Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Narcissus

In Chapter Eight, Mary hears news on the radio that radiation sickness has reached Sydney, but she ignores the broadcast and pays more attention to the narcissus flower blooming in her garden. The narcissus flower gets its name from Narcissus, a figure from Greek mythology who he created his own doom when he fell in love with his own reflection. Like Narcissus, Mary is self-absorbed, wrapped up in her safe, secure life at home. Mary ignores everything that goes on beyond her home and garden. Shute implies that her lack of concern for the news—strikes, war, wage demands—is symptomatic of a broader lack of awareness in society. By showing Mary's blasé attitude to the news, Shute is warning us that not thinking we are insulated from world events is foolish, and perhaps ultimately dangerous.

The Beach and the Radio Signal from Seattle

"WATER" and "CONTACT" are the only two decipherable words picked up from the mysterious radio signal coming from Seattle. Shute might have chosen those two words because they relate to the book's epigraph, a quotation from T.S. Eliot's poem "The Hollow Men." The poem talks about the last of the world's survivors gathering on the beach of a river. The beach—a place where water makes contact with the land—is 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." The radio signals coming from Seattle, which inspire so much hope in the early part of On the Beach turn out to be merely the last, meaningless whimpers from the dying human race.