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On the Beach

Nevil Shute

Chapter Five

Chapter Four

Chapter Six

Summary

Peter comes home from Melbourne with a playpen, the dummy cyanide pills, and the syringe. He tries to talk to Mary about radiation sickness, but she does all she can to avoid the conversation. However, Peter fears that the radiation sickness might set in while he is still away at sea, so he persists on telling her. He explains that radiation will make her sick and lead to a messy death, and he then shows her the dummy pills. Mary says she could never take a cyanide pill because then no one would be left to take care of Jennifer. Mary is shocked when Peter tells her that Jennifer too will get sick.

When Peter explains that Mary might have to euthanize Jennifer to prevent her from suffering, Mary becomes hysterical and furious, accusing Peter of trying to trick her into murdering her daughter. Peter responds angrily, calling Mary a fool and insisting that Jennifer would die in pain if Mary refused to resort to the syringe. He thinks, "these bloody women…living in a sentimental dream world. If they'd face up to thinks they could help a man enormously." Later, a tearful Mary apologizes to Peter for not facing reality.

While the crew is waiting for the start of the next expedition, John spends time driving his Ferrari at a local racetrack. The excitement of driving has distracted him from his nervousness about the impending long submarine voyage.

Dwight, Peter and some other crewmembers meet with Navy officials about the expedition. Their course has been altered due to minefields that have been left over from the war around certain cities and harbors. They are to proceed directly to Seattle, then to Alaska, and then back to Australia. The officers then talk about the radio signals from Seattle. In 106 separate transmissions that were picked up, only two decipherable words were heard: "WATER" and "CONNECT." During the cruise, the crew must identify and investigate the source of these signals. Lieutenant Sunderstrom, the submarine's radio and electrical officer, suggests that the signals are probably coming from Santa Maria, a military radio station on an island in Puget Sound. Sunderstrom offers to go onshore in a protective suit to investigate.

After the conference, Dwight meets Moira for lunch; this time, she orders only a single brandy. She surprises him by saying she is taking secretarial courses. She says that people stopped taking classes right after the war, but that the secretarial school and university are now seeing a large increase in enrollment.

After lunch, Dwight and Moira go to an exhibit of religious paintings. He finds the paintings to be phony. After they part for the day, Dwight goes into a sporting-goods store to buy a fishing rod for his son, Junior. Dwight then tries to buy a pogo stick for his daughter, Helen, but the store does not have any left. He searches throughout the toy district for a pogo stick, but cannot find one, which makes him want it even more. Dwight ends up in the jewelry district, where he buys a very expensive bracelet for his wife. A gossipy neighbor tells Moira about Dwight's shopping spree.

These days, everyone is acting a bit strangely, "with an eccentricity that verged on madness, born of the times they lived in." Peter and Mary plan their garden, while Mr. Davidson plans his farm. John races his Ferrari, while Douglas Froude attempts to drink all of the Pastoral Club's wine. Dwight searches his pogo stick. Moira pines away for Dwight, and desperately wants to help him find a pogo stick for his daughter.

When Moira meets Dwight that night, he is distracted and worried. At the end of the night, she gets him to talk about the Pogo stick. Moira promises to get one before he comes back from the cruise. Dwight kisses her and thanks her for her promise.

Analysis

Mary's fury at Peter's suggestion to euthanize Jennifer is one of the few emotional outbursts in On the Beach. Shute allows little room for hysteria, but in this instance, when a mother is asked to murder her own daughter, he lets Mary shout and scream. Her reaction, one of the most natural and heart-rending scenes in the novel, showcases the extent to which the war has shifted morality. In the surreal aftermath of the war, it has become acceptable, even preferable, to euthanize your own baby. Nonetheless, such an act is still contrary to every parental instinct; Mary still will do anything to preserve her baby girl. Peter's reaction to Mary's hysteria is admittedly rather harsh and sexist. Mary, who reacts more with her heart than her head, seems to be a more realistic character than Peter, who often appears to be unbelievably stoic and unmoved by the events surrounding him.

Dwight tells Moira he is not a sentimental type, but in the next sentence he speaks about his wife as if she is still alive. He so believes his family to be alive that he spends considerable time searching for presents for them. Nonetheless, there is at least some indication that Dwight knows he is deluding himself, as he tells Moira that she probably thinks he is crazy for making purchases for his family. In short, Dwight appears to suffer from survivor's guilt, as he is alive while all his loved ones and fellow Americans are dead. Dwight buys the gifts for his family as tokens of appeasement, as a means of relieving himself of guilt—as a peace offering to his family. The gifts are also tangible items that make him feel closer to his wife and children.

The mood of the novel is increasingly one of impending despair. As one reviewer wrote, "the book infuriates the reader with its insistence on the mundane, the almost hallucinatory day-to-day tedium of living with the end of the human race." We see the characters continue going about their daily routines, doing their best to let ordinary activities fill their time and thoughts. However, in these surreal times, the more fervently Peter and Mary pursue their gardening, the more insane they appear. John, with his racing, and Douglas, with his vintage wine, are the only two characters who seem to take advantage of these remaining days to live out their dreams and break with convention. Perhaps this is because these two men are the characters who appear most realistic about the situation they are in.

"WATER" and "CONTACT" are the only two decipherable words picked up from the radio signals in Seattle. Shute may have chosen those two words because they relate to the book's epigraph, a passage from T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men." Eliot's poem concerns the last of the world's survivors gathering on the beach of a river. The beach, as the place where water makes contact with the land, is also the last place where the survivors make contact with each other. According to the poem, the world ends, "not with a bang, but a whimper." In this regard, the radio signals coming from Seattle are perhaps the last whimpers from a dying human race.

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