slim, the government nonetheless clings to that hope.

It seems that no one believes they are going to get sick until the symptoms actually start to show. When Dwight and Mr. Davidson discuss the lack of refugees in Melbourne, Moira's father provides the most plausible explanation: people have not come south because they never believed the radiation would actually get them until they were already sick. Suggestions that the Prime Minister's speech over the radio calmed people and convinced them to stay in the radiated areas seems less plausible than the fact that people simply did not believe they were going to die.

Moira begins her personal transformation by attending church. She then insists on mending Dwight's socks, a means to keep busy and to express her affection for the submarine captain. She continues to nurture their friendship even after she knows Dwight will never be disloyal to his wife. Even though Moira will not find physical comfort in Dwight's arms, she recognizes that his influence is helping her cope with the situation and use her days wisely. By closing the door on her room full of toys she saved to give to her children, Moira is accepting the fact that she is not destined to have her own family.

Meanwhile, Dwight does cling to the nostalgia of America and his family. He delights in seeing trees from the Northern Hemisphere because they are like him, among the last living survivors from that half of the world. John also begins to reveal his eccentricity in this chapter. Unlike many of the other characters, he is realistic enough to accept the impending doom, and therefore uses his last days to do everything he always dreamed about but never did because he did not have the time or money. Ironically, he takes up racecar driving—his love for machines not diminished by the fact that machines and technology caused the devastating war.

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