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On the Beach

  • Study Guide
Main Ideas

Key Facts

Main Ideas Key Facts

full title On the Beach

author  Nevil Shute

type of work Novel

genre Apocalyptic novel; science fiction novel; social criticism; tragedy

language  English

time and place written  Mid-1950s; Australia

date of first publication  1957

publisher  Ballantine Books

narrator  Third-person omniscient narrator, with perspective shifting among the main characters

point of view  The narrator speaks in the third person, and switches from person to person, giving a complete picture of the events. The narrator primarily provides an objective viewpoint, telling what the characters look like and do and revealing few of their inner thoughts.

tone  Sincere; sorrowful; warning

tense  Immediate past

setting (time)  December 1962 to August 1963, one year after the end of a worldwide nuclear war

setting (place)  Primarily Melbourne, Australia, and other towns in southeastern Australia; also a submarine voyage to Seattle and nearby coastal areas of Washington State

protagonist  Primarily Dwight Towers and Moira Davidson, though Peter Holmes and John Osborne also have major roles

major conflict  The characters cope with the reality that they are among the few people in the world left alive after a catastrophic nuclear war, and that within several months they too will inevitably die from radiation sickness

rising action The characters get to know each other; the Jorgensen theory provides some hope that the radiation might subside; the mysterious radio signal from the Seattle area also provides home that some have survived; the submarine searches for life along the coast of northern Australia but finds none

climax The investigation of the Seattle radio signal finds that it has been a false hope; the Jorgensen theory is disproved

falling action  The submarine returns to Australia after the trip to America; the characters spend their last days in various ways; all ultimately commit suicide with pills as radiation sickness sets in

themes Self-destruction; humankind's destructive relationship with technology; knowledge as both danger and salvation

motifs Work; sanity; obedience

symbols The radio signal from Seattle; the beach; the narcissus flower

foreshadowing  The epigraph to the novel quotes T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men," which indicates that the world will end "[n]ot with a bang but a whimper"