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On the Beach

Nevil Shute

Chapter Eight

Chapter Seven

Chapter Nine

Summary

The radiation reaches Sydney and Adelaide, but Mary is not troubled by the news; she is more concerned with the narcissus flowers blooming in her garden. She worries about Jennifer, who is teething and has been feverish for hours. Peter drives over to the Navy Department to check in and get some gasoline. Dwight and Peter go to see John and his Ferrari. John has asked the racing officials to change the date of the Grand Prix from August 10th to August 17th—he is worried that everyone will be too sick from the radiation to drive on the 17th.

Peter and John then go to the Pastoral Club. They meet Douglas Froude, who is still spending all his days at the club drinking. John mentions that rabbits are more resistant to radiation and will therefore live about a year longer than humans. Douglas is shocked to find that, after all the effort Australians have put into controlling the pest rabbit population, the rabbits will win in the end.

Dwight and Moira meet for lunch. Dwight has been in contact with another American submarine, which is currently in South America. The submarine is unable to reach Australia, so Dwight orders the crew to sink the submarine in international waters. Dwight believes that the U.S. Navy would want to destroy the classified equipment, even if no one is left to find it. Dwight's submarine, the Scorpion, is now the only ship left in the U.S. Navy.

Moira asks Dwight to go fishing with her in the mountains. Dwight reminds Moira that he has a wife in Connecticut, to whom he will be going home to see soon. Moira replies that she would not want to start "a smutty love affair" with only a few days left; she has moral standards she does not want to violate. She might not have had these standards before, but now she does. Dwight invites Moira to come visit him in America one day and meet his wife, Sharon.

Dwight and Moira begin to plan their trip. He refuses to break the rules and drive the Navy car that has been provided to him for official business. He has been trained to obey rules, and he will not change his ways now. Moira says that she would like to go to America one day to meet Sharon. Dwight responds that Sharon would feel very grateful to Moira for being such a good companion to Dwight.

After their meeting, Moira goes to take a shorthand test. Dwight has no appointment in the afternoon. Even though he does not want to admit it, he knows that his working life is coming to an end, as is his own life. He looks forward to going to Moira's family farm, where he would help her father build a fence. Dwight walks around the city of Melbourne, which is becoming increasingly dirty and smelly as workers abandon their duties. Dwight visits the garage where John is fixing his Ferrari, and he feels cheered by the busy activity inside. Meanwhile, Peter and Mary talk about buying a lawn mower. They drive into Melbourne to buy it, and Mary is depressed by the dirtiness and horrid smell of the city. She decides she does not want to visit the city again, and she is very happy to return home.

Dwight and Moira go to her parents' farm again. Mr. Davidson is worried that his cattle will live longer than he will, and tries to make an arrangement so they will still be able to eat their feed. Moira and Dwight drive to a hotel in the mountains, using Mr. Davidson's car. The hotel is packed with fishermen, the largest number of visitors the hotel has seen since the war. Moira and Dwight sleep in separate bedrooms. Moira begins to cry quietly when she thinks about Dwight. If she had more time—five years maybe—he would have turned to her, and they would have started a family. They spend the next day fishing together and having a good time. Later on, they hear on the radio that John has won the Australian Grand Prix.

Analysis

The narcissus flower gets its name from Narcissus, a figure from Greek mythology whose self-obsession leads to his doom. In a similar way, Mary ignores everything that goes on beyond her home and garden. Her lack of concern for the news—strikes, the war, wage demands—mirrors society's broader lack of interest in world affairs and current events. In showing Mary's blasé attitude to the news, Shute warns us that not ignoring world affairs, thinking them irrelevant to our personal lives, is foolish. Shute puts Mary in such a position because we can relate easily to her. Mary lives for the cleanliness and security of her house and garden, but soon she will not be safe even in these familiar surroundings. Though Mary is still living in a dream world, Peter decides to play along rather than try to force reality on her. He agrees to go into town to get her a lawn mower and garden chair because he knows how happy those they will make her.

Moral standards are changing for most people in these final days, but Dwight refuses to change. For instance, Peter, who was initially appalled at the idea of using the Navy's gasoline for personal purposes, now does so openly. Dwight, however, was trained to follow orders, and he continues to do so even when the world is falling apart. Dwight refuses to break Navy rules, even though the United States government no longer exists. Out of what he sees as his patriotic duty to his country, he orders the U.S. submarine in South America to sink itself—an event that foreshadows his own actions just a week later. Dwight also insists on maintaining a platonic relationship with Moira. She allows herself just a little bit of self-pity when she thinks about the future she could have had with Dwight if she had enough time with him. However, on the whole, Moira is brave in facing the fact that the man she loves is still in love with his long-lost wife. We may view Dwight's behavior as trivially compulsive and self-deluding, or, alternatively, honorable and responsible. Dwight does not know what to do with his time now that there is no work to be done on the Scorpion. He longs to fill his time with labor, and he feels better only when he visits John's garage and sees people busy fixing the car. Dwight also looks forward to helping out on Mr. Davidson's farm. As long as he has work to do, Dwight can continue to pretend that his own death is not near.

The fact that rabbits will outlast humans is an ironic twist that highlights the inability of man to control the forces of nature. Rabbits—a seemingly inferior, pest species that man has expended huge amounts of resources to control—will seemingly have the last laugh. Fishing, however, is one remaining way to control nature, and that is how Dwight, Moira and many others decide to spend their last days. Others spend their remaining time consumed with their machines: Mary and Peter spend time getting an electric mower for a lawn they will not see grow, while John continues to devote himself to his Ferrari. Rather than spend their time to finding a way to die in a dignified manner, the characters spend their final hours acquiring and fixing machines. Placing so much value on lifeless machinery makes human life appear trivial.

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