Study Guide

On the Beach

By Nevil Shute

On the Beach Introduction

Before Mad Mad: Fury Road, before I Am Legend, before The Walking Dead, there was one true king of the post-apocalyptic genre: Nevil Shute's On the Beach. It may be less flashy, but this timeless novel has one thing that those modern masterpieces of post-apocalyptic panic can't touch—it's actually realistic.

Written in the early days of the Cold War, On the Beach is a reaction to the growing proliferation of nuclear weapons. Just look at how Shute depicts World War III: what begins as a tiny, regional conflict sprawls out of control through a series of betrayals and misunderstandings until, finally, the whole planet is locked in a duel to death. Roughly four thousand nukes later, the entire Northern Hemisphere is a heaping pile of rubble. It's like everyone just hit an RKO outta nowhere on each other at the same time.

From there, we catch up with a groups of survivors in Melbourne, Australia, which was far enough south to miss out on the war altogether. That doesn't mean the Australians out of the woods, though: the radioactive fallout is heading south and will hit them by September. After that? Yeah, you don't survive massive radiation clouds. Sorry.

That leaves our characters with a mere nine months to make their peace and say their goodbyes.

Another thing that makes this novel uniquely, chillingly realistic is that Shute backs up his plot with some legit knowledge that makes the whole scenario that much scarier. Shute, in fact, had a successful career as an aeronautics engineer before achieving international recognition as an author. We can imagine he was pretty busy back then, his days embroiled in the life of an engineer and his nights spent mining for literary gold. Still, all of that hard work paid off with the 1957 publication of On the Beach, which would go on to become his most highly regarded work.

Anyway, it's an eventful nine months for the characters in On the Beach—to say the least. As we watch the struggles of a diverse group of characters, we gain a frighteningly intimate understanding of what it would be like to live through such trying times.

And we haven't even mentioned that mysterious radio broadcast from Seattle. Oh well, you'll see soon enough....

What is On the Beach About and Why Should I Care?

What would you do if you found out that you only had one year to live?

Would you try to fulfill a childhood fantasy? Would you take one last shot at bagging the bae of your dreams? Or would you just go about life as usual?

As it happens, this is the exact predicament faced by the characters of On the Beach, each of whom reacts to it in a different way. John Osborne buys the Ferrari he's been drooling over since he was ten. Moira Davidson, throwing logic out the window, pursues the man of her dreams. And Peter and Mary Holmes take comfort in the ritualistic pleasure of everyday life.

Although you probably won't meet your end in anything as flashy as a nuclear holocaust, you're—spoiler alert—going to bite the dust one way or another. You might call that a bummer, but we don't think it has to be. Instead, take it as a reminder to seize the day…because you never know which day might end with a nuclear explosion.

On the Beach Resources

Websites

The Doomsday Clock
Want to know how close we are to the end of the world? Click at your own peril...

Nevil Shute Homepage
Fellow Shute-Heads, we'd like to introduce you to your new favorite website.

Movie or TV Productions

On the Beach (1959)
Gregory Peck? Ava Gardner? Nuclear radiation? Count us in.

On the Beach Trailer
Release you inner hipster and check out this vintage trailer for On the Beach.

Articles and Interviews

Five "Scary" Experiments That Did Not Destroy the World
The world could end in a lot of ways, so it's comforting to know that we can rule a few things out.

How the Manhattan Project Scientists Unwittingly Abetted the Vietnam War
This fascinating article reveals the complicated history behind the Manhattan Project, which resulted in the first atomic bomb.

Video

The Moment in Time: The Manhattan Project
This video from the University of California tackles the Manhattan Project, the secret U.S. research project that culminated in the invention of the atom bomb.

Fallout Trailer
Although the documentary Fallout focuses on the film adaptation of On the Beach, it still contains plenty of insight into the book.

Audio

Myla Goldberg on On the Beach
In this brief NPR piece, author Myla Goldberg talks about her deep affection for On the Beach.

Welcome To The Nuclear Command Bunker
Want to know what it's like to be the dude in charge of launching nuclear bombs? Click it, Shmoopers.

Images

A Nuclear Explosion
This is an animated gif of a nuclear explosion. It's really, really, really big.

A Vintage Copy of On the Beach
Man, they don't make book covers like they used to...