Study Guide

On the Beach What's Up With the Epigraph?

By Nevil Shute

What's Up With the Epigraph?

            In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river…

            This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper
T. S. ELIOT

What's up with the epigraph?

These quotes come from T. S. Eliot's poem The Hollow Men. Although you may not know it by name, you've certainly heard it referenced before–"not with a bang but a whimper" is pretty much a cliché at this point.

On one level, this epigraph is a pretty straightforward reflection of On the Beach. In the novel, we do indeed watch a group of people gather in the world's "last of meeting places"—in this case, it's Melbourne, Australia—as they "avoid speech" and do a whole bunch of weird stuff to cope with their situation. And, of course, the phrase "not with a bang but a whimper" perfectly illustrates the effects of radiation poisoning.

But there's something else going on here. The Hollow Men depicts a group of people caught somewhere between life and death. Additionally, many believe the poem to be a response to the destruction caused by World War I, which left a lot of people questioning everything about the world and the way the way it was set up; World War I was supposed to be the war that ended all wars because it was just so bad. Ever heard of the Lost Generation? Yup—those were the people whose lives were totally upended by World War I; even they saw themselves as somewhere between life and death.